<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing If Not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 125 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 2, 2003

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Friendly Fire

Shawkat Hussain

Years ago I was almost killed by “friendly fire.” Perhaps I was spared because the wonderfully oxymoronic euphemism, “friendly fire,” hadn't been invented yet.

That was in early December 1971 in a country then called East Pakistan, when suddenly, one day, a squadron of planes invaded our skies in Dhanmandi. When the sirens sounded, the women and children sat huddled in a ground floor corridor between two thick walls, while my two younger brothers and I bounded up the stairs to the roof of our two-storied house to see the dogfights between the enemy planes and friendly planes. Which were enemy planes and which friendly ones depended on what side you were on.

If you believed that you were living under Pakistani occupation, then the Pakistani planes were enemy planes, and the Indian planes were liberating, friendly ones. My brothers and I, and about seven crore Bengalees living in East Pakistan, believed in the latter. If you thought that the Pakistanis were the legitimate rulers of East Pakistan, then the Paki planes would be the friendly ones, and the Indians the enemies. There were indeed a few who looked up fondly at the skies and hoped that Squadron Leader MM Alam would “single-planedly” drive away the Indians. That did not happen.

The spectacular dog-fights ended in a couple of days when the few remaining Pakistani planes were either downed or driven away, and the Indian planes became the lords of the sky of a land that was about to become Bangladesh.

One afternoon when we rushed up to the roof to see the friendly planes (read Indian) flying overhead, gesticulating excitedly at the pilot in the cockpit (it seemed that close) one airplane appeared to be flying straight towards to us and shooting rockets from its underbelly, barely five metres from where we stood on the roof. The rockets missed us, but chopped the top of a banana tree in our backyard. That's how I was almost killed by friendly fire. Later we heard that the Indian planes were trying to flush out General Niazi reportedly hiding somewhere in the neighbourhood.

I was wondering how it feels to be killed by “friendly fire.” Is it somehow easier to die by it? Is it a nobler kind of death? As the bullets rip up your guts or pierce through your heart, does it somehow manage to whisper, “Hey, I am a friendly bullet. Take it easy.” And then you bite the dust with a smile upon your lips.

As we all know, nine Iraqi policemen and a Jordanian died recently when they came under “friendly fire”

from a US patrol which mistook them for enemies. Is this any consolation for the families that they died under friendly fire? One can understand how a pilot flying at near-supersonic can miss unclear targets and fire rockets at gesticulating roof-top Bengalees. But how can you explain US soldiers firing at Iraqi policemen supposed to be helping them secure peace and order in Iraq?

At least part of the explanation lies in the confusion of American status in Iraq, and the inability of American US soldiers to distinguish between friendly Iraqis and unfriendly ones. The young US soldiers perceive themselves as liberators of Iraq, but they know that only a fraction of the 25 million Iraqis who surround them perceive them similarly. Colin Powell also said the other day that the Americans were present in Iraq as liberators. But he said it so softly that it seemed that he himself did not seriously believe it. And there is good reason for this. Almost the whole world sees the continuing US presence in Iraq as illegal foreign occupation. When the liberators are not seen as such by the people around them, there is likely to be many deaths from friendly fire; and, in any case, the Arabs all look alike.

And hence, the edginess, the paranoia of the US soldiers, constantly on the move, constantly circling around one another, covering their backs, fingers ready to pull the triggers at the slightest shadow of provocation. Shoot first, and then ask questions. They come as liberators but they not are accepted as such, and they tend to see everybody around them as enemies. All the night-vision goggles, all the sophisticated gadgetry, cannot help them determine with absolute certainty who around them are enemies and who friends. The Iraqis, on the other hand, clearly know what their targets are.

Over 2000 years ago, in the Peloponnesian war between the Spartans and the Athenians, there was one battle at night when the Spartans and the Athenians could not distinguish themselves from one another. Spartans fell upon Spartans, and Athenians upon Athenians, as thousands were pierced by friendly swords. That battle was used as a metaphor of the ignorance and darkness that enveloped the lives of 19th century Englishmen, and might very well serve as metaphor to define our own lives in the 21st century. Matthew Arnold wrote:

“And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

As ignorant armies fight by night.”

Americans soldiers may shoot with their eyes open, or use special goggles to see at night, but they are blinded by the darkness that surrounds them.

It is interesting that while “enemy fire” designates the source of fire, “friendly fire” characterises the nature. And let there be no illusion, that however it is characterised, the ultimate outcome of “friendly fire” is deadly, whether it is an American returning home in a body bag, or an Iraqi lying dead in the dust. Or a foolish Bangladeshi shot in the rooftop by accidental, “friendly fire.” The “fire” in the oxymoron completely cancels out its “friendly” nature.





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