Stupid Question ™
Aug. 10, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: How many Americans died in the Gulf War? How many were from friendly fire?
A: The U.S. deployed about 470,000 troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which pitted Iraq against the U.S. and its allies.
Of those troops, 148 are listed as killed in action (probably slightly low, as a couple flight crews listed as missing are most likely dead).
Another 151 are listed as dead due to “non-combat incidents”—anything from heart attacks to plane wrecks on the way to the Gulf.
That makes 299 U.S. troops dead under the umbrella of Operation Desert Storm, as President George H.W. Bush called it. (That doesn’t include deaths attributed to the mysterious “Gulf War Syndrome.”) That’s a death rate of about 0.1 percent—far lower than anyone predicted.
But the amount of “friendly fire”—U.S. troops accidentally firing on other U.S. troops—was shockingly high. Of 148 troops killed in action, 35—or 24 percent—were killed by fellow soldiers. Also, 72 of the 467 wounded were hit by friendly fire. Overall, 18 percent of U.S. casualties were caused by U.S. troops.
All friendly-fire casualties were on the ground; most were caused by tanks or airplanes firing on other vehicles. At least one case was deliberately covered up: the machine-gunning of a soldier by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The U.S. also had friendly fire for other friends. In an erroneous broad-daylight assault, the Air Force killed nine British soldiers and wounded 11 more, accounting for 57 percent of the U.K.’s casualties. And at least four Saudi troops died under U.S. attack.
There are also more than 10 recorded near-misses, including one in which a U.S. pilot got a medal for not shooting down what turned out to be a U.S. plane.
Is this rate unusually high? Historical data on friendly fire is scant, and typically censored. (In Vietnam, friendly-fire kills were doublespoken away as “misadventure.”)
But specific stores of medical records show that among recorded casualties in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, at least 12 percent came from friendly fire.
The Gulf War rate still looks high by comparison (partly due to the lower absolute number of casualties), and also involves an unusually high number of incidents involving direct fire on visible targets. Strategists note it was a fast-paced war with high-power weapons, inexperienced troops and commanders who were pressuring troops to fight even in bad conditions.
It may also be that friendly fire in the Gulf War was simply easier to prove. The war was the battlefield debut of armor-piercing shells made of uranium, which were involved in many of the friendly-fire incidents.
When these shells explode, they scatter uranium dust. Since only the Allies had such shells, a destroyed U.S. vehicle coated with uranium could only be a friendly-fire casualty. In fact, soldiers wounded by the shells still have tiny, radioactive fragments of metal embedded in their bodies, with unknown consequences.