Agatha Dyer, the mother of one of four Canadian soldiers killed by a U.S. bomb in a "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan, remembers the night it happened. She had heard something on the news about a bomb being dropped, about Canadians on the ground being killed. She said a prayer for those who were hit and kept going.
"When I heard the news, I said, 'Oh, well, it's a lot of soldiers there,' " she said. "But I had a bad feeling in my stomach, a bad feeling."
Then the phone rang. It was 2 a.m. Phones ringing at that time of night often carry bad news. It was Paul, her ex-husband. "He said, 'Ainsworth is dead.' I said, 'Paul, how do you know that?' He said, 'The officer just left my house.' "
That night officers in several communities across Canada made the rounds with bad news, and screams filled the houses. Four Canadian soldiers had died and eight had been wounded.
For the past two weeks, military lawyers have been holding hearings at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to determine whether two pilots charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault in connection with the bombing will be court-martialed. The commander of the U.S. 8th Air Force will decide whether there is enough evidence to proceed against the pilots.
On Thursday, the pilots took the witness stand and read apologies. "My heart goes out to the families of the men killed and injured in what can only be described as a tragic accident in the fog of war," said Maj. Harry Schmidt, in part.
Maj. William Umbach said: "Since the 17th of April, not a day has passed that I have not thought of that night, in the sky, in the darkness, and what has happened since. I deeply regret that this terrible, tragic accident occurred."
On Friday, the families went home to wait for the decision.
"I still pray," said Dyer. "I hope his soul is at rest. I know he's in heaven."
The hearings have ended, but in Canada, people continue to pore over what came out in them, searching through what was said and what was not, testimony on the stand and off, looking into the faces of the pilots as they apologized, looking for signs of whether they were really sorry, so sorry that they too could feel pain.
Here, nine months after the night of April 17, when the bomb fell, the wounds have not healed. Did Umbach mean it when he said he was sorry? Was Schmidt the more contrite? Were they saying they were sorry only for legal reasons?
"If military men can be said to beg, they did," said a headline in Friday's National Post newspaper. "Umbach wins more sympathy than Schmidt," said another.
Some Canadians wonder whether Americans understand that Canada is not accustomed to this kind of tragedy. Canada is a peacekeeping country. Its soldiers supervise cease-fires in hot spots all over the world.
The four Canadian fatalities -- Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, Pvt. Nathan Smith, Pvt. Richard A. Green and Sgt. Marc D. Leger -- were the first Canadian soldiers killed in a combat zone since the Korean War a half-century ago.
Daniel Drache, director of the Robarts Center for Canadian Studies at York University in Toronto, said Canadians do not seek vengeance. "There is no sense that it is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, so it's very Canadian," he said. "The feeling is not one of vindictiveness, but there is a feeling there has been a wrong, and there is a feeling of a need for justice."
Many Canadians watched the hearings with mixed emotions. "People who are opposed to war would probably think it was a catastrophe Canadian troops were killed," said Frank Harvey, a professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "Critics of the war would use that as a case for why we should not have been involved. Supporters would say now is the time the [Canadian] military should be given more money to do the job.
Those in Canada watching the case say they don't believe the pilots were charged as a result of Canadian pressure, but because the United States needs to appease its allies, especially as it prepares for possible war in Iraq.
"Obviously," Harvey said, "the Defense Department wants to be absolutely sure that the message is sent out that they don't have pilots that are bombing anything they see on the ground. They want to make sure allies are not concerned that they are not safe working with the Americans in military operations."
Peter Worthington, a columnist for the Toronto Sun, wrote: "The reality is that the U.S. military, God bless it, is prone to shooting up their allies or themselves. Traditionally, they are quick on the trigger."
Still, Worthington wrote that he was not sure he believed the pilots: "When [Schmidt] claims ground fire was being directed at his aircraft, he inadvertently maligns the professionalism of Canadian soldiers, who may be sadly and criminally lacking in equipment, but are decently trained and know their job."
He wrote that Canadian soldiers wouldn't shoot at a U.S. plane, that the Taliban and al Qaeda have no aircraft and that "the Taliban around Kandahar," where the accident occurred, have neither missiles nor anti-aircraft weapons.
But, he wrote, "I don't think Schmidt and Umbach should go to jail -- such a sentence would be a travesty. But if it's true they were not told of the Canadian live-firing exercise, it reveals a flaw in the system that won't be corrected if the issue is clouded that somehow the bombing was forgivable and the Canadians somehow at fault."
Many Canadians feel sympathy for the U.S. pilots. "There is not a national outpouring of condemnation or judgment on the subject," said David Lightburn, director of external affairs at the Pearson Peacekeeping Center in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. "I think people are pleased there is some sort of deep investigative process and at the end of the day, we have faith in the system that will pass judgment whether this was a personal error or indeed a very tragic accident that could not be prevented."
Three Canadian veterans of World War II watched the hearings this week with contained emotion. The Afghan incident brought back memories of Canadian units being mistakenly bombed in these men's war. Then, there were no hearings. The view was that some things are inevitable in war, they said.
"Based on the reports, I have to pull a big blank," said Mac Roulston, 85. "Well, this is something that happens, especially at night. They were told to hold fire and not let bombs go. Well, that didn't happen."
Al Armstrong, 77, said that when he heard about the incident in Afghanistan, "I thought, these things happen in war. . . . All the media is doing is playing it up and confusing people. During our war, if they convicted everyone who made an error, there wouldn't be anybody else [left]. I was charged with shooting a civilian. It was an accident."
Sitting beside Don Jacobs, a 79-year-old veteran, Armstrong recalled an incident in which two men in his unit died. "They went beyond the lines, and because they didn't know the password, they were shot. One fellow killed his best friend."
In World War II, the Americans bombed his regiment by accident, Armstrong said. "In defense of the Americans, there was reason why they bombed our people. The bombers would mark an area with flares. But the Germans would move the markers over to our lines. Some guy a couple miles up in a bomber would drop the bombs. . . . Today, they call it friendly fire. In my opinion, there are no such things as friendly fire. All fire is deadly."
The veterans said they sympathized with the pilots and the victims' families. "We all feel bad about the loss of the four men," Armstrong said. "It's bad enough dying through the enemy. But dying through a friend is something else."