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