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Consequences hit hard even in best-planned war

These have not been the best of times between the United States and Canada. Two months ago there was the international faux pas when Prime Minister Jean ChrŽtien's director of communications called President Bush 'a moron.' The woman Ñ Francoise Ducros Ñ resigned, but how bad is it when the Canadian prime minister has to assure the world that the U.S. president is 'not a moron at all'?

As bad as that exchange was, it was nothing compared to the friendly fire incident in Afghanistan last April in which American pilots killed four Canadians. This is a tragedy that will not go away.

Are you aware of how important our ally to the north is to this area? I recently met Roger Simmons, the Canadian consul general here in town, and he said, 'Forty percent of everything that goes through the Port of Portland is either destined for Canada or has come from Canada.' So with that in mind, I decided to ask a local vet more about the friendly fire incident.

In recent decades, John Wetteland has worked as a lawyer, a stand-up comic and a radio host. In a perfect world, he'd have his own late-night radio talk show, but he still seems relatively content. For one thing, he's no longer practicing law. For another, he's no longer in an artillery battery in the central highlands of Vietnam.

Even the landscape there was a surprise. Rather than the jungle he'd envisioned, this part of the country reminded him of Oregon.

One night he was ordered to go alone about 100 yards outside the camp perimeter to set up an aiming circle for the big howitzers. This was normally done on base, but the original perimeter had to be pulled back for tighter defenses.

Wetteland was out longer than expected, and the unit on guard duty that he had informed about his maneuvers went through the equivalent of a shift change.

Suddenly, the next group of soldiers started in on a 'mad minute' Ñ an exercise in which half the perimeter opens fire with machine guns and other weapons on automatic. It tests the equipment and also draws return fire from any enemy troops that may be creeping up on the camp.

Wetteland dived behind a 4- to 5-foot-high mound as tracers filled the sky around him with light and made the ground near him churn. He screamed on his land-line telephone for the shooting to stop. Remarkably, he survived without injury, which further solidified his reputation on the base for being lucky.

So what did he think about the Canadian incident?

Wetteland sighed and said: 'I felt really bad for those guys. I feel bad for everybody involved. It's torture for everybody. Obviously, these pilots got bad information, and they were encouraged to take amphetamines. É That clouds your judgment.'

He returned to the subject of his own friendly fire experience: 'It's a horrible feeling to think your life is going to be spent on a mistake. But it's inevitable in battle. Chaos is the defining characteristic.'

Suddenly, I saw friendly fire as a metaphor for the larger subject of unintended consequences. Especially when it comes to war. If President Bush hadn't used his political connections to avoid Vietnam, he might have learned more about them.

Or maybe he would have just gone to Canada.

Bill McDonald is a Portland writer and musician.