“Friendly Fire” review

5-star rating

Friendly Fire, by Scott A. Snook. Copyright 2000 by Princeton University Press

As I did when I reviewed Joan Piper’s book, A Chain of Events, I need to begin with a set of disclaimers.

Friendly Fire book cover
  • 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 Blackhawk 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 not guilty by the jury.

Because this book was my second one on the shootdown, I was prepared for another difficult read. I also came to the book with a fair degree of skepticism. The author, Scott Snook, was an Army officer: what biases was he going to bring to the work? I had skimmed the book before I actually sat down with it and was concerned that, as a psychological study, it was going to be dry and uninformative.

I’m pleased to say that, on the first count, I think Snook did a fairly good job, although hardly a perfect one. More on that in a moment. On the second count, Snook’s in-depth and cross-level evaluation of the events, non-events, and individual, group, and organizational psychology of what happened was far better than I expected.

Snook introduces a number of concepts that are both challenging and revealing. The first is the idea of the “normal accident”—that in a complex system, which Operation Provide Comfort certainly was, with many moving parts that were not as tightly linked to each other as all of the players thought they were—some kind of accident of this magnitude is almost certain to happen if the operation goes on long enough. This might be, at first, a shocking and disturbing assertion, yet on deeper inspection, it reflects something that we understand intuitively: the more complex a device or situation is, the more likely it is that something will eventually fail.

The second concept Snook introduces is “practical action.” Practical, as used here, means “as in practice.” In other words, OPC began with an extensive set of rules and procedures, written down in dozens of different documents. Over time, however, the people having to implement those rules and procedures found them to be impractical, and so they created local rules and procedures that made sense—were “practical”—in their specific situation. Whether they made sense to the larger organization is another matter, one that the local practitioners did not have the perspective to be able to judge.

Over time, this movement to “practical action” led to Snook’s third concept, “practical drift,” in which more and more formal rules and procedures are replaced by locally-developed practical actions. Unfortunately, no one at any level, had the ability to see all of the changes that had occurred, until they culminated in two helicopters being shot down and 26 people dying: a “normal” accident.

Snook reveals how the actions at the individual level of the two F-15 pilots who fired the deadly missiles, the AWACS crew members who did nothing that could have stopped them, and the OPC leadership who was unaware of the brewing problems were practical and sensible to each at that moment. Unfortunately, they were also wrong.

But then Snook goes on to reveal how analyzing just the actions of these individuals or groups in isolation is not sufficient to understand how the shootdown occurred. It is also necessary to look at the interactions between the individuals, groups, and organizational levels, not just in those few tragic moments, but over the full three years of the life of OPC to that point, to gain a full understanding of what went wrong and why. In this way, this book is even more disturbing than Piper’s book. While Piper’s account of the struggles of the victims’ families to understand what had happened and why is deeply personal and emotional, Snook’s account is more chilling because of the inevitability of something happening during the course of the operation.

Perhaps Snook’s most disturbing conclusion, however, is that in complex organizations, when something goes badly wrong, it’s not possible to place blame in one location or on one individual because so many people and parts share in it: blame can’t be placed anywhere because it lies everywhere.

This is especially disturbing for the families of the victims. Piper’s book is, in many ways, a search for the one true villain, the one person on whom all blame could be laid. Ultimately, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, the General Accountability Office, and Congressional committees all failed to find that one person. The F-15 pilots were not criminally charged, and the one AWACS officer who was court martialed was found not guilty.

As I read the book, I wondered if Mrs. Piper or any of the other family members had read it, and if it in any way would provide, if not solace, at least an explanation they could accept. Only one family member, the father of one of the Blackhawk pilots left reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and he was worse than unsatisfied, going so far as to accuse Snook of lying. Sad as it is, this outcome is not surprising.

The book is not without its faults. It is rife with errors regarding Air Force operations, which Snook and his civilian editor at Princeton University Press likely did not even know were errors. To identify just two, a photograph identified as being of two F-15s actually shows two F-5s, and a later photograph shows the wrong model of F-15. Surely correct photographs were available. Second, Snook asserts that all of the AWACS crewmembers had the opportunity to intervene to stop the shootdown, even though two of the teams on the jet—the technicians and flight crew—had neither the situational awareness, the responsibility, the training, nor the equipment to do so.

Finally, I felt Snook went easy on the Army personnel at Eagle Flight, the operation flying the Blackhawk helicopters. To be fair, however, I must note that they were at several disadvantages: their base was far away from the one where the rest of the operation was headquartered, and the leadership of the flight was too junior (Captains or Majors) to have had the kind of influence necessary to have forced their operations to be properly integrated into the larger force. Those leaders evidently did not get the kind of support they needed from their superiors. Blaming this failure on interservice rivalry, however, is an easy way out, and I was disappointed to see Snook take it.

On balance, this book does a great service to the field of organizational psychology. Deep analyses of such tragedies are rare, in part because, as Snook himself notes, few have such a wealth of records and investigational material available to be analyzed. I can only hope that in the nearly 25 years since this tragic event, the Army, Air Force, and other military services, and other organizations, have learned the right lessons from this study: that “practical drift” from established procedures is inevitable, and that few operators and leaders will be aware of the drift under normal circumstances. Intense, multi-level vigilance is required if there is to be any hope of preventing, or at least reducing the magnitude of the “normal accidents” that are bound to occur. Highly recommended.

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