|Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson|
Just in the past week, we learned of several friendly-fire incidents in the Syrian civil war turned international crisis, in which Syrian troops allegedly were killed by U.S.-led coalition planes, and a humanitarian aid convoy was attacked by Russians.
Since there seems to be at least three sides in that conflict — and maybe a dozen, who knows — as a historian it’s simply déja vu.
Friendly fire in wartime is as common a commodity — and as certain to happen — as it is one side in a conflict will attempt to kill soldiers of their enemy.
It’s a simple concept we seem to be surprised about every time it happens.
As soon as I heard of Syrian soldiers dying from friendly fire, I thought of history past.
Have you ever seen the opening 27 minutes of the Academy Award-winning film “Saving Private Ryan?”
I have, easily more than a dozen times. If you haven’t, you should.
It is utter chaos, of soldiers continuously being shot and maimed and killed by the dozens and hundreds, each man enduring his own private hell — of fear, of sights and sounds and smells no sane person would ever want to hear again.
That is war.
It is not glorious, it is not coherent, it is not humane, it is not civilized. But it is real, it is mind-numbing. That’s why soldiers die from friendly fire.
You can curry-comb the pages of history past for friendly-fire incidents, and they are legion. Every war going back to the 1600s has had them — likely, every war before that as well — and those incidents simply have been forgotten or weren’t recorded.
During the American Revolution at the Battle of Germantown, two brigades of Continental soldiers opened fire on one another because of late arrival at the battle and lack of coordination. They simply failed to recognize that they were fighting on the same side, and both fled the battlefield in confusion.
At the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781, after several musket volleys and cannon fire between Continentals and British troops, the smoke of battle obscured the view of both sides, almost blinding soldiers and making breathing difficult.
In the confusion that is war, British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis of Yorktown fame, ordered cannon to fire on the Americans and British alike, for lack of being able to see. Many British soldiers died in the artillery fire.
World War I and World War II were absolutely rife with friendly fire incidents.
At Chateau-Thierry, American machine gunners described a night attack in 1918 by massed German troops, who were singing and locked arm in arm in a suicide charge over a Marne River bridge.
In fact, they were Allies of the French 10th Colonial division from Senegal, trying to cross the river to friendly lines. This incident was suppressed, and no German records were ever found of any attack on a bridge during the battle, which caused great loss of life.
In April of 1944, during the nine-day rehearsal for the D-Day landings at Normandy and Utah Beach, Exercise Tiger killed more American soldiers than the actual landing and fire by the Germans.
American troops during the live-fire training at Slapton Sands on a British beach, crossed over an area being shelled with live ammo by the British heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins.
Some 308 American soldiers died that day — from friendly fire. During the actual landing at Utah Beach, casualty figures for U.S. soldiers were 197 — from enemy fire.
Friendly fire is a hazard and a consequence of war — all war.
The single greatest incident from American history that came to my mind as soon as I heard of the Syrian incident, occurred in the tangled, vine and tree-choked depths of The Wilderness during the American Civil War — and as likely as not, hastened the end of that war.
Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was a legend during his military career, and in history books since America’s 1861-1865 trial by fire.
His tactics, generalship and brilliance during the Shenandoah Campaign of 1862 are studied to this day at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — fighting, beating and winning against Union forces four times his size over 48 days.
The greatest victory by Confederate forces in that war occurred in May 1863, at Chancellorsville, when Jackson marched his men across the front of the Union Army in the thick Wilderness area of Virginia, slammed into the Federal right flank, basically winning the battle in a single blow.
After nightfall halted the attack, Jackson rode forward of the lines to reconnoiter, and while returning he and many of his staff were shot down by Confederate troops in the confusion.
Hit three times, the brilliant Jackson had his shattered left arm amputated and he died of pneumonia on the Sabbath — from friendly fire.