Snafus, Friendly and Otherwise

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Linda Norgrove’s death — apparently at the hands of her would-be U.S. military rescuers in Afghanistan last Friday — reminds us that snafu — “situation normal, all fouled up” — is a U.S. military term:

— The U.S. Navy shoots down an Iranian airliner in 1988, killing all 290 people on board — including 66 children. Tehran was, to put it simply, angry. The U.S. said the crew of the USS Vincennes had mistakenly identified the airliner as an attacking F-14 fighter.

— U.S. Air Force B-2 bombs the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three. Beijing was, to put it mildly, furious. Many Chinese felt the attack was deliberate, and not due to an outdated map, as a U.S. probe into the wayward bombing concluded.

— The U.S. Air Force shoots down a pair of U.S. Army helicopters flying over northern Iraq in 1994, killing all 26 aboard. The F-15 pilots involved said they thought the choppers were a pair of Iraqi Mi-24 Hind helicopters flying in violation of a “no-fly zone” — despite the U.S. flag decals on their doors.

What I recall in covering these tales is that the bitterness of Iran and China was echoed in the cries of those who lost family members aboard the two U.S. UH-60 Black Hawks. At the instant of death, all those wrongly killed transformed their survivors — be they citizens or spouses — into allies. They all wanted justice, something difficult to achieve when lives are lost.

“No matter what they do…it’s not going to bring my husband back,” said Tangela Robinson, 22, whose 23-year old husband of nine months, Mike, was an Army sergeant and crew chief responsible for keeping one of the Black Hawks properly maintained.


Sgt. Mike Robinson


She said shortly after the shoot down that she was pleased that the F-15 pilot responsible faced up to 26 years’ imprisonment. “That suits me just fine,” she told me. “I mean, it’s like he put a gun to my husband’s head and blew him away — it was murder.”

Ultimately, the Air Force dismissed all charges against the F-15 pilot. It gave him a letter of reprimand instead. Linda Norgrove’s family should expect no less. In war, as grunts like to say, “sometimes stuff happens.”