Monday, December 21, 2009

Friendly Fire

I had the opportunity to read the latest book from Jon Krakauer this weekend. It is titled, “Where Men Win Glory” and follows other successful works by Mr. Krakauer, including “Into Thin Air” and “Under the Banner of Heaven”. It is the story of former pro football player Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.

Surprisingly, the story has a backdrop of anti-Republican sentiment. Mr. Krakauer establishes his anti-Republican credentials early in the book when he characterizes Republican figures in a negative fashion. From the Prologue, referring to Pat Tillman’s public persona (page xxiv):
“Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on his celebrity, the Bush administration endeavored to use his name and image to promote what it had christened the Global War on Terror.”
“The right-wing harridan Ann Coulter claimed him as an exemplar of Republican political values.”
When I see characterizations like this, I tend to put my reading into “scan mode.” I no longer look for gifted prose or clever uses of description and style. I simply look for the substance and highlights of the text and go through the book rather quickly.

Mr. Krakauer does have substance in his book. We learn that Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin were both assigned to the same platoon in Afghanistan. We learn that Pat appears to have been killed by three rounds to the right side of his forehead from a single burst of a .223-caliber M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). We also learn that Pat’s brother was not told the killing was “fratricide” until May 24, 2004, more than a month after Pat’s death. The incredible part of the story is that Kevin did not know the actual circumstances of his brother’s death, even though he was on the scene when his brother was killed.

This is the story of an American tragedy, and Mr. Krakauer uses that tragedy to showcase the scandal of “blue-on-blue” killing in the American armed forces. He sums up the problem in a Postscript at the end of the book (page 343):
“If the United States’ involvement in future wars is inevitable, so, too, is it inevitable that American soldiers will fall victim to friendly fire in those conflicts, for the simple reason that fratricide is part and parcel of every war. According to the most comprehensive survey of American war casualties (both fatal and nonfatal), 21 percent of the casualties in World War II were attributable to friendly fire, 39 percent of the casualties in Vietnam, and 52 percent of the casualties in the first Gulf War. Thus far in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, casualty rates are 41 percent and 13 percent, respectively. All these figures are conservative estimates, moreover; due to endemic underreporting of fratricide by the military, the actual percentages are unquestionably higher.”
Mr. Krakauer’s concern for fratricide is honorable, but 41 percent blue-on-blue casualties in Iraq? That seems high. I went to the Internet and looked for confirmation.

I came across an indicator of Mr. Krakauer’s honor and integrity in an article published by Entertainment Weekly on 9/11/2009. It quotes him as saying:
“I go with what the material gives me. I don’t try to impose a narrative on it. And now, perversely, I enjoy criticism. I write these books and people don’t have to buy them.”
This level of personal integrity takes a toll on his personal life. Mr. Krakauer explains:
“I need to decompress. It’s not like I have a compulsion to write, so who knows, there may not be another book. This book was really hard. I don’t necessarily need to do this again.”
We get the sense that Mr. Krakauer is passionate about his work, and would attempt to faithfully report the statistics from “the most comprehensive survey of American war casualties” referenced above. (We unfortunately don’t know exactly what source Mr. Krakauer is using, as he doesn’t footnote it.)

Luckily, there are other sources. CBS News has an article by Sean Alfano from March 11, 2006. It reports strikingly different figures:
“Over the past four years, 17 soldiers have died in friendly fire incidents such as the one that killed former professional football player Pat Tillman, according to Army data.

The 17 soldiers felled by friendly fire incidents are about 1 percent of the 1,575 soldiers who have died overall.”
“The rate of friendly fire deaths for all U.S. troops in World War II was 12-14 percent; Vietnam, 10-14 percent; Grenada, 13 percent; and Panama, 6 percent.
To resolve the discrepancy (1% friendly fire deaths reported by CBS News vs. 41% friendly fire casualties reported by Mr. Krakauer), we can analyze data provided by the Brookings Institute. I like using this source because the information is transparently available and frequently updated. (This stands in marked contrast to data being manipulated by global warming advocates, or by our federal legislature for that matter.)

The Brookings Institute Data was just updated on December 11, 2009. It shows that in Iraq there have been 31,582 U. S. troops wounded in action since March 19, 2003. In the same timeframe, there have been 4,367 U.S. troops killed in action (KIA).

What’s extremely helpful about the Brookings information is that it categorizes KIA data by “cause of death.” On page 15 you can see the breakdown for each month from March 2003 to the present.

Assuming Mr. Krakauer’s percentage of blue-on-blue casualties for Iraq is correct (41 percent of the war casualties, both fatal and nonfatal) we have a major scandal in front of our eyes. With 4,367 U.S. troops killed in action and 31,582 U.S. troops wounded in action, 41 percent of that total would be 14,739. This means nearly 15,000 of our troops in Iraq have been killed or wounded by friendly fire, and according to Mr. Krakauer, these figures “…are conservative estimates.”

Let’s use the Brookings data to examine the problem more closely. If the same proportion of “fatal and nonfatal” friendly fire incidents (41 percent) applies just to KIA, then 1,790 deaths in Iraq would have been caused by friendly fire. That’s a lot of deaths by fratricide, and the Brookings Institute helps us put it in perspective. They list the number of deaths by IED (Improvised Explosive Device) at 1,735. Assuming that death by IED cannot be a “fratricide event,” then the friendly fire percentage is indeed a scandal. Of the non-IED killed in action in Iraq, fully 68 percent of the deaths would necessarily be the result of friendly fire. If you are not killed by an IED, you are twice as likely to be killed by your own compatriot as by the enemy! How’s that for a recruiting slogan!

I hope by now some of you are coming to the conclusion that there might be something wrong with Mr. Krakauer’s use of statistics. Read his book and you will come to understand that he has a low regard for the leadership of our combat forces, from the battalion level all the way up to the Pentagon. But to assume our armed forces are experiencing the level of friendly fire casualties cited by Mr. Krakauer in “Where Men Win Glory” requires a giant leap of faith.

This book may be categorized as “nonfiction”, but if you believe his numbers and take them without question, you may indeed be stepping “Into Thin Air”.

UPDATE 12/23/2009:
Linked by Instapundit.
Thanks, Professor Reynolds.

UPDATE 12/24/2009:
An anonymous commenter directs us to the American War Library site for verificiation of the 41% statistic.  Maybe they would have information on how that value was determined.

UPDATE 4/14/2011:
This recent friendly fire "incident" reminds us that human error on the battlefield is something that must be minimized but can never be discounted in the "fog and friction of war."

UPDATE 10/15/2011:
Here's more on the April 6, 2011 incident noted above.

Return to Top

Return to Bottom


  1. If Mr Krakauer is as exhausted by his profession as he is quoted to be, perhaps his next job should be to act as statistician for the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia. Certainly they would welcome his very creative interpretation of raw data.

  2. That is shoddy writing and editing. Without even taking the time to look up the actual events I know that it is not true that nearly half of our casualties were blue on blue. If it were true, I would think that the MSM would've been all over it faster than ants on a sugar cookie at a picnic. The sad part is that this horrible accident has been turned into a political weapon.

  3. I recently completed a tour in Afghanistan, where I had the chance to read Jon's book. I had a chance to see the terrain described by Jon and was constantly reminded of the dangers of the war still being waged there. I wanted to know the story he had to tell, as it appeared to be an important one, but was almost immediately turned off by the cynical tone in Jon's description of military and administration motives. I, too, had a hard time digesting a lot of what Jon had to say. I found myself reading the story to simply finish the book.

  4. Perhaps he could write a book on statistics called "Out of Thin Air."

  5. Krakauer's numbers are stunning - and no sources cited?

    How disappointing to learn that Krakauer plays fast and loose with such important facts.

  6. His accounts in "Out of thin Air" were disputed by many of the involved parties as well.

    The moral of this story is to not trust "journalists" to tell the truth without strong bias or agenda in their work...and it's virtually always liberal progressive bias.

    Thanks to those that read and reviewed this book. I now know to pass on it and not put another $ in Krakauer's pocket.

  7. Haven't read this book, but have read three other Krakauer productions. As a literary exercise compare and contrast "The Climb" with "Into Thin Air" (both about the same people and events) and you won't be surprised by the "cynical tone" of anything Krakauer produces. He IS a dyed in the wool whining cynic, so focused on the vanity of people "proving" theselves that he can't see admirable traits in anyone. Tells you ALOT about Krakauer. I feel like I know him and wouldn't want my boys to be like him. He's that kind of a guy.

  8. I heard Krakauer interviewed about the events of the book. It was right from the playbook of He could not contain his contempt for Bush and Republicans, all purpose bogeymen. Listening to the interview it was clear he was exaggerating things. Everything fit too nicely into a predigested narrative. He also had to make Tilman part of those who think like him. He told us what Tilman thought, how he felt, etc. It was as if he knew Tilman better than anyone. It is funny how he fervently presses the issue of how Bush used Tilman, when Krakauer is using Tilman in a mercenary way and to establish his lefty bona fides. In the end it's all about Krakauer.

  9. Anyone who followed the disastrous events on Mount Everest in 1996 would know that this author is not to be trusted with facts. While "Into Thin Air" makes for a good read, Jon's version of events is higly suspect. He is quick to blame others, while absolving himself. He makes unsubstantiated claims about Scott Fischer's team and his desicions on the mountain that day. A team he was not a part of and most certainly he was not privy to team conversations and decisions. Similar arguments can be made about his book "Into the Wild" and his glorified portayal of Christopher Chandless who was nothing sort of a complete idiot for wandering into the Alaskan wilderness woefully unprepared. I long ago nicknamed this author Jon Krackpot!

  10. I suspect that Krakauer mistakenly uses the 1st Gulf War numbers, in which the largest single loss of American life (as I recall) came from an errant missile hitting a chow hall. There were very few battle causalities.

  11. Folks, he was already playing fast and loose with the facts back when he wrote "Under the Banner of Heaven." Have you only just noticed?

  12. While I doubt that Krakauer's statistics are even remotely accurate, a high level of "fratricide", as a percentage of all casualties, is a logical consequence of devastating firepower deployed against an outmatched and therefore ineffective opponent. Keep up the good work.

  13. Perhaps 41 percent is too high, but the US Armed Forces, by emphasizing firepower over maneuver, have a serious problem with friendly fire.

  14. Tim, that "errant" missile was a Scud launched by the Iraqis. Hardly a friendly-fire incident.

  15. Could have seen it coming...

    Jon Krakauer's Inside Story of Pat Tillman

    WSJ: You end the book with a gloomy visit to Afghanistan in early 2007. What did Mr. Tillman's sacrifice mean?

    Mr. Krakauer: It didn't mean anything. It speaks to the mythology of war and how we glorify it for our national interests. There is nothing glamorous or romantic about war. It's mostly about random pointless death and misery. And that's what his death tells us. It reminds me that the good aren't rewarded, there's no such thing as karma. Maybe it says something about the dangers of any sort of idealism that isn't tempered by pragmatism or experience.

  16. In his postscript, Krakauer uses the word "casualites" as opposed ot "fatalities" -- casualties, of course, includes wounded as well as killed.

    Robert compares those percentages to KIA by friendly fire. It would be interesting to see if there are precise percentages for casualties. My guess is they would be comparable.

    In any event, it shows that Krakauer is a sloppy writer.

  17. I've enjoyed the reactions to this post, but want all of you to remember this is a site dedicated to the documentation of our anti-Republican culture.

    Has anyone noticed that Mr. Krakauer's take on things is not publicly challenged until the odd blogger points out his errant statistics? His book was published back in September, and his point of view was not rigorously questioned at the time.

    Americans automatically give a "green light" to behaviors that cast Republicans in a bad light.

    We can't help ourselves. It's our culture.

  18. I suppose if you were interested enough, you could shoot him an email ans ask from where he got his figures. His answer or lack of answer could be quite revealing

  19. All of Krakauer's books are about Krakauer first. He just is not interesting enough for me to read.

  20. Isn't this the same fellow who abandoned his fellow climbers on Everest knowing some were going to die?

    He was fit enough to make it back to his tent (first I think) yet not so much to rescue others. Though others in his trek did attempt and even died trying to save others.

    And yet he is a stand-up guy and capitalizes on his sorry behaviour by publishing a book. And now, somehow, he is an authority on men and glory.

    I believe I'll pass on this guy's work, his presentation of Republicans or humans is through a prism that lacks soul.

  21. Yes, Krakauer played fast and loose with the facts and presented speculation as fact in Into Thin Air, and that appears to be be a pattern. Note that he lives in Seattle, and it was none other than Sean Penn that made Into the Wild into a movie. They even appeared together in an episode of IFC's "Iconoclasts" series. Pretty much tells you his political prejudices right there.

  22. I'm not sure where "anonymous" get the idea that the US forces have used "devastating firepower" over maneuver, but clearly "anonymous" has never been on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. And has never read any of the FMs that cover the use of firepower or maneuver in an infantry unit. Or ever seen an infantry unit of any size operate in either theater.
    But he's certainly read a post or two at Huffington/Kos/MoveOn.

  23. Based on my limited knowledge of the matter, if someone only really knew the military based on their handling of Pat Tillman's case, they would be understandably cynical. One of the hard truths of war is that public support is needed for the effort to be successful over the long haul, and the temptations to create public myths to help garner that support are great. The book/movie Flags of Our Fathers documents the same sort of occurrence in WWII, and the president then was granddaddy of all current-day Democrats, Franklin Roosevelt. Mr Krakauer's problem is threefold: he's just realizing that life can be hard in the real world, in his shock at discovering that life can be hard in the real world he's too eager to use questionable statistics to emphasize his point, and finally, he needs an editor that's willing to fact-check his books.

  24. JK departed Seattle and now lives in the conservative haven of Boulder, CO. He is now so wealthy he qualifies as a limosine liberal. It's easy to support 50% tax rates. When you have so much moolah the Gov't can take half of it and you still have more than you can spend.

  25. Krakauer is a f***ing Krackpot. Whether he is lying outright or taking advantage of bullshit he has culled from anti Republican Brooking's Institute fairyland statistics is not important.

    Ask our American Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans.

  26. Here is where Karkaur apparently got his statistics:

    Seems like a legit site, without bias

    1. Actual American VetApril 21, 2014 at 5:02 AM

      The "American War Library" is run by a known fraudster, Phil Coleman, who uses multiple identities to shill for his website --- maybe including YOU, "Anonymous"? --- and gathers personal information including DD214s from veterans.

      The "American War Library" is run out of a shitty garden apartment in Gardena, California.

      Phil Coleman has been pitching his scams since at least 1998.

  27. The Brookings Institution data cited above (based on data provided by the DoD) is interesting, but it offers absolutely no data about friendly fire.

    The 2006 CBS News article cited above, which reports a rate of death from friendly fire in Iraq of approximately 1%, was based entirely on data provided by the Army. This data has been widely criticized as unreliable. Deaths reported by the Army as enemy fire have later been revealed to be friendly fire on numerous occasions.

    The friendly fire numbers cited by Krakauer were the result of independent research performed by the American War Library, a non-partisan organization with no axe to grind. Although the 41% casualty rate from friendly fire in Iraq reported by the AWL seems shockingly high, and may well proved to be incorrect, it seems much more believable than the Army's data. It shold be noted that the AWL's friendly fire numbers for other wars do not seem excessive (21% in WWII, 39% in Viet Nam, etc.). So maybe there is some bad data skewing their Iraq numbers.

    The Army's claim of less than a 1% death rate from friendly fire in OIF defies belief even more than the AWL's numbers. Historians consider the casualty rate from friendly fire in all wars to date to be 10-15%, at a very conservative minimum.

  28. Anonymous at 11:07am Christmas Day, I disagree... firing discipline is pretty much Job 1 in combat training these days, I understand. I'd be more inclined to believe a very low friendly fire rate than anything CLOSE to the despicable Krakauer's "cite," because there's this internet thing that tends to get stories out even when The Man doesn't want them out.

    I really really do despise Krakauer; I read Into Thin Air because a good friend was working for one of the companies that had a team on Everest during those events, and I wanted a bigger picture than what my distraught friend was able to give me. But when I read Into the Wild, all I could think of was, "Why on God's green earth are you talking this idiot up? He's not a holy hermit - he's a flipping dope, for heading into the Alaskan 'outback' with some rice and no plan! What are you, leading the freaking unexamined life to such an extent yourself that you can't recognize a narcissist when you see one?" But it was obvious that he couldn't recognize a narcissist because he WAS one, so there was no sense in expressing the thought aloud. (Though oddly it did come up in a dinner with friends recently.)

  29. The "American War Library" is a scam. It's a one-man operation run by "Phil Coleman" for the purpose of collecting personal information from veterans for resale to phishers, ID thieves, and such. The content is whatever filler he can get without paying.

  30. 41% "seems high?" It's almost half! What bufflehead looks at numbers like that and doesn't say "gee, maybe there's something fishy about that?" The rates of friendly fire from, say, the Civil War, or hell, anything up to about Korea, are not good similarity scores for Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Liberals are essentially innumerate. Million/billion/trillion are all just "big number" to them. They won't do back-of-an-envelope calculations when something bizarre like this shows up. Innumerate. It explains a lot.

  31. Extensive research into the subject has led to a new set of numbers for the percentage of casualties caused by friendly fire. It’s now believed that it was 21 percent during World War II, 18 percent in Korea, 39 percent in Vietnam, 49 percent in the 1991 Gulf War, seven percent in the current Iraq war and 11 percent in Afghanistan. In the last two years, friendly fire casualties have been reduced by over 90 percent. As can be seen by the current friendly fire losses, a lot has been done since 1991 to reduce friendly fire losses.