Friendly fire: an avoidable fatality

(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By George Clifford

The term “friendly fire” denotes fire from one’s own military that accidentally injures or kills a member of one’s forces. Former pro-football player Pat Tillman’s death is the highest profile example of a friendly fire casualty in the war in Afghanistan, although sadly not the only friendly fire casualty in that war. Denying or covering up friendly fire casualties – as happened in the case of Pat Tillman – greatly exacerbates the emotional pain of a pointless injury or death.

Friendly fire casualties often result from the confusion of combat (also known as the “fog of war”) and the stress of fighting in a life-threatening situation. Sometimes friendly fire casualties stem from ineptitude, inadequate training, or an unanticipated series of mistakes, e.g., when French soldiers killed seventeen people in a hostage rescue demonstration on June 30 of this year because what the soldiers thought were blanks were in fact live rounds.

In late July 2008, President George W. Bush approved the death sentence for Army private, Ronald A. Gray. Gray, one of six personnel on the military’s death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has lived on death row since his 1988 court-martial conviction for rape and murder. The wheels of military justice can turn exceedingly slowly, as Gray’s case has taken nineteen years to reach mandatory Presidential review. Appeals in Gray’s case, not yet exhausted, will probably require several more years to complete. If the Army eventually executes Gray, it will be the first military execution since 1961, an execution that President Eisenhower had approved in 1957. Meanwhile, a North Carolina court has sentenced Gray to eight life terms after he admitted raping and killing two women in North Carolina.

Effective deterrence requires prompt, consistent, and appropriate action. Nobody can accurately characterize executing a criminal more than twenty-years after conviction as prompt action. Criminals tend to commit crimes seeking immediate gratification and frequently cannot cope with delayed gratification. Excessively extending the time between conviction and punishment, as happens with all capital punishment cases in the U.S. and with Private Gray’s case in particular, eliminates the critical causal link between crime and punishment inherent in any effective deterrent.

Executing less than one person in the military every forty-seven years dramatically undercuts any attempt to argue for the consistency of imposing capital punishment within the military. The interval since the last military execution is so long that even the means of execution is uncertain. The lack of consistency – regretfully, Private Gray and his five death row compatriots are not the only military members guilty of capital offenses in the last fifty years – means that military personnel weighing the pros and cons of committing a capital offense will view the potential consequences of their act as a gamble rather than as sure and certain. For individuals who find the idea of delayed gratification unfulfilling, this lack of consistency eviscerates any deterrent power that capital punishment might have. Furthermore, the lack of consistency also highlights our fundamentally unjust sentencing process. For example, Private Gray, like 59% of civilian federal inmates on death row, is a person of color.

Friendly fire casualties always have an immediate and adverse impact on the morale of those individuals and units responsible for the injuries or deaths. Fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has currently stretched the U.S. military thin and, in the opinion of some military analysts, severely degraded the military’s fighting capacity. Executing one private for crimes that occurred twenty years ago will do nothing to instill more pride, raise morale, or improve warfighting capacity. Many in the U.S. military, many U.S. civilians, and much of the global community will regard Private Gray’s execution as inappropriate redress for the crimes he committed. If the U.S. military and civilian society felt more positively about the death penalty, both the military and civilian society would execute more people convicted of capital crimes with fewer delays. The crimes to which Private Gray has admitted and for which courts have convicted him are horrendous. Nevertheless, killing him will not undo the pain he caused, restore the dead to life, reconcile those he estranged, or atone for any wrong. Instead, Private Gray’s execution, if it happens, will represent one more, unnecessary, pointless, and avoidable death.

Private Gray is certainly not a Christ-figure. Like the two criminals whom Scripture portrays as crucified alongside Jesus, Private Gray has admitted to committing multiple crimes. Yet he remains our neighbor and a child of God. Nothing that a person can do places him or her beyond the pale of God’s love.

I cannot imagine Jesus as Private Gray’s executioner. Nor can I imagine Jesus rejoicing at anyone’s death, be the person saint or sinner. I can imagine Jesus offering Ronald Gray forgiveness, healing, and new life. I can imagine Jesus encouraging us to keep Ronald Gray in our prayers and to incarcerate him until we can safely welcome him back into society. I can imagine Jesus writing in the dirt, telling us that the one without sin is the only one who should execute another, and then compassionately looking each person tempted to kill this child of God, in the eyes.

In important respects, deaths from friendly fire and capital punishment represent different moral phenomena. What links the two concepts is that each is a killing that serves no purpose. Neither friendly fire nor capital punishment does anything to make our world a safer, better place. Pretending otherwise – covering up the truth – only increases the amount of pain in the world. With so much pain and brokenness already in the world, we who claim to walk in Jesus’ footsteps need to seize every opportunity to end pointless killing, an achievable goal at least in the case of Private Ronald Gray.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

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