Avoiding Friendly Fire

Some years ago I remember watching a movie. It was set in Iowa during one of the wars. The opening scene showed a car approaching a house. Inside the house a woman was doing chores. As the car got closer, she recognized the type of car it was, and in her horror she dropped a plate. The car turned into her driveway, and out of it emerged two military officials. While no words needed to be said, it was necessary for them to officially announce that one of her sons had died in battle.

At some point in the story, they had to tell her how her son died. It would have been more palatable had he died trying to save his fellow soldiers, or if he were part of an offensive that helped advance the cause of the war. However, what made this story the hardest to take was the fact that he was killed by friendly fire.

For those unfamiliar, “friendly fire” is when a soldier is killed, not by an enemy, but by someone on their own side.

Steven Elliot was an Army Ranger who served faithfully in Afghanistan. In his words,  “I am a God-fearing man who served and loves his country, wife and young daughters. But I, Steven Elliot, may have shot another man dead”. Steven would have just been another soldier, had the subject of his anguish not been a national icon. Pat Tillman was a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals, and gave it all up to enlist in the military after the 9/11 attack. Tillman gave his life on the battlefield, but not to the enemy – he was the victim of friendly fire, and Steven Elliot believes he may be the source.

Heartbreaking stories all by themselves, but exacerbated by the fact that it was by the hand of a family member, a friend, a colleague, a trusted companion. Had it been an act of betrayal, it would be one thing, but those that caused the tragedy did so, not out of malice, not out of hatred, but out of their own sense of duty and based on the information they had at the time. Story after story tells of missed coordinates, mistaken identities, crossed communication, where people trained for battle did what they were trained to do, but only when the smoke cleared did they find that it was their own colleague laying dead.

Mike Fish interviewed Elliot about the events surrounding Tillman’s death, and Elliot described the guilt he carried, more than 10 years after the incident, over the possibility that he might be the cause of Tillman’s death. Friendly fire is not friendly to anyone.

Over the past few years I have seen friends, family, colleagues and trusted companions engaging in what they believe is the right thing for them, their family, and their country. The rhetoric and information flies as fast as bullets, but when the smoke clears, it’s not the “enemy” that is routed – story after story of friendly fire are occupying our relationships. I have watched people who shared common faith, common relationships, common histories come away from their conflicts with the proverbial blood of their trusted companion on their hands. I spoke with a pastor recently who has felt the sting of friendly fire, where people are saying “how could I go to a church where people believe that way (and “that way” had nothing to do with religious belief… )?

The real heartbreaking thing though, is that we are so engaged in daily battles that we don’t have the time to consider that we may be doing harm to someone that we love, respect and admire, or to the priceless relationships we have with them. We have to figure out how to minimize the political and social friendly fire that happens on a daily basis and get back to supporting each other against real foes.

While I have never been in the military, I do have a military son, so I am a little familiar with safety checks that occur before a round is fired. Safety checks do not eliminate friendly fire, but they do minimize the possibility of causing damage to your own. In similar fashion when it comes to our engaging with each other over “life stuff”, there are five “knows” that will minimize damage to relationships:

  1. Know Your Enemy – The Apostle Paul said, for we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Some have confused the spiritual forces of evil as belonging to a particular political party – I am here to assure you that evil is much bigger than that. Chris Rock put it plainly: “Everyone is so busy wanting to be down with a gang – I’m a conservative… I’m a liberal… BE A PERSON!” (Yes, I edited it… it is Chris Rock, you know 😉 ). When I was a kid, my family moved into a new neighborhood, and we were the only black family on the block. One family tried to convince the rest of the neighbors that we were the enemy. I was 10… I was too young to be anybody’s enemy. That family caused a number of others to move away before they got the chance to know us. The rest of the neighbors found out that we were a good family, and we maintained good relationships for generations.
  2. Know What Is At Stake – For the sake of “being right”, what might we possibly lose? Or worse, who might we lose? Whose respect might be lost because they see us more focused on an external ideal than on valuing others? What reputation will we gain by being so focused on a political worldview that is handed down without question by people that don’t live like us? Who is more important to us, and what happens if we lose them? I have friends that have very different beliefs than me. Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with a Buddhist monk and discuss the differences between Christianity and Buddhism – and we are still friends to this day, because we valued each other in the conversation.
  3. Know Those In Your Company – Not just their name, but them. Not just an aspect about them, but who they really are. Over the years there has been a big fight about gays in the military – why? Because the heterosexual men and women (mostly men… let’s be real) assumed what the gay and lesbian troops were all about, even though they said they only wanted to serve their country just like anyone else. A couple weeks ago, I met a man in the store who proudly told me he was 92 years old (he looked 75, so I guess he had reason to be proud 🙂 ). He also proudly told me he was a drill sergeant when the military integrated racially. It was not an easy thing, but he focused on one thing: making soldiers. While others were looking at external appearance, he got to know the individuals so he could make of them the type of people that he could trust in the foxhole.
  4. Know The Tactics of The Enemy – The enemy uses things like “divide and conquer”, “false propaganda”, “sow discord and distrust”. I can fight you and I might win, but if I get you to fight each other, I am sure to win. In the foxhole, we may look different, talk different, even like different football teams, but in that time we are, and have to be, one. I need you – all of you to support me – all of me, and visa versa. We don’t have time to allow things outside us to divide us. We have to know what binds us together, for that is what will keep us (and our relationships) alive.
  5. Know Your Words – In Proverbs it says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits (Proverbs 18:21) . I like the last part of the verse, because it is rife with meaning:
    1. Those who love the tongue – who value the power of their words and treat their tongue with respect and honor – will eat the fruits of the positive that they say
    2. Those that love life and demonstrate it by what they say will eat the fruits of all that life has to offer
    3. Those that love death and demonstrate it by being enemy to others, by sowing discord and hatred, will eat the fruits of death

To say it bluntly, each of us is much more than an ideology. We are much more than a political machine. We are all important, we are all unique and special. We are all the “Pat Tillman” to those around us – heroes, superstars, beloved sons and daughters, influencing fathers and mothers. We are all engaged in this thing called life where we want the best for those around us. I think we can all agree on that. So before we get engaged in the battle, let’s take the time to do our safety checks, to clear the lines of communication, and ensure that we know those on our team (and I have to say it… just because someone is a liberal, doesn’t mean they are not on the team of a conservative, and visa versa). Let’s minimize the damage that occurs due to friendly fire, and get back to really being one great diverse nation.

Mike Fish is a Senior Writer for ESPN, and had the privilege of interviewing Steven Elliot in 2014. Click here to read the full article. 

Portland, OR, USA

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