Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 13th, 2010
Yesterday I spoke about the Wikileaks video (see below) with someone who’s actually been to Iraq as a journalist to cover the war.
An engagement with wannabes?
I asked him about what I thought was the “breathtakingly nonchalant” way the group of Iraqis handled themselves — walking in the open, ignoring nearby helicopters, standing about in a tightly bunched group. He essentially said yeah, insurgents aren’t necessarily very good at any of this. Also, in Baghdad at that time, helicopters were always flying around — and could stand off far from their targets while still observing them. So it’s conceivable even an insurgent group with bad intent would ignore ones that weren’t in the immediate vicinity. I have to say I still find the Iraqi group’s behavior implausible for insurgents, but maybe it squares with bravado, a gambler’s misjudgement, and/or lack of experience.
When I asked why so few weapons — an RPG and a couple of AK-47s, among the dozen or so dead Iraqis from the first attack — he suggested that the unarmed ones were hangers-on: gophers or wannabes for the two or three full-fledged “bazaari” local tough guy/insurgent types among the group. While unarmed, they could still have been potential support (what kind, we didn’t discuss) for the armed members of the group. He said when he was in Baghdad and visited a neighborhood to do some reporting, men standing around would immediately make a call on their cellphone — and he then knew he had only 10 or 15 minutes of relative safety before he might be kidnapped. The cell phone wielding support people were the kind of people he could see accompanying a few armed insurgents on a mission.
When I suggested the group might have been a neighborhood escort for the journalists, he demurred; at least in his organization, and he strongly assumed in Reuters as well, journalists were told to put as much distance between themselves and armed Iraqis as possible, precisely because of the risk that they would become a target for U.S. forces. On the other hand, while he couldn’t explain why the Reuters people were with the group, he thought it very unlikely they were secret insurgents themselves — news agencies in Baghdad vet their Iraqi employees too well for that at this point in the war.
Lest the impression arise that he was blase about the video, he wasn’t — but he thought the missile strikes (not discussed below) were the most troubling aspect of the video, because clearly passersby were in the immediate vicinity at the time the missile hit the abandoned building under construction.
I’m not sure how much differently the “wannabe” scenario can be judged from the one I developed. I accept the journalist’s word for it that even a lightly armed, relatively incompetent group of Iraqis might still arouse legitimate suspicion. But at the end of the day, even “wannabes” are just that: potential but not actual fighters. And even the ones with weapons never fired a shot or threatened to. Both the request and permission to engage came before the single threatening, but misunderstood action happened: the photographer pointing his telephoto lens around a corner, and the helicopter crew mistaking that for an RPG launcher.
Shades of dark gray
I think each of the actions in the video was questionable – most of all, the van, but also the missile firings, and “even” the initial attack that killed the two Reuters journalists. But I don’t want to vilify or overly criticize the American troops involved, that’s not the point.
The point is that it’s really on the American people and American political leaders that those troops were there in the first place. In the front lines and toughest neighborhoods of a counterinsurgency war, troops will be in a position where “kill them all, let God sort it out” is or can seem to be a matter of survival. It’s apparently also broadly compatible with “rules of engagement” that look strict, but have fudge/weasel words like “reasonable” that mean even very dark shades of gray – in some situations in the video, practically black — aren’t out of bounds.
There’s a car in my neighborhood with a bumper sticker I like: “I’m already against the next war.” We shouldn’t even be building up a military designed for counterinsurgency wars, much less using it in such wars. It’s as if we’re ancient Rome and the Middle East and Third World are the barbarians to be subdued. Those troops in the video may have crossed lines, but the main line that was crossed was sending them there in the first place; we have no right to seek out such wars and put our soldiers in them.
I think everyone in the US should watch that video a few times. They may start out jingoistic, and they may end up that way too. But they may not. And at least they’ll know what they’re calling for when ‘the next war’ rolls around.