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April 12, 2010

The WikiLeaks video

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I want to interrupt the series of posts on disbelieving priests to switch to politics, to comment on a shocking video that surfaced last week that some of you might have seen. To give you some background, on July 12, 2007 about a dozen Iraqis, including two journalists who worked for the Reuters news agency, were killed by the US military in a Baghdad suburb. The New York Times dutifully reported the military's version of the events.

The American military said in a statement late Thursday that 11 people had been killed: nine insurgents and two civilians. According to the statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed.

"There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad.

This event passed unnoticed since it seemed like just another routine battle taking place in a war zone. The only noteworthy item was that two journalists were among the dead, though since they were not American or western journalists, very few people in the US cared.

Two weeks after the attack, the US military privately showed Reuters officials some portions of a video taken from one of the attack helicopters but they refused to release the entire video of the incident despite repeated requests under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). The organization WikiLeaks, that is dedicated to the public releasing of information, obtained the video, decrypted it, and released it to the public. If you have not seen this video, you should, although it is very disturbing.

(The above is an edited 17-minute version. You can see the full unedited 37 minute video here. The White House has acknowledged that the video is genuine. The US military says, incredibly, that it can't find its own copy of the video.)

For those who cannot watch videos or cannot stomach people being gunned down, the video shows a group of men wandering around in an open courtyard, talking to each other and on their cell phones. They seemed unconcerned about a US military attack helicopter circling overhead. The gunner in the helicopter then unleashed a sudden deadly barrage of fire, killing and wounding almost everyone as they scurried for cover. When later a van comes along and tries to pick up the wounded, fire is unleashed again, killing yet more people and wounding two children who were in the van.

During it all, the people in the helicopter seem gleeful, chuckling over the deaths and congratulating each other, even audibly hoping that a crawling wounded man would make what could be interpreted as a hostile action so that they could shoot him again, laughing when a US military vehicle later went over a dead body, and even being dismissive when they discover that children had been among those shot in the van. A camera and telephoto lens carried by the photographer is mistaken by the gunner for a grenade launcher, a surprising error for trained soldiers to make.

As Dan Froomkin writes:

None of the members of the group were taking hostile action, contrary to the Pentagon's initial cover story; they were milling about on a street corner. One man was evidently carrying a gun, though that was and is hardly an uncommon occurrence in Baghdad.

Reporters working for WikiLeaks determined that the driver of the van was a good Samaritan on his way to take his small children to a tutoring session. He was killed and his two children were badly injured.

In the video, which Reuters has been asking to see since 2007, crew members can be heard celebrating their kills.

"Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards," says one crewman after multiple rounds of 30mm cannon fire left nearly a dozen bodies littering the street.

A crewman begs for permission to open fire on the van and its occupants, even though it has done nothing but stop to help the wounded: "Come on, let us shoot!"

Two crewmen share a laugh when a Bradley fighting vehicle runs over one of the corpses.

And after soldiers on the ground find two small children shot and bleeding in the van, one crewman can be heard saying: "Well, it's their fault bringing their kids to a battle."

The helicopter crew, which was patrolling an area that had been the scene of fierce fighting that morning, said they spotted weapons on members of the first group -- although the video shows one gun, at most. The crew also mistook a telephoto lens for a rocket-propelled grenade.

This video has been seen widely worldwide and as expected has caused outrage. But the US media, ever mindful of its role to hide the truth of war from Americans, has either ignored the story or has downplayed it or has blacked out the more disturbing images. Even when it has covered the story, it is as usual accompanied by the usual apologias, statements of regret, the world weary clichés of the 'fog of war', 'war is hell', etc. rolling smoothly over the tongue, by now repeated so often as to be almost unconscious. And of course portraying as naïve idealists those who think that even a legal war does not justify the murdering of people as they go about their lives.

Is it any wonder that Americans are always surprised when anti-American violence erupts around the world and are so easily persuaded that it must have irrational causes exemplified by fatuous statements such as that 'they hate us for our freedoms'?

POST SCRIPT: Julian Assange is interviewed on Al Jazeera

The Wikileaks editor talks about the video and other killings and why we can believe that the video is genuine.

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Comments

As chilling as that video is, the sad fact is that it's not unique. I have a friend who was a heavy-equipment operator in Iraq (and luckily didn't see combat) who said US soldiers would kill people on the flimsiest of suspicions.

Posted by Scott on April 12, 2010 03:43 PM

Mano,
While I don't condone the attack, which seemed to be unprovoked, I don't condemn the soldiers for their attitude, which I believe you have caricatured unfairly. It's true, they are making light of killing, but even good people must do that in order to cope with killing on a long term basis. If you empathize with every target, you can't be a good soldier for very long, and an enemy that can successfully dehumanize you will defeat you. This point is separate from the question of the legitimacy of the attack. Even in a "just war", it is a tragedy that we have to kill people, but soldiers have to put that aside in the heat of battle, and dehumanizing the enemy seems to be the best way to do that. The higher-ups, however, do not have that excuse, and must be able to bring compassion and empathy to bear on their decisions.
If you had to be a soldier for some reason, and had to kill people, how would you cope? Grieving over every kill, sobbing as you pulled the trigger? Numbing yourself like a zombie? Making light of it and dealing with it later in life? I'm not sure myself, but I think I would probably have to dehumanize the enemy to some extent, somehow...

Posted by Robert Allen on April 13, 2010 06:13 PM

Robert,

I am afraid I cannot agree.

While I can understand someone shooting an innocent person in the heat of a conflict, that is not the case here. The gunner in the helicopter was not in any danger and the people on the ground were just walking around openly. There was no reason for the shooting unless you think that anyone is fair game simply because they are Iraqi.

We tend to bend over backwards to be understanding of such things when it is done by "our" side and condemn it unreservedly when done by others. See here and compare it with the US reaction when the Russians shot down a Korean airliner.

I try to think how I would react if I or my family was at the receiving end. If the murdered cameraman was my relative, I would be furious. If US citizens had been killed in a similar manner by some foreign troops, do you think we would make similar excuses for the people who did the shooting?

Posted by Mano on April 14, 2010 12:20 PM

Mano,
I should have been more clear. I completely condemn the killings as unnecessary and unprovoked, and there's no excuse for them. I was trying to focus on the flippant attitudes of the soldiers on the radio. My point was that such attitudes may be a necessary coping mechanism for killing, whether the killing is justified or not. I am sure similar joking accompanies legitimate attacks as well. Therefore, it isn't fair to criticize these soldiers because of that.
However, if joking about killing is necessary to cope as a soldier, how can we expect these men to switch into compassionate humanitarian mode when flying around in an attack helicopter? Can we? I'm not saying it's excusable, but that we should try to understand why this sort of thing happens in addition to condemning it, and then maybe we can find a way to prevent it. Perhaps knowing that their actions will be broadcast to the world through Wikileaks would help!

To answer your question, I would be furious if my relative was killed whether it was an accident or not, legitimate or not. And if I was the judge for the trial of killers, I would have to recuse myself out of recognition of my own bias.

I am still wondering how you would cope with being a soldier? How long could you remain serious and somber about the killing you had to do? That, I think, is a disturbing question for all of us.

Posted by Robert Allen on April 14, 2010 01:44 PM

Hi Robert,

I understand your point.

How would I deal with killing someone in war? I really don't know. I have long said that it is pretty much useless to use extreme hypotheticals to predict one's behavior because one never knows how one will react in a situation that is so far removed from one's prior experience. I have never fought in a war and never fired anything other than a BB gun as a child so it is hard to say how I would react to a situation where I had to actually kill someone.

I like to think that the only time I could ever kill someone was in self-defense or in the defense of someone near me who was in immediate danger. I would like to think that even in that case, I would feel deep misgivings and guilt for having done so.

If it ever became the case that I could kill someone at a distance and not care or even delight in it, then I would think that I had become dead as a true human being, even while being able to function.

Posted by Mano on April 15, 2010 10:50 AM

It's your god. They're your rules. *You* go to hell.

Posted by artichoke liquid on September 20, 2011 02:56 AM