Watching the 15-minute cockpit video that was classified by the U.S. military for almost four years, until it was leaked and published Tuesday by The Sun newspaper, is like watching a Greek tragedy unfold.
Knowing that British Lance Cpl. Matty Hull is about to become an early casualty in the war in Iraq, at the hands of two seasoned U.S. fighter pilots, is almost unbearable to witness.
In hindsight, the stops and starts of conversation between the pilots and their ground controllers near Basra, in southern Iraq, sound so confused; so flip, dude; so full of misjudgments, and lethal mistakes.
Media field day
The British press has had a field day, calling the tape proof of how clumsy and amateur the American military really is. How they've always hidden behind the "fog of war" and never learned the lessons of the Gulf War -- when nine British "friendlies" were killed by U.S. air attacks.
Tom Newton Dunn, defense editor for The Sun newspaper, proudly counted at least six basic safety procedures that were broken by the U.S. pilots (even though a joint U.S.-U.K. military investigation back in 2003 concluded that the pilots had followed the proper rules of engagement).
On Tuesday, Dunn sounded like a man on a mission, accomplished: ''I think the [British] Ministry of Defense would be delighted that we've done this.... The Americans claim that [the video] is confidential and contains secret material. I think they are protecting their servicemen from legal action and embarrassment.''
There were angry British voices, mostly from the media, who were pushing for a criminal case -- even a verdict of "unlawful killing"-- against the U.S. pilots, already cleared of any wrongdoing back in 2003.
Others, though, were more cautious. Former British army Col. Bob Stewart, a veteran of the Gulf War and Bosnia, said the tape clearly showed that the U.S. pilots were "not to blame." He said the tape illustrated just how foggy the fog of war truly is.
''They were asking for assistance, they were reassured that there were no British forces and they attacked in accordance and they were devastated.'' Stewart went on to say that the pilots had already paid a heavy price, having to live, every day, with the guilt of their tragic mistake.
Still, around many water coolers in many British newsrooms, colleagues were reported to be almost gleeful about the Americans -- finally -- getting their just desserts.
Eerily reminiscent of another 'fog of war' incident
Personally, I recalled another tragedy. Only days after the Basra incident, on a bridge in central Baghdad, another war-hardened U.S. soldier was about to give an order he would regret forever.
Capt. Paul Wolford led his 3rd Infantry Division tank company and captured the Republican Palace grounds we now call the "Green Zone" in Baghdad. One of the most impressive commanders under fire I've ever seen, Wolford mistakenly took a glint from a building, some 1,200 yards away, to be an enemy Fedayeen soldier acting as a "forward observer" guiding insurgent rockets his way.
But the building turned out to be the Palestine Hotel -- a "haven" for international journalists. And the glint came, in fact, from the lens of a news camera. Two journalists were killed by the tank blast.
Wolford, when asked, has always denied knowing that the Palestine was "friendly" and "off-limits." He told me, three years later, that if he could have one moment back in his life, it would be that one.
Why didn't his chain of command know about the hotel? Why didn't the ground controller, down in Basra, know about the British friendlies? It's the fog of war, of course. It's what makes war the ugly, imprecise and unjust endeavor that anyone who makes it -- or covers it -- will tell you it is.
If you listen carefully to the cockpit audio in the Hull incident, you hear colliding voices, crackling, breaking up, stepping on one another. And the very real possibility that the pilots were talking about one "target" below, while the ground controllers were referring to another. The fog of war.
Interestingly, here in Britain, one of the rare positive reactions today came from Susan Hull, the lance corporal's widow. She said she was relieved and glad that the video was now out in the public. She would have liked to have heard from the U.S. pilots themselves, she said, but the emergence of the long-awaited video was reason "not to give up hope."
This sounds more like a military wife who understands the fog of war, simply out to know the truth behind it, however painful.