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Loaded Gun

Four months later, in April 2005, I came to the Deuce Four battalion as a writer.  On the first mission, another suicide bomber killed three.  Mostly you didn’t see the bombers, but felt an atmospheric pop from the shock wave, followed by a great heaving krrruummppphhh.  It was hard to tell the difference between smaller explosions close by and a massive detonation across town, until some seconds passed and the mushroom gathered into the sky.  Sometimes it was an IED, other times a car bomb, or who knows?

Wikipedia, though not necessarily reliable, is useful to get the gist of something.  It accurately mentions the difficulty in counting suicide bombers, and notes that there were about 478 in Iraq in the year 2005.  Two bombings I personally witnessed—on 23 April and 02 May—weren’t mentioned, though both caused deaths and were widely reported suicide attacks.  This suggests an undercount, if anything. (The first suicide bombing I had witnessed, 27 January in Baqubah, was listed.)  These were only a fraction of the attacks. The vast majority—probably more than 99%—were not suicide attacks, and not all suicide attacks were bombings.

The troops were constantly on offense and defense.  On base, their trailers were filled with many sorts of weapons.  They never went anywhere unarmed.  There were frequent warnings of plans for more attacks on base.

Many Iraqis and others, including Turkish contractors, lived on base.  For practical reasons this made sense, but carried risks.  One of the interpreters turned out to be a spy.

In April 2005, about four months after the attack in the dining facility in Mosul, a replacement dining facility was opened.  Despite that troops were fighting seven days a week, and that about a hundred people had been killed or wounded on this base by a suicide bomber, and the constant warnings of more such plans, soldiers were required to unload their weapons before entering the dining facility.

Six years later

On 27 April 2011, an Afghan military pilot shot and killed nine Americans on a main base in Kabul.  Anger spiked from home in the US when it was suspected that our people were either unarmed or had their weapons unloaded.  Turns out they were armed and had ammunition, and their weapons were on ‘Amber’ status.  Trainers were at amber status because a week prior to the attack the entire NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan upgraded the weapons posture status across the command.

With the war reaching an all-time peak during our ninth year, frustrations are high in the United States.  Pressure was mounting for answers.  How did one pilot kill nine Americans?  But eyes would soon be distracted.  Days later, 02 May, US forces swept into Pakistan, killed Osama bin Laden and delivered his body to the sea.  That was a very big deal, and worthy of all the coverage, but now it’s time to discuss the issue of military security on base.

A Reality

Between the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the spring of 2007, 89 US troops were killed in the area of operations by negligent discharges from weapons carried by troops.  These figures came from a reliable and well-placed source.  I do not know how many of those 89 were killed by Iraqis or Coalition partners, though at least one US Soldier was negligently shot and killed by an Iraqi in Mosul during this period.  Negligent discharge figures do not include fratricide in combat.

During 2008, troop levels peaked in Iraq.  The Coalition had about 158,000 service members on the ground.  If all troops were locked and loaded at all times, each day would translate to one troop handling a loaded weapon for 432 years.  And so, imagine the safest, most well-trained person on the planet, carrying a weapon for 432 years.  He’s carried that modern firearm through countless battles and winters, fatigue, cold, heat, hunger, distractions from heartache and sorrow, and never fired an unplanned round.  What are the chances?

In the past, in the US military, the relatively uncommon “accidental” gunshots were called AD, or Accidental Discharge.  With so many people, even rare events can reach noticeable levels.

Yet, upon closer inspection, most such “accidents” are not accidents; the bullet flies because there was a round in the chamber, the safety was disengaged, and the trigger was pulled, probably by a right index finger.  Dropping a US military pistol or rifle will not make it shoot.  Using the weapons as a hammer is a bad idea, but they still will not shoot unless something crucial is broken, which is rare.  The weapons will not fire accidentally so long as the user never deviates from simple procedures.

True life examples

* During an infantry exercise in US, a unit was training with live ammunition. A soldier did not follow procedure by failing to put his safety on when moving. He fired a bullet, which struck Colonel David Petraeus in the back.  Petraeus nearly died.

There were at least four mistakes:  1) Weapon not on safe.  2) Finger on trigger.  3) Finger pulled trigger.  4) Muzzle pointed in unsafe direction.  Had any one of these procedures been followed, General Petraeus would not have been shot.

* I was with Lithuanian soldiers when I heard a BANG.  A nearby soldier was preparing to clean his weapon and it “went off.”  It went off because there was a round in the chamber, the safety was off and he pulled trigger.

* I was with Iraqi forces when. . . .  Never mind.  Too many to remember.  Same with  Afghans. Not all armies are well trained.  But we are not talking about their rules.

* I was with British forces in Sangin, Afghanistan.  I was talking on the sat-phone when BANG!  Big commotion.  A soldier about to clean his weapon shot his buddy who nearly died and is today messed up for life.

* Canadian Brigadier General Daniel Menard was preparing to board a US helicopter in 2010 in Kandahar.  He fired a couple rounds that missed everyone and the helicopter.

The weapons don’t fire magically unless they are very hot due to heavy firing.

All of the above incidents illustrate sloppiness. Some forces are sloppier than others.

True accidental discharges are so extremely rare that I don’t recall hearing of one happening with a US or British weapon.  But they can occur in theory, so they probably occur now and then.  A British soldier once told me about an “AD” he nearly had with a hand grenade.  A bunch of Afghan kids swarmed him and during the melee a boy stole the pin from a grenade.  The soldier noticed later.  He was saved by the tape, and by heeding experience earned by generations of soldiers.

If a soldier unintentionally fires a rifle on base in Afghanistan, one of two things are likely to follow: If he admits to the error he will be punished.  Or, he will say the weapon fired on its own magic.  (He’s already got a problem; why was there a round in the chamber with the safety off?)  The weapon will be seized for examination.  If the weapon is found in good order, he’ll be punished.


To balance between preparedness and safety, the military has created a simple “weapons status,” so that when troops are told to go green, amber or red on the weapons, everyone understands.

Weapons Status

Green: Weapon completely unloaded. In Afghanistan, service members will have at least one loaded magazine with their weapon.  (A person can go from Green to firing bullets in probably 5-8 seconds, depending on various factors such as type of weapon, training level, etc.)

Amber: Magazine in weapon.  No round in the chamber.  Safety on.  (Amber to firing in about two or three seconds if he already is holding a rifle.  Some more seconds for a holstered pistol.)

Red: Round in chamber.  Safety on.  (Sometimes off depending on unit.)

Black: Out of Ammo.  (The most dangerous status.)

During heavy fighting in places like Baghdad, when troops returned to base (assuming they were not transporting dead, wounded, or prisoners), they stopped at the gate and cleared from red to green.  As a double safety, every troop was to be double-checked by another, and that included the machine gun up top.  No matter rank or experience, you still have someone double-check.  The same happens on many bases in Afghanistan.

There are other realities.  For instance, a rifle is not always in direct control of the service member. In combat or dangerous situations, it’s glued in their hands.  But on the major bases, where people work in offices or go to the gym (or whatever), the rifle often is kept in a rack or in a common place.  This probably has not changed since the invention of the flintlock.  And so these rifles typically are kept unloaded but the troops keep ammo.  Insofar as pistols, there are only three places a pistol should be: holster, hands, or the armory.  If the pistol is in the holster, it should be loaded and ready to fire.  But the reality is that training standards are so uneven across the military that we will end up with dead people if every troop always has a loaded pistol.  It’s not the reality we like, but it’s the one we’ve got.

Inside Attacks

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there have been numerous attacks against Coalition forces from “inside the wire.”  That is, the attacks either took place inside the security barriers, or were perpetrated by someone who was trusted, and should have been friendly, such as an Iraqi policeman or a US Soldier.  (On occasions in recent years, US troops have intentionally fired upon our own troops not in cases of fratricide, but homicide.  At least two cases in Iraq did not seem to be religiously motivated.)  Other times, enemies use disguises like uniforms from Iraqis, Afghans, or Coalition forces.  The Coalition has lost 49 killed and 44 wounded from insider threats in Afghanistan since 2005.  Various partners have been hit, including Italians, Germans, British, and US.  [Shortly before publication, the number of KIA rose to 51 killed after a dining facility shooting in Helmand by an Afghan policeman.]

The NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan studied 20 [just became 21] cases of insider attacks.  Hardest hit have been Afghans who are not listed in these figures:

According to the unclassified analysis, of the 20 attacks studied between 2005-2011, 40% were attributed to combat stress, 15% sympathized with or were intimated/blackmailed by the enemy, 10% impersonated Afghan Security forces, while 35% are unknown.

2007 – 1 case
2008 – 1 case
2009 – 5 cases
2010 – 6 cases
2011 – 7 cases

2011 – now 8 cases, as the latest occurred in Helmand on 13 May:

NATO says Afghan policeman kills 2 service members in southwestern Afghanistan

“The two were mentoring an Afghan National Civil Order brigade and were shot and killed inside the police compound on Thursday as they sat down to eat lunch, NATO said in a statement. Other soldiers returned fire and the policeman was wounded and hospitalized…”

There appears to be a trend.  But this progression is not entirely straightforward.  There are far more Coalition forces working more closely with Afghans now than ever before, meaning there are more chances for attacks.  The figures do not show how many of our casualties occurred during GREEN, AMBER or RED status.  It’s important to note that in many situations our troops are far outnumbered by Afghan security forces, yet they have no problems.

To the Point

Why put troops in a war zone with weapons not on Red status?  Is it restrictive ROE?  Presidential mandate?  The reality is that not all troops need to be on RED at all times.  The reasoning is apparent.  There are zones within war zones that are relatively very safe, and so chances are higher of getting hit with a negligent discharge than an attack.  Often the decisions for commanders are simple: on the more dangerous, smaller bases, all troops are on RED status at all times.  At larger bases were attacks never have occurred, most troops will be on GREEN while smaller numbers will be on AMBER or RED.  Increasingly, lately, commanders will be reviewing local policies as the situation evolves.

Dozens of Coalition Partners

A crucial point: roughly forty Coalition partners are in Afghanistan, plus the Afghans.  Some partners place little emphasis on safety.  Unless there is a serious threat, it’s far better to keep these areas on Green status.  Enough said.

In summary, local policy decisions about weapon status are up to the commanders’ discretion.  Many or probably most of the commanders now have substantial combat experience in numerous places.  Sometimes their decisions on weapon status are easy to make: the place is so dangerous that it’s all RED all the time.  Other times it’s all GREEN.  The in-between ground is tougher, and also threats increase or decrease with time.

It’s must be tempting from afar to cast aspersions on the motivations of the commanders when it comes to weapons status.  It’s important to bear in mind that they are on the same forward operating bases where these attacks have occurred; their skin is in the game.  They are closer to the action with far more experience than most of us possess.  It’s healthy to question the leadership’s decisions, but simultaneously it’s important remember that this is not their first rodeo.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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