As General Rick Hillier so eloquently puts it in his excellent biography “A Soldier First,” “First reports are always wrong. Second reports are also wrong, and third reports are usually wrong.” As it happens, General Hillier was writing about his reaction to the first reports of the friendly fire incident in which Canada lost her first soldiers in Afghanistan in 2002 to a U.S. air strike.
Despite the ever-increasing flood of information from around the globe, this is still every bit as true today. If anything, it has become worse as reporters and editors seek to feed the beast that is the 24-hour news cycle. With the recent release and briefing of the report on the friendly fire incident that resulted in Canada’s first casualties in the latest Iraq war, we once again see how accurate General Hillier’s wisdom is.
Drew Doiron wasn’t the friendliest guy at first encounter if he didn’t know you, and he may have had a chip or two on his shoulder, but he was a professional, he loved what he did, and in the end, he did everything right. But you wouldn’t know that from the first reports rushed into print. I understand why the Peshmerga said what they did, being defensive about what happened and no doubt hounded for comment from reporters desperate for a quote.
The spin put on it from reporters is something that really makes my blood boil. I get it; there are headlines to make, papers to print, and ratings to make. Drama and SOF are sexy, and that sells. But first reports are always wrong, and there is a price to be paid and real-world consequences to getting it wrong.
Drew, his strike detachment, and all the rest of the guys in CANSOF are professionals. They’re also real people, with families and friends. While operational security (OPSEC) is a barrier to getting to know the pros behind the curtain, it is a very real necessity. SOF is a small world; CANSOF is an even tinier one. I would say there is little doubt that our operators and their families are under actual risk if their identities are known and published.
ISIL has used social media to publish names and addresses of U.S. soldiers and their families with intent to target them. Corporal Nathan Cirillo was gunned down standing sentry at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was run down by a wannabe jihadi in St Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. After shots felled Cirillo, the halls of parliament were filled with our “leaders” and prime minister, just a few metres away from where the shooting occurred.
I would say there’s little doubt our operators and their families are under actual risk if their identities are known and published, but then again I read about some of our parliamentarians being disturbed by the sight of the RCMP openly carrying MP5s on the Hill, and how it made them feel “afraid” and “uncomfortable,” so I suppose ignorance lives on in some places.
So there is that personal security aspect to OPSEC, but there is another important reason for it. First reports are always wrong. The fight in Iraq against ISIL isn’t a fight for ratings or readership; it’s an actual fight for actual lives. Relationships matter. This was proven in Afghanistan with the “green-on-blue” phenomenon, where Afghan soldiers would turn on their mentors or allies. This reinforces the importance of solid relationships built upon mutual respect. But relationships aren’t just about earning trust so your allies don’t shoot you. In order to work, you need to build trust so that you can exchange badly needed candid feedback in order for both partners to learn and adjust. It’s pretty hard to establish trust with dueling headlines about fault.
Why are first reports so reliably wrong? Perhaps because our memory is so damn faulty, as many studies have shown. In fact, just the mere phrasing of a question about an event can distort our memory of it, causing us to remember details of events that did not occur. It takes a while to build up a true picture of what happened. You need to talk to multiple witnesses, cross-reference what they recall with whatever may be at hand, such as physical evidence on the ground, radio logs, etc. And of course, if you throw in a remote and dangerous area with language and cultural obstacles, you quickly find out how difficult and complicated it can be to figure out exactly what happened, and even then, you may never really know down to the finer details.
Hopefully the release of the report, and Brigadier General Rouleau’s interpretation and emphasis on understanding the difficulty and strain our Peshmerga allies were under that night, will undo some of the damage done to our relationship by headline-hunting reporters. As he emphasized again and again, it was an accident. Accidents actually do happen, no matter what ambulance-chasing lawyers may say. As Rouleau said, the Peshmerga who shot Drew didn’t wake up that morning wanting to kill a Canadian. War is hell. It’s chaos. It isn’t like TV or movies at all; it is made up of imperfect decisions made by imperfect people under unbelievable stress and time constraints.
Armchair generals will no doubt point out things that should have been done, and undoubtedly with perfect hindsight, anyone can think of things to do differently. But the guys didn’t have that. They had seconds to react. What did they do with that time? They tried to de-escalate. To identify themselves. When that failed and Drew was shot, they didn’t stop. They could have unleashed hell on that OP, but they didn’t. Every one of those guys was wounded trying to get to Drew as he shouted instructions at them.
But they weren’t just wounded trying to protect Drew, they were wounded trying to protect the Peshmerga and our relationship with them. The easy thing would have been to lay down suppressive fire and pull Drew out, but these imperfect men with too little time to think still managed to make the right decision. They managed to take the long view, to remember what was important in the big picture and not just in that moment. They had seconds. They made the right call. I wish I could say the same for the reporters that started pushing out headlines based on quotes badgered from people who weren’t even there.
(Featured image courtesy of 680news.com)