Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 11th, 2010
On Monday, the online whistleblower site Wikileaks.org released
…a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff. [...] The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-site, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded.
The video is provided at a separate address, collateralmurder.com, along with a timeline, photos, resources such as relevant military policy documents, and a transcript of the talk within the helicopter and radio traffic with other units on the ground and in the air.
The video below is the so-called “full,” 39 minute version.* Even when zoomed, the grainy black and white view — one of the views the helicopter personnel relied on — is such that individuals on the ground can’t be easily distinguished from eachother. Perhaps crucially, it’s also nearly impossible to distinguish a telephoto lens from an RPG (rocket propelled grenade launcher), when its cameraman is carefully pointing it around a corner to photograph an arriving American ground unit. But the visual quality is still high enough for a nauseating impression of the carnage high-caliber machine gun fire can wreak.
My view after watching it, looking at official reports (published by the Pentagon at a dedicated site in the wake of the leak), and reading online reactions by military personnel, was that a tragedy was followed by wrongdoing — wrongdoing even in the context of combat in Baghdad, July 12, 2007.
References in this posting to actions in this video will give the approximate video time,
by adding 25 seconds to the time given in the transcript. Currently, that transcript fails
to account for the Wikileaks.org introduction.
The first attack
To me, a military engagement means a situation where both sides are shooting at each other. That didn’t happen here. Indeed, one of the disquieting aspects of the first attack is how quickly the option of engaging the Iraqis came up, given how little effort the alleged insurgents made to avoid harm, let alone cause any.
If the group (besides the two Reuters employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh) really was composed of active insurgents, they were breathtakingly nonchalant about it: sauntering down the middle of a street; a total of maybe three or four AK-47s and one RPG among a group of a dozen or so (what are the rest of the men there for then?); the men standing around and bunched together in their final moments, in plain view of two deadly American helicopters. ** “Positive identification” (PID) is a fundamental prequisite to engagement; identification here seemed to be quite a lot less than positive.
Herewith the obligatory, necessary caveats: I’m sitting here in the proverbial comforts of my home watching this three years later, and without benefit of combat experience. But it seems to me this wasn’t a group of insurgents, this was a lightly armed (by reputed Baghdad standards) neighborhood escort for the photographers. But in the context of ongoing fighting, and the fateful glimpse of the Reuters photographer pointing his telephoto around a corner [2:34], I can see how the helicopter crew would conclude once and for all that these were ‘bad guys’ pointing an RPG at their fellow soldiers on the ground. Fine — except that the request and permission to engage preceded the telephoto/RPG mixup [2:08, 2:16].
And the “engagement” came.
That tragedy was compounded by what came next: a van appeared some minutes later [7:32] and two men got out to try to help one crawling, badly wounded survivor. Judging by the audio feed, the helicopter crew(s) then seemed to lose track of their own rules of engagement. Note the claims about weapons leading up to the van’s appearance (emphases added):
06:58 Come on, buddy. 07:03 All you gotta do is pick up a weapon. 07:09 Crazyhorse this is Bushmaster Five, Bushmaster Four break. We are right below you right time now can you walk us onto that location over. 07:19 This is Two-Six roger. I’ll pop flares [drop flares]. We also have one individual moving. We’re looking for weapons. If we see a weapon, we’re gonna engage. 07:32 Yeah Bushmaster, we have a van that’s approaching and picking up the bodies.
I.e., if the wounded man picks up a weapon, he could be shot; watching this man crawl slowly down the sidewalk, this seems a stretch to me, but what do I know. At any rate, he didn’t — and no wonder, the video shows clearly that there weren’t any to pick up in his vicinity. But when the van arrived, the story changes — and so did the rules (again, emphases added):
07:43 Bushmaster; Crazyhorse. We have individuals going to the scene, looks like possibly uh picking up bodies and weapons. 07:50 Let me engage. 07:53 Can I shoot? 07:56 Roger. Break. Uh Crazyhorse One-Eight request permission to uh engage. 08:01 Picking up the wounded? 08:03 Yeah, we’re trying to get permission to engage. 08:06 Come on, let us shoot! 08:09 Bushmaster; Crazyhorse One-Eight. 08:14 They’re taking him. 08:16 Bushmaster; Crazyhorse One-Eight. 08:21 This is Bushmaster Seven, go ahead. 08:24 Roger. We have a black SUV-uh Bongo truck [van] picking up the bodies. Request permission to engage. 08:27 Fuck. 08:31 This is Bushmaster Seven, roger. This is Bushmaster Seven, roger. Engage.
Now it’s as if the wounded man is the weapon his rescuers had better not pick up. But they do.
Whatever the “rules of engagement” were at that time, the helicopter crew and headquarters were either changing them on the fly here, or misleading themselves and headquarters about what they were seeing. They seemed to assume the van was summoned there by the wounded man or someone else, or was part of the insurgent attack they believed they had foiled.
Nevertheless, the crew sought permission to engage the rescuers of a wounded man even though they refrained from firing at that man earlier because he didn’t pick up a weapon. Neither did the rescuers, yet they were about to die anyway.*** Just as bad, headquarters gave permission to engage based only on hearing that the van was “picking up the bodies.” And for this, the rescuers (and the wounded man) were killed.
To the crew’s dismay, it turned out that two children were also in the van; incredibly, they survived, but were badly hurt and were evacuated by ground troops minutes later.
Andrew Sullivan got a lot of informed comment from military and ex-military readers on this incident — and even they didn’t agree whether or not Wikileaks.org had published evidence of a war crime. For example, one reader — a soldier on active duty in south Baghdad — wrote:
…Try to imagine watching the video WITHOUT the giant textual labels stating who each of the men are, or without the prior knowledge that two of the men are journalists and they’re carrying massive camera equipment, or without the selectively enlarged segments near the end of the video that the pilots never had access to. [...]
I won’t speak as to why they fired on the van after the initial attack. They were cleared by the ground commander after accurately conveying what was going on over the radio, and I don’t have a comprehensive enough understanding of the Law of Land Warfare. I must say that my stomach turned watching the video at the tragic misunderstanding of it all, and the residual questions about what I would have done have kept me awake for hours now. If there is one act that this video validates an investigation beyond what’s already been conducted, firing on the van would be it.
Another (USAF air-to-air, air-to-ground) wrote:
The initial engagement probably fit very narrowly under the rules of engagement (ROE) during that time period in Iraq. But not the second. [...] Once a downed enemy is being assisted, Red Cross or not, in a non-military vehicle that poses no threat, then engagement is a pretty strong violation of whatever ROE is in place, and a moral code of soldiers. There was no evidence in the video – or from the Army in response to this event – that indicates these were combatants who had been tailed from a firefight and targeted.
…this — all of it — was simply gratuitous and the killing of the wounded journalist and the shooting up of the minivan trying to pick him up to save his life went beyond gratuitous and was just plain sadistic murder.
The active duty soldier referred to rules of engagement (“ROE”s) “state 51% certainty that the individual represent a threat to you or another US Soldier.” Judging by ROEs also published by Wikileaks.org, this may be how “reasonable certainty” is defined operationally. From an April, 2007 ROE reference card (emphasis in original):
1. You may engage the following individuals based on their conduct:
a. Persons who are committing hostile acts against CF. [Coalition Forces? - ed.]
b. Persons who are exhibiting hostile intent towards CF.
2. These persons may be engaged subject to the following instructions:
a. Positive Identification (PID) is required prior to engagement. PID is a reasonable certainty that the proposed target is a legitimate military target. If no PID, contact you next higher commander for a decision.
b. Use Graduated Measures of Force. When time and circumstance permit, use the following degrees of graduated force when responding to hostile act/intent: (1) shout verbal warnings to halt; (2) show your weapon and demonstrate intent to use it; (3) block access or detain; (4) fire a warning shot; (5) shoot to eliminate threat.
c. Do not target or strike anyone who has surrendered or is out of combat due to sickness or wounds. [...]
Likewise, a more detailed August, 2007 ROE document states:
3.A.2.(b) Distinction. All personnel must ensure that, prior to any engagement, non-hostile forces and civilian structures are distinguished from military objectives.
(d) Positive Identification. Positive Identification (PID) of all targets is required prior to engagement. PID is a reasonable certainty that the individual or object of attack is a military objective in acordance with thes ROE.
The difficulty is that even when troops are taught these rules and internalize them, the rules are elastic enough to either cover a lot of what happened — or prohibit it. The van appears to be very problematic regardless (in this context, note also that warning shots could have been fired, but weren’t. The initial engagement is not an easy call, though I’d argue permission was given prematurely. But it may“fit very narrowly”, as the USAF veteran puts it, within the parameters of the ROE — if positive identification is conceded.
And the standards for that appeared to be: Iraqi; military age male; in the vicinity of a weapon. In the field, the judgment of troops interviewed whether they thought any noncombatants were among the victims was unanimous: we found some weapons, the dead all looked alike, therefore we saw nothing to suggest anyone but the children was a non-combatant.**** One investigating officer went further (emph. added): “Lastly, there was no information leading anyone to believe or even suspect that noncombatants were in the area.“ New Baghdad District of Baghdad: wall to wall combatants.
As far as I can tell, that was that. The officer involved made some recommendations about how to avoid shooting journalists in the future, but didn’t find wrongdoing in any aspect of the incident.
Everything was OK. Everything was by the book.
A misbegotten war begets misbegotten engagements
As Glenn Greenwald pointed out,
The WikiLeaks video is not an indictment of the individual soldiers involved — at least not primarily. Of course those who aren’t accustomed to such sentiments are shocked by the callous and sadistic satisfaction those soldiers seem to take in slaughtering those whom they perceive as The Enemy (even when unarmed and crawling on the ground with mortal wounds), but this is what they’re taught and trained and told to do. If you take even well-intentioned, young soldiers and stick them in the middle of a dangerous war zone for years and train them to think and act this way, this will inevitably be the result. The video is an indictment of the U.S. government and the war policies it pursues.
And who’s to blame for that? Bush, Cheney, and their war drum party certainly started the war, so they get a heaping share of the blame for the July 12, 2007 tragedy.
July 2007 was during the “surge” — Bush’s effort to salvage the Iraq war by increasing troop levels in Baghdad and providing (wait for it) “security” to Baghdad’s inhabitants from sectarian violence. And despite regaining control of the House in a 2006 election widely seen by voters and Democratic leadership alike as a referendum on Iraq, Democrats went along with that surge, instead of beginning a pullout. So Democratic leadership also gets to share the blame for the deaths of Namir, Saeed, and the others that day.
The American people, too, need to take credit for that shot up van, those two wounded kids, and the unnecessary deaths in that video — and, no doubt, in hundreds of similar occurrences through the years of the Iraq War. For we have displayed a unique gift for not caring to know about what’s being done in our names, and for hiding from the consequences of the rush to war too many of us supported in early 2003.
I get my own small, special share. While I opposed both the war and the surge by 2007, I didn’t oppose the war when it started, having reversed myself by penning a suitably agonized, but nevertheless wrong and occasionally callous set of arguments in its favor. I’m particularly not proud of the sentiment “come what may.”
What not just may come, but will come — and will come very, very often in a counterinsurgency war — are events like this one: brutalized soldiers, weary of being in harm’s way, take the most convenient view possible of the rules of engagement, blow away a lot of innocent people, and are backed up by higher command, who successfully keep the story out of the news for years.
In a regrettable post (titled “Our Troops Are The Good Guys. Some ‘Liberals’ Hate That”) Oliver Willis completely missed Greenwald’s point in claiming liberals like Greenwald “buy into the caricature of America’s soldiers as bloodthirsty savages who kill for the heck of it.” Willis continued, “Greenwald insists that things like killing of Iraqi civilians in the Wikileaks video and Abu Ghraib are just standard operating procedure for American soldiers, and not aberrations from the norm.”
Willis seems not to understand that he’s said two different things, or what standard operating procedures are, who writes them, who enforces and interprets them, and what that implies. For as Greenwald pointed out in a followup post, if an investigation found nothing objectionable in the events of July 12, 2007, then those events were indeed not an aberration at all. They were actions allowed to occur within a military framework that later even re-examined those actions — and still found them acceptable.
They were standard operating procedure.
* Gawker.com has pointed out there’s a gap in the “full” video (judging by the helicopter video’s own time monitor) — between the securing of the area by ground troops and a subsequent missile attack on a building thought to conceal insurgents — and charges Wikileaks.org edited out footage reflecting more favorably on the helicopter unit. Even if the charge were true, so what? The story isn’t about how the helicopter crew always do the wrong things, it’s about specific cases where they arguably did the wrong thing.
** I understand that Apache helicopters are designed to be relatively quiet, but they’re not invisible. It’s hard to believe the Iraqis didn’t see them, but we’ll never know.
*** In particular, the rescuers were wholly concerned with moving the wounded man from the sidewalk in the middle of the block — where there were definitely no weapons, as the crew’s prior restraint towards the crawling wounded man demonstrated. The rescuers made no moves towards the street corner (where weapons were later found and photographed).
**** The form DA-2823 itself does not ask whether there was reason to believe all the dead were actually combatants. Instead, it asks only (Q.6) whether the interviewee observed “anyone (dead or wounded) that you believed to be a noncombatant” (emph. added). One soldier replied, “No. I personally did not see any dead or wounded who were not military aged males.”