Dealing with Grief Among Allies

The tragic killing of Nicola Calipari by US forces last week in Iraq, dominating the news in Italy of late, has been a major story in the United States as well. Speaking for not only myself but many others I know, we are deeply saddened by this terrible event and deeply regretful that an American bullet was responsible for Mr. Calipari’s death. That it has occurred only a few years after an American aircraft accidentally killed 20 Italians during a practice flight only compounds the pain.

We all know that, in war, tragedies occur. At one level, they are inevitable. But in another sense, in military operations as in life, most accidents are preventable, and some are more understandable and forgiveable than others. Further, to honor the dead and to minimize the chances of further heartbreak, we must always pause to ask what might be changed when terrible events like this occur.

There do appear to have been mistakes committed by all sides that contributed to Mr. Calipari’s death. Investigations, of course, are only beginning. But it does appear that someone in the Italian chain of command should have contacted authorities about the car in question to avoid the risk of misidentification in the middle of the night.

That said, the larger mistakes here appear to have been made by the United States. First, from the sum total of the various eyewitness accounts to date, it does sound like U.S. personnel on the scene may not have provided the amount of warning to the car carrying Mr. Calipari and Ms. Sgrena that they claim. Perhaps official US spokesmen, in explaining what happened, have described procedures as they are supposed to be followed—not as they actually were followed here.

So American commanders may need to review warning procedures with troops to make sure rules are followed carefully. In addition, they may need to establish telephone “hotlines” that allow for easy communications in situations like this, so that US troops are alerted to the presence of individuals like Calipari and Sgrena in advance.

That may not be enough, however. In one sense, it is understandable that a scared 20-year old American soldier who has seen friends and innocent Iraqis die from ambushes and car bombings would react too quickly in such situations. But this cannot be an excuse for killing innocent people. And we hurt ourselves when we fire too fast, because when we kill innocent people we embitter lots of Iraqis—increasing resentment against our presence and thus helping the insurgency.

From a military planning point of view, we clearly need better nonlethal weapons to incapacitate cars in situations like this. That is a message for the longer term.

Right now in Iraq, the United States needs to find ways to use existing weapons more carefully. It is difficult for a distant civilian to know the right answer to such a tactical matter. But we may need to explore possibilities such as shooting only at the tires of suspicious vehicles, at least at first. We might start shooting slightly sooner than at present, to improve the chances that a vehicle can be stopped before it threatens troops or other innocents. We must learn from this terrible tragedy so that Mr. Calipari’s heroic sacrifice is honored and so that we do not make this kind of mistake again.