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Not-So Friendly Fire: An Australian Taxonomy For Fratricide

During the Vietnam War (1959–75), the euphemistic term ‘friendly fire' was first used to describe the infliction of casualties by the military's own forces. This paper explores this phenomenon by focusing on the Australian Army's decade-long involvement in Vietnam (1962–72). When examined historically, evidence suggests that the problem of fratricide was more prevalent than is usually acknowledged. Part of the reason that fratricide lies hidden is obvious: no military organisation readily admits that it inflicts physical harm, even death, on its own troops. Moreover, the media and public find the concept of killing one's own both unfathomable and unacceptable. Military organisations have thus hidden or disguised the incidence of fratricide and adopted an excessively narrow definition—one that obscures the extent and causes of the problem.

The paper contends that, based on Australia's Vietnam experience, there are at least three different categories of fratricide. The first is accidental fratricide, which involves the active intent to kill the enemy but instead results in unforeseen and unintentional death or injury to friendly personnel. The second is military–industrial fratricide, which involves no enemy, but where the actions of friendly personnel result in death or injury to other friendly personnel. The third is calculated fratricide, which involves the active intent to kill the enemy or destroy their equipment or facilities but in a manner that consciously endangers friendly personnel. By seeing this problem as multidimensional, it is possible to demonstrate that, far from being an aberration, the infliction of fratricidal casualties by friendly fire is a constant and inevitable feature of military training and operations. As the Australian Army charts its course into the 21st century, it will have to relearn how it will deal with this thorny and enduring problem.

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