“You Are Well Clear of Friendlies”: Diagnostic Error and Cooperative Work in an Iraq War Friendly Fire Incident
This paper considers diagnostic error in cooperative work as a contributing factor for a military ‘friendly fire’ incident. It emphasises aspects of the moment-to-moment sequential organisation of interaction, and turn design, to explore the significance for the error of a loss of intersubjectivity and joint understanding. The paper uses as data the cockpit video recording from a US Air Force aircraft that fired on a British armoured vehicle convoy in March 2003, in the early days of the Iraq War. The analytic approach is grounded in concerns of ethnomethodology (EM) and conversation analysis (CA) for uncovering the language, practices and processes of reasoning by which people accomplish social actions, particularly for conducting cooperative work. The paper highlights the impact for the participants’ perception, understanding and action of varying forms of participation, for example as speaker, addressed recipient, or as potential overhearing non-addressed recipient, and relative to participants’ involvement in the task at hand, and to their possibilities for accessing relevant phenomena (i.e. the vehicles and their visible features). Diagnosis in cooperative work demands that participants act relative to one another’s diverse perspectives and representations of the scene and its objects and events. Diagnosis requires participants to manage situations of ambiguity and uncertainty, and to resolve apparent conflicts of understanding and perceptual evidence. The paper examines the social character of diagnostic work by showing how processes of cooperation can be vulnerable and ultimately go wrong, particularly when multiple participants are physically distributed and interaction is mediated by communication technologies such as radio.