I’ve known, since even before I reluctantly purchased this book in the early 2000s, that it would be a difficult read. That’s why it sat, unopened, on a bookshelf in three different houses, until now. In part, the reason might be obvious from author Joan Piper’s subtitle: “The Government Cover-up of the Black Hawk Incident and the Friendly-Fire Death of Lt. Laura Piper.” The other reasons require some up-front disclosure.
- I am a retired Air Force officer.
- I was a Mission Crew Commander (MCC) on the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
- On the date of the shoot-down of the two Black Hawk helicopters over northern Iraq—April 14, 1994—I was deployed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to fly missions enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq for Operation Southern Watch/Desert Calm, the counterpart to Operation Provide Comfort (OPC).
- In July 1994, when the first investigation report was released, I was deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, to fly OPC missions. I was in the audience at the base theater when the report was briefed to the aircrews there the evening before it was released to the public.
- I knew slightly both of the MCCs who were on the AWACS crew the day of the shoot-down, and have since gotten to know one of the senior officers involved in the decisions on who to prosecute or not. I did not know the one AWACS officer who was ultimately court-martialed but declared innocent by the jury.
In other words, this is personal, although nowhere near as personal as it was for Piper and the other Black Hawk families.
A Chain of Events should not be seen as a definitive history of the shoot-down and subsequent investigations and the events surrounding them. It is appropriately categorized as a memoir, a personal history of the Piper family’s struggles to understand what happened to their daughter Laura and to seek “accountability” for her death. The Pipers’ fully-understandable pain over their loss (and the deaths of the other 25 people, from three other nations plus ethnic Kurds, who were on the two helicopters), which never should have happened, comes through loud and clear. The Pipers’ anger and frustration over how the various investigations into the shoot-down were handled, in particular how information was allegedly kept out of the reports or away from the investigators, decision-makers, and court-martial jury, and how other investigations were allegedly stymied by the Air Force leadership and Washington politics, also comes through.
Sometimes that anger takes an ugly turn. During Piper’s relating of the events surrounding the court-martial of Captain Jim Wang, she cites medical information revealed during the trial to suggest that he was mentally unstable. Elsewhere in this same chapter, she suggests, on the basis of flimsy evidence, that Captain Eric Wickson, the lead F-15 pilot that day and the individual likely most responsible for the 26 deaths, had Tourette Syndrome, something she was not qualified to diagnose. [My attempts to get more information from my local flight surgeon’s office on whether Tourette’s would disqualify someone from flight duties were ignored.] While such allegations reflect the depths of her anger and pain, the ad hominem attacks hurt her case, for which she has plenty of other evidence.
That aside, Piper is to be commended for having the courage to write this account. She was willing to be the public face of the American Black Hawk families, to be interviewed repeatedly by the press, and to ultimately write the book. She was uniquely placed, perhaps, to do so. Her husband Danny had key connections to people on the inside of several of the investigations, and so the Pipers were able to get access to information that others could not have gotten, and possibly to even have influence on the direction of at least the investigation led by Senator William Roth. As such, she was able to shine a light into places that might not have been revealed otherwise. But it is only a spotlight, because she did not have total access to the decision-makers. She at times speculates without proof on their motives and the forces driving them. A complete historical account would have included that information, but that was not the purpose of this book.
At several places in the book, Piper states that she did not want anyone involved in the shoot-down to go to jail; all she wanted was “accountability.” This makes me wonder what her real desires were. In other cases of undeserved death, surviving family members talk about wanting accountability or “justice.” What do those terms really mean? Are these people afraid to actually say that they want the perpetrators punished? If so, why?
Late in the book, Piper quotes Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.” The target of the quote is the leadership of the Air Force at the time. However, it is hard but fair to ask, in the context of “accountability,” if the quote does not also apply to her.
At the end of the book, Piper says she’d achieved “closure,” another popular but vague term, regarding her daughter’s death. I wonder if, almost 25 years after the incident, she still feels that way, or what “closure” means to her now.
Not only is there no happy ending to this story, there’s really no ending at all. I know of one other book on the shoot down, Army Lieutenant Colonel Scott Snook’s Friendly Fire, which I have not yet read. A quick scan suggests it is an organizational psychology evaluation of the actions and decision-making around the actual shoot-down but does not address the larger issues Piper raises. My own experiences, and the story told in this book, make one thing clear: while there was a “chain of events” that led to this unnecessary tragedy, there was an even larger chain of failures—of skill, of professionalism, of integrity—at many levels and over a longer timeline than Piper discusses, which pervades and drives the entire story.
The full story has yet to be told, and it may never be, which would be a loss not only for the families of the victims but also for the United States Air Force as a whole.
In the end, despite its flaws, A Chain of Events does a service to the victims, the U.S. Air Force, and America at large for revealing what it does.