June 10, 2014
An Afghan police officer stands guard during a campaign rally in the Paghman district of Kabul, Afghanistan. Five American troops were killed in an apparent coalition airstrike in southern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, in one of the worst friendly fire incidents involving U.S. and coalition troops since the start of the war in 2001. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

The recent death of American forces in Afghanistan by what is called “friendly fire” invites a discussion of the meaning and history of that term. Should journalists use it as standard language for a certain kind of military accident? Should it be avoided as euphemism or propaganda, the way some writers avoid “collateral damage”?

What I’ve learned about the term comes from a variety of dictionaries, including the OED; an overview on Wikipedia; and a useful commentary from 2007 on the Language Log website by Ben Zimmer.

Let’s begin with the obvious elements of the phrase. Its appeal come from alliteration: the repetition of the “f” and “r” sounds in both words. The first word has two syllables, followed by a one syllable word. While the alliteration offers similarity, the two lengths suggest difference. That difference turns into a kind of ironic tension when we get to semantics: that violence directed at an enemy injures or kills those fighting for your side. You think you are shooting at your foes, but instead you hit your friends.

I can’t decide whether “friendly fire” falls into the category of euphemism or dysphemism. The first understates a reality (expire for die), the latter overstates it (take a dirt nap).

Zimmer identifies a citation for “friendly fire” that goes back as far as WWI and appeared in the New York Times on Oct. 18, 1918:

“When the infantry was advancing in a position exposed to cross fire he volunteered and carried a message to the advancing troops, informing them that a machine gun barrage laid down on the enemy emplacements was friendly fire from a unit not in their support and acting without orders to cover their advance.”

Other citations support the notion that the military used the word “friendly” to describe “allied personnel and materiel often for shells falling short,” a devastating consequence during a time of trench warfare.

Some other points for journalists using “friendly fire.”

  • It is used accurately only when it describes a force shooting at the enemy but hitting your own forces or allies.
  • It should not be used when an individual intentionally shoots at people from his own side. Such an action is sometimes called “fragging.”
  • It should not be used when a force aiming at an enemy kills or injures civilians. (That’s when the term “collateral damage” is often used, a euphemism of the kind George Orwell condemned in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”)
  • Wikipedia notes that NATO refers to “friendly fire” as “blue on blue,” because of the color that NATO forces wear during military exercises.
  • It turns out that “Friendly Fire” is the name of a military video game in which you can build a global military forces starting in your own backyard.
  • Lastly, it should not surprise us that such a term might be used metaphorically in a variety of non-military contexts. Leave it to the Urban Dictionary to roll out a definition of “friendly fire” with a sexual denotation.

Finally, I agree with Ben Zimmer’s assessment from 2007 that “friendly fire” has entered the mainstream of usage, with almost a century of reliable citations. The phrase does not require “scare quotes,” indicating that the audience should be alert to lies or propaganda. That said, there are certainly cases where military deaths have been attributed to the enemy, only later to be revealed to be “friendly fire.” The most well-known of these in recent times involves the death of former NFL football player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman.

As the narrative of what happened in Afghanistan plays out, we are likely to hear the term “friendly fire” from several directions. Hold on to the history and the distinctions drawn in this essay, and you’ll be on solid ground in both your reading and your writing.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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