Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Collateral Murder

Double warning:
a) this video contains shocking footage of cold blooded killing
b) this post was written in anger and may not be the most 'nuanced'

So cool, calm and collected. This is business as usual in Iraq. It's all in a day's work. Only the extremely naive would think this is an isolated incident. This video, which was leaked (presumably by someone within the US Department of Defense) to Wikileaks shows the shocking reality of modern warfare. (The above is the shorted, annotated version of the video, the full 39 minute version is on their website)

Apparently after receiving some small weapons gunfire from the area, 2 Apache helicopter gunships surround a group of Iraqis walking in the street. Two of them appear to be carrying weapons, although not using them, and two of them are Reuters reporters, carrying large cameras. Minutes later the gunships have 'engaged' (killed) at least 6 of them, with one left crawling in the dust.

What's shocking is what happens next. As the injured man (the Reuters photographer) is crawling away, the pilots' are heard to wish for him to reach for a weapon so he can be 'engaged' (killed). It's as if they are clocking up points in a video game.

When a van pulls up to collect the injured man the Apache gunners request permission to 'engage' and, although those in the van are unarmed, are given permission. This is, of course, against the Geneva convention, and against any reasonable rules of engagement. They take out the van and half a dozen people with it. Only later does it become clear that there are two small children in the van, who are injured, but miraculously not killed (unlike their poor father).

The tone of the voices on the tape are revealing. This is no big deal. Nothing out of the ordinary. The pilots have become debased and dehumanised. Laughing and joking, they congratulate each other on their sharp shooting. 'Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.'... 'Nice'... They snigger as a dead body is run over by a tank (oh well, he was already dead, never mind). It's not their fault if children get injured, silly Iraqis bringing children into a battle zone.
Twenty minutes later and the chopper pilots are off onto their next job - unloading 3 'hellfire' missiles into an 'abandoned' apartment block, which it later transpires (according to Wikileaks) houses 3 families).

This is not an isolated incident. This is the nature of the war in Iraq. Of course, the US DoD have fought tooth and nail to stop this material being released. They resisted Reuters demand to have the material released under the Freedom of Information act. It is only down to the courage of a whistleblower and the tenacity of Wikileaks in decrypting the video that this has been made public.

A Defence Department investigation found that those responsible had done no wrong and acted in accordance with the rules of engagement. As Glenn Greenwald argues here this is the rule not the exception. Some reactions to the release of the video have tried to defend the actions of those involved on the basis that it was an easy mistake to make under the circumstances (mistaking a camera for a rocket launcher). This is to miss the point. The main problems are the attack on the van picking up the injured man, and the subsequent cover up.

This is what happens to have been caught on film and leaked. How much more must there be which is not caught on film. Or is caught on film but not released. How much more will appear on Wikileaks I wonder. Of course I don't have the whole story. Of course they are only following orders. They are just doing their job. It is business as usual. War is messy. These things happen. So it goes...

Can't help but think of Bruce Cockburn ... 'If I had a rocket launcher...'

Original Wikileaks page with full video and supporting documents.
Coverage in Guardian
Coverage in Independent
Coverage in Times
Coverage in New York Times
Coverage on BBC


AJ said...

if this is as it appears, it's atrocious.

Jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Of course we don't have the full picture, but see


where Josh Steiber, a member of the same Company -- Bravo Company 2-16, that was involved in this incident, confirms that it was not an unusual event.

Michael said...

Hello mate,
I realize this is an old post, but I just came across it, so I'll drop in my 2 pence. Thanks for sharing it.

First, the first casualty of war is the truth, which is why military leaders fight so hard to keep the truth from being revealed. While I'm not sure the Geneva convention was violated (doesn't it require aid vehicles to be clearly marked) it is morally reprehensible. The guys weren't walking around with firearms just having a laugh, but the damage to so many lives is heartbreaking and wrong.
Second, and the point I am most concerned about at the moment, is that the Obama admin is pretending to want to close Guatanamo and give fair trials to suspected terrorists, but is going about willy-nilly killing suspected terrorists without a trial or evidence using drones in Pakistan. Where is the outrage among the left, esp. the Jim Wallis crowd over this?
Lastly, though I generally don't overthink these things, you point out that the killers here acted like it was a video game. I wonder if our gruesome and more and more realistic games are not wounding players souls... and making things like this more likely in the process.

Jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Thanks Michael.

I'm not an expert on the Geneva convention, but article 50 includes the following

"In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.".

"The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character."

Your point on Obama is spot on. He needs to be called out on this stuff. He has been disappointing in this and many other respects. I enjoyed the following cartoon -


Totally agree about the video games thing. At the very least I'm sure they will reduce empathy in the players. I dread the day that William wants to play this stuff, which is bound to be sooner than I would like :(