With regards to the Collateral Murder video…

The folks at Wikileaks unleashed the following video of American AH-64 Apache chopper gunners opening fire on what they believed to be armed insurgents in Iraq, but which turned out to be a couple of Associated Press journalists and (likely) a bunch of civilians. Later in the video when a van pulls up to try and help one of the wounded journalists the chopper again opens fire killing all the adults and wounding two children in the van. Fair warning: Once seen it cannot be unseen so think about it before deciding to view it:

The Pentagon has been repeatedly hit with Freedom of Information Act requests to release this video over the years and has refused to do so for various bullshit reasons. The real reason they didn’t want to release it is because it’s a monumental fuck up that is embarrassing and which would be used by their critics to denounce the war effort.

I’ve never been in the military so I don’t know a lot about how things are done in a combat zone, but from what I see in this video the soldiers involved acted appropriately – if somewhat callously – based on the information they had on hand; and I can’t really get all that upset about the callousness given the situation they are in. It’s a terrible mistake on their part, but I can’t say they did anything wrong.

The real problem with this video is, as ***Dave points out in his own (much better written) entry on this topic, the fact that the Pentagon tried to hide it:

What I find unconscionable is that, once the evidence was together, the government (or, at least the military) decided to lie.  To not only hide the truth from the world and the nation, but de facto indict the soldiers involved by making what they did effectively too terrible to admit.

If you are honest, and in the right, and fighting on principle, then you admit your mistakes, show you’re trying to learn by them, and move on.  You hold people appropriately accountable. You take responsibility for your actions.  You “man up.”

Instead, now we have this.

The video becomes the very thing you were trying to prevent it from becoming by hiding it. This is why transparency is so important. This is why the government needs to be in the hands of responsible adults who aren’t afraid of accountability.  So that later when you have another fuck up where the soldiers do try to cover it up – such as the botched nighttime raid in Afghanistan that’s been in the news – your commitment to accountability isn’t questioned.

29 comments

  1. To expand on what ***Dave said, wars are always fought on at least fronts — there’s the physical battle and the battle for public support. The way the Pentagon acted is an admission of just how unjust this war was/is.

  2. I’ll expand further on that, elwedriddsche.

    Why did the military brass and the Pentagon (we’ll try not to consider how far up this went just yet) keep this hidden?

    A. In part, to avoid erosion of public support for the war effort in Iraq.
    B. In part, to avoid erosion of public support for the military in general.
    C. In part, to protect the troops.

    The last point is worth acknowledging. I’ve seen a lot of comments at sites about this video from folks who are not what you would consider day-to-day radical jihadists, but are folks from (or living in) the Middle East. They are livid over this, as it feeds on their anger about the US presence in Iraq in the first place, and makes the American soldiers involved look like callous, uncaring, giggling, video-playing cowboys.

    So I’m willing to concede that, a little. But, of course, by having it all come out with 2-3 years of stonewalling cover-up and lies, *it makes it all worse.* Now it’s the evil cowboys *and* their evil lying overlords.

    Of the other two points, I suspect B is as least as important as A. Had an event like this happened in any war, from Iraq to Grenada to Nam to WW II, it would have been (a) a big bloody mistake, and (b) covered up by the brass. (One can do some digging into WW II and find some pretty awful things that the Good Guys did, and not just flashy ones like bombing campaigns.) To the extent that they do feel a need to take responsibility for what happened, the brass will tend to cover up these sorts of things precisely because it reflects badly on them and their command. The buck — and the stray bullet — stops here, but let’s not tell anyone about it.

    It will be interesting to see how this story plays out in the next days and weeks. Or whether the US media really is more interested in Tiger Woods and Tea Parties and iPads and Baseball Season.

  3. “Or whether the US media really is more interested in Tiger Woods and Tea Parties and iPads and Baseball Season.” I think we already know the answer to that.
    The problem that I have with the video, aside from the efforts to keep it hidden, are a) AK-47s? There is nothing in view that looks remotely like anyone carrying firearms b) is it really proper to shoot at someone who is on the ground and wounded? c) is it proper to shoot at people who are merely coming to collect the wounded?
    Perhaps this is second guessing, but the questions should at least be asked. As for the giggling and so forth, I have less of a problem with that. It doesn’t look good, but most people would likely become de-sensitized to this sort of thing after spending time in a war zone. As for the incident itself, these sorts of isolated incidents are certainly inevitable in war and if we want to talk about the murder of civilians in Iraq we would be speaking mainly of Muslim terrorists killing other Muslims.

  4. Re (a), the video isn’t very good. In watching it through the first time (anyone can go back and second-guess on a subsequent viewing), it did look like folks had items slung over their shoulder, and a long-lens camera (we know now) that could plausibly have been mistaken for an RPG. There had been small arms fire in reported in the area prior to the choppers viewing the scene.

    Should they have more positively identified firearms being present, or the individuals as actual hostiles? I’m inclined to think so, but not being familiar with the rules of engagement or the experience of those troops with actual (unquestioned) insurgents on the ground with AK47s and RPGs, it’s hard to say. They are reported as a threat (long camera lens peering around a corner), but the pilots never report that they are actually under fire (regardless of subsequent Pentagon claims).

    Re (b), the choppers refrained from firing on the wounded person who was on the ground and moving, though they can be heard threatening (almost hopefully) to do so *if* he got hold of something that looked like a weapon.

    Re (c) the presumption is that if someone is trying to evac wounded insurgents, they are probably insurgents to and should be fired on. (Again, not sure if that’s in the rules of engagement the choppers are operating under, but they do ask for, and obtain, permission to fire.)

    The least plausible accusation made in the film, and echoed by some comments I’ve read, is that the choppers fired on little kids. The kids in question are inside the van, and even the repeat zoomed close-up doesn’t make it look like kids, just a couple of blobs in the window. It’s fair to say that had the choppers not fired (in error) on the targets the kids wouldn’t have been hurt, but there could have been kids in the houses or behind the wall on the street there who might have been caught in the 30mm fire. That wouldn’t have been any happier or more justified an injury, nor any more intentional. (And certainly neither the choppers nor the troops on the ground sound at all happy when the wounded kids are found.)

  5. I agree that the camera could have been anything as far as they knew. I did not criticize them for thinking that. Though, then again, someone in the military really should have a better sense of what an RPG would look like from a helicopter than you or I would. But, either way, just to add to what you (Dave) and Les were saying about transparency, another reason why it could have been beneficial for the Pentagon to release the video themselves is that as they released it they could have explained point by point what the rules of engagement are in incidents like this, which could help prevent confusion among people (like us) about what is or is not proper. As Les said, transparency is important.
    Thanks for the article. The writer also has difficulty with them shooting at the van. To me that was the most questionable part; shooting at un-armed people who were only helping the wounded. That could have been handled differently.
    That said, I share your hesitation about second guessing these soldiers in combat. But, as I said, the questions should at least be asked, even with the understanding that inevitably mistakes will unfortunately be made
    Thanks for your thoughts, Dave.

  6. I’ve read a couple of informed analyses of the events (i.e., from folks who’ve actually served in theater, not from armchair analysts of any particular political stripe), and there’s a fair amount of conflict over whether the van represents the most egregious action shown in the short video. The after-action reports and testimony of the soldiers points claims that the rescuers were also scooping up weapons, not just the wounded, but the video clearly doesn’t show that. They also indicate (in a couple of cases) reports of a van or SUV in the neighborhood that was picking up and dropping off insurgents, which might lend some justification to the actions taken.

    It’s unclear to me (and I’ve seen analysis both ways) whether an unmarked vehicle (not an ambulance) making a pickup of wounded insurgents (presumed) is, in fact, a legitimate target. That would be something that I’d like to hear more about from the Pentagon (as you suggest, if they’d released this info sooner, they could have presented it in a more controlled and justified and “learning moment” fashion).

    Unfortunately, the waters get muddied by the kids wounded in the vehicle (since they weren’t visible and weren’t part of the decision-making, but create a lot of sympathy/outrage over events which can already be seen as outrageous).

    Also unfortunately, the discussion in the media (to the extent that it is getting any traction there) is evolving into “WAR EVIL CHENEY BUSH ABU GHRAIB CRIMES!” vs. “AMERICAN BOYS PATRIOTISM VS TERROR FLAG” level of dialog, which doesn’t really illuminate much of anything.

  7. The longer version of the video is better for analyzing the type of stuff you guys are discussing. It’s 39 minutes and no, you can’t unwatch it. But having served myself (not in combat) I can say it gives you a clearer picture of the mentality these soldiers have to sort of force themselves into to deal with the shit they deal with every day. And it’s a bit better for looking at what they were basing their judgment calls on, though just as grainy.

    The thing I keep coming back to with this is how the cover-up mentality is a symptom of the same problem that leads to US soldiers coming home and not getting the psych treatment they often need. I can’t really explain it better than that. I guess it boils down to “why give them psych treatment for stuff that ‘didn’t happen.’” It’s disrespectful to the American public, to the civilians accidentally killed, and to the soldiers whose hands were on the triggers. I hate it.

  8. We should have never been in there. Those army pricks are just all about killing and I fucking hate them! They’re just making stupid guesses based on bad long-range views. He even has the callousness to NAME the type of weapon without really ever knowing that’s what the person has. Don’t fire on people until they fire on you… FUCK!! By being there in the middle east and trying to “stabilize” the reason, we’re doing more harm than good!

  9. We should have never been in there.

    Quite possibly, but irrelevant here. Even if this was the most justified war in history, events like this would take place (and should be part of the calculus in any potential armed conflict).

    Those army pricks are just all about killing and I fucking hate them!

    On one level, the army is about “killing,” but a lot of people join the military for reasons other than a love of inflicting bloodshed.

    They’re just making stupid guesses based on bad long-range views.

    And reports of what had been going on in the area, and knowledge of previous encounters, etc. The guesses they made turned out to be wrong, but they were not uneducated ones.

    He even has the callousness to NAME the type of weapon without really ever knowing that’s what the person has.

    The variety of weapons on the ground in the hands of insurgents (and others) in Iraq is not limitless. Drawing conclusions from what can be seen of the weapons as to whether they are AK47s or RPGs is not too terribly difficult. AKs are pretty common in Iraq, as are RPGs.

    Don’t fire on people until they fire on you… FUCK!!

    The Rules of Engagement, as I understand them, require you to wait until you are under fire or until there is an imminent threat. If, as I understand it, there was a local Army patrol that had been taking small arms fire, some blocks away, and if the one image of the photographer peering around the corner with his long lens was taken as a guy poking an RPG around the corner to view that patrol (and, in fact, one of the last pictures taken on the photog’s camera was of some military vehicles down the street), that could qualify as an imminent threat. Which is pretty much what the choppers called in and were given permission to engage.

    By being there in the middle east and trying to “stabilize” the reason, we’re doing more harm than good!

    It would not be difficult to make that argument.

  10. If you wait for someone to fire an RPG at you in your helicopter you’re pretty much doing it wrong anyways. Theoretically several of the choppers major components can withstand a lot of punishment, but it’s a mistake to think that any aircraft are even bullet proof, much less explosive or armor-penetrating weapons. When you build an aircraft, including helicopters, you’re mostly relying on the speed, angle of attack, and range of engagement to provide your defense against ground fire. Helicopters are certainly faster than tanks and ground transports, but they don’t have the advantage of being able to outrun ground fire or get above the ceiling for fire without a lot of effort.

    So anyways, with that explanation in place, the idea that they should have “fired only when fired upon” is bullshit. They aren’t cops, they’re soldiers. They’re not flying around in a 10 or 100 thousand dollar vehicle, their equipment is millions of dollars of responsibility and offensive, not defensive, capability. Maybe your claim of “let them shoot at us first” would make sense if it were a tank column rolling through the streets in the video, but you’re making a ridiculous threshold for response by any sane logical process.

    Finally, soldiers really aren’t there to kill. Certainly that’s one of their major functions, but really most guys over there are just very, very normal people in their 20s who are in a bad situation that few soldiers actually plan on getting into, and even those who do often don’t realize the reality of when they make the choice to join. They’re just normal kids really, because very few people EVER are the sort of cold blooded killers that are “just” there to kill in any war. Neither are they all “heroes,” as some on the Right might suggest, but demonizing them for doing their jobs and making decisions (good and bad) that get people killed doesn’t contribute meaningfully in any conversation.

  11. They’re just making stupid guesses based on bad long-range views.

    And reports of what had been going on in the area, and knowledge of previous encounters, etc. The guesses they made turned out to be wrong, but they were not uneducated ones.

    They did have the time and equipment to make their guesses better. For some reason, they chose not to and instead acted on their first hunch.

    He even has the callousness to NAME the type of weapon without really ever knowing that’s what the person has.

    The variety of weapons on the ground in the hands of insurgents (and others) in Iraq is not limitless. Drawing conclusions from what can be seen of the weapons as to whether they are AK47s or RPGs is not too terribly difficult. AKs are pretty common in Iraq, as are RPGs.

    They’re readily identifying anything apart from clothing as weapons, short ones as AK-47s, long ones as RPGs. This gives their assessment an extra air of certainty while there is none, so they mislead the CO.

    If you wait for someone to fire an RPG at you in your helicopter you’re pretty much doing it wrong anyways. Theoretically several of the choppers major components can withstand a lot of punishment, but it’s a mistake to think that any aircraft are even bullet proof, much less explosive or armor-penetrating weapons. When you build an aircraft, including helicopters, you’re mostly relying on the speed, angle of attack, and range of engagement to provide your defense against ground fire. Helicopters are certainly faster than tanks and ground transports, but they don’t have the advantage of being able to outrun ground fire or get above the ceiling for fire without a lot of effort.

    The aircrew itself was beyond the maximal range of an RPG-7, let alone its effective range wrt a moving target. The only danger potential was towards ground troops, which weren’t very close either – check out the amount of time it took them to arrive at the scene. Additionally, the shape seen in connection with the peeking person (the only one possibly having LOS) can only be misunderstood as an unloaded launcher, which makes the threat less than imminent.

    Finally, in my highly unprofessional opinion, even the first engagement was questionable – fine, the gunner sees weapons everywhere, doesn’t see some of those perceived weapons being leaned on or bending, doesn’t care about the people strolling casually instead of running/hugging the walls/shouldering weapons -, but once he had a clear view of the street, he really should have noticed that the people there behave entirely inconsistently with the idea he seems to have had in his head. For the van, there’s no excuse – he lies to the CO and as a result kills civilians engaged in removing a wounded person from the battle. Just something that comes to my mind: in Nürenberg, one of the crimes against humanity was Karl Dönitz giving an order to submarine crews not to rescue survivors; imagine if he had an order of shooting anybody who attempts rescue.

  12. So anyways, with that explanation in place, the idea that they should have “fired only when fired upon” is bullshit. They aren’t cops, they’re soldiers.

    Do people actually believe that police are supposed to wait until fired upon to shoot?

  13. I think that police, not being soldiers and dealing with a domestic population, generally should have stricter rules for engaging people with the intent to kill (shoot) them than soldiers. On the other hand, once a soldier’s been given the engagement opportunity to kill people I don’t expect them to stop shooting until people are dead. It’s a different set of priorities.

    For a soldier I put the soldier’s lives ahead of the wellbeing of anyone else in the area. For police officers the priority should be the well-being and safety of everyone but the police officer much of the time, because police officers don’t arrest criminals – they arrest alleged criminals. Otherwise you’re just giving police a free pass for shooting people as they see fit, and they become soldiers maintaining order by threat of violence and not rule of law.

  14. Free pass? A man with a gun in his hand needs less than a second to raise his hand and fire. A man with a knife needs 1.5 seconds to cover 21ft and start stabbing. It’s absurd to think police should wait until they don’t get shot in the head or poked full of holes to shoot.

  15. … Are you just being deliberately dumb or are you really just dense?

    Look, I’m just saying there’s a different reasoning: If a soldier sees a man with a gun (in his hand, on the floor, on the table, a few minutes ago in another room…) and he’s been given the clear to fire then I expect them to shoot the man. Once soldiers are given the clear to fire I don’t expect them to stop firing until every single threat to the soldier’s continuing ability to shoot the enemy is completely neutralized. The goal of a police officer is not to eradicate the enemy. It’s to promote order and safety. Any shooting by anyone in a domestic situation involves people who have not been tried and convicted of a crime, mostly members of the citizen population.

    There’s a difference. I am noting that difference. I believe it is a critical and important difference. I did not, and have not, except to quote someone else, say that anyone should let themselves be shot in the head. It’s important to understand the difference in underlying assumptions: A soldier operates with the assumption that once they’re in an engagement they must kill the enemy. A police officer must operate with the assumption that they’re trying to keep anyone from being killed.

    That’s obviously a fucked up job and, while I admittedly don’t like police much because I think too many of them are poorly trained and racist bullies, I do respect that they’re in a shittier position fundamentally than soldiers for most of the time. At the same time, one of the basic, absolute, rights that’s required for a democracy is the assumption of innocence. People make bad decisions in the best of circumstances, like when they’re hovering in a helicopter death machine armed with tank-killing missiles and a chain gun and their “enemies” are armed with camera equipment. I accept that, but what is regrettable in war is criminal domestically.

    Do you have anything to actually contribute to the discussion at hand?

  16. The goal in any law enforcement use of force is to eliminate the threat with whatever force the courts deem reasonable and necessary.

    You wrote that a crucial difference between soldiers and police is that soldiers shouldn’t wait until fired upon. Nobody who expects to survive a gunfight should wait until fired upon. Heaven forbid I correct out a legally and tactally incorrect idea.

    As for the video, to me it looks like at least one member of the party had what looks like a rifle. Just because another party has a camera isn’t enough to assume they’re all journalists and their attendants. It’s not as if the Iraqi insurgency doesn’t photograph and videotape their attacks. Other than that, I really don’t have anything to contribute that ***Dave’s well-written entry doesn’t say.

  17. Its a bad situation. As others have pointed out a zoom lens can easily be mistaken for a weapon. We have the luxury to view this after the fact. I think the military members in the video acted appropriately. It was the actions taken afterwords that are unconscionable. War sucks and the video just shows another reason why we should of never got into it in the first place.

  18. I’m thinking:
    That with the comment that the kids deserved to be wounded because their parents “brought them to a war zone” shows that the pilots are completely disconnected from reality because it was them (occupiers) that brought the war zone to their neighborhood.

    I would need someone that knew, and has the want to know, exactly what you are firing at to be in command of such awesome fire power (30mm vs T-shirt and pants).

    I would also want anyone warring in a inhabited city populated with civilians to be trained, and to be tested, in how to identify common civilian objects. For example you do not put an RPG directly in front of your face you put a camera directly in front of your face. A camera is slung or held at perpendicular to the barrel, at the end, and a AK47 is slung or held parallel to the barrel in the middle.

  19. That with the comment that the kids deserved to be wounded because their parents “brought them to a war zone” shows that the pilots are completely disconnected from reality because it was them (occupiers) that brought the war zone to their neighborhood.

    I didn’t hear it that it was presented as the kids “deserving” to be wounded, but condemnation for the parents for letting it happen. And, of course, if the activities were being seen as combat operations, then one might rightfully condemn parents who brought their kids along on a combat mission (in this case, picking up and spiriting away, as it was interpreted, wounded insurgents).

  20. Well i am making the logical connection between a) Thinking that it was just for the parents that the kids were wounded because they were stupid (pilots view). To b) hence it was just that the kids were wounded.

    Either way that’s just my point. They (the pilots) believe that wounding of the kids was just because, in their mind. Only stupid people that lived their and drive down their street and see someone in need of medical attention would try to help.

    Only someone completely oblivious to their surroundings would think such a thing.

  21. @ Jolly, spoken like someone who’s never stepped foot anywhere near a military base.

    They HAVE to alter their thinking, just like doctors must learn to detach from their patients. If they don’t they go mad. Which is really just a symptom of a larger problem.

  22. If you can find for me where the pilots (or ground troops) think it’s a good or just thing that the kids were wounded, I’d love to find it (and roundly condemn it). Instead, it comes across to me the same as police discovering that the car they just high-speed chased had kids in the back seat — “How stupid do you have to be to get your kids involved in something like that.”

    “They (the pilots) believe that wounding of the kids was just because, in their mind. Only stupid people that lived their and drive down their street and see someone in need of medical attention would try to help.”

    The pilots didn’t see the van as some casual Good Samaritan, but as someone who was intentionally evacuating wounded fellow insurgents (and their weapons). (In at least one of the statements taken afterward, there were reports of a dark SUV or van dropping off and picking up insurgents in the area.) They were seen as combatants that had had the appalling judgment of (it turned out) having their kids inside the van.

    Do they consider the wounding of the kids to be just? They believe the attack was just; if there is injustice in the kids getting wounded, it’s applied to the parents by their negligence in bringing the kids into potential combat. That may be passing the moral buck (disingenuously or simply as a coping mechanism) but that’s the story I see here.

  23. Well yes if you were to follow the logic that there “was” a “statement” from the same people that lied to us in the past that there was a “dark SUV or van” in the area dropping off and picking up “insurgents”. Then by all means they have a free ticket to fire upon all dark SUVs and vans in the area picking up and/or dropping off people. I mean everyone knows real people pickup and drop off friends in a bright color 2 door mini.

  24. hey believe the attack was just; if there is injustice in the kids getting wounded, it’s applied to the parents by their negligence in bringing the kids into potential combat.

    The injustice rests with Bush.

  25. If you can find for me where the pilots (or ground troops) think it’s a good or just thing that the kids were wounded, I’d love to find it (and roundly condemn it). Instead, it comes across to me the same as police discovering that the car they just high-speed chased had kids in the back seat — “How stupid do you have to be to get your kids involved in something like that.”

    Your sentence (“How stupid do you have to be …”) is a question and i can not think of any way to compare it to the statement made by the pilots and give it any meaning. so you will have to excuse me for not being able to follow you on making a comparison between the question and the statement(s).
    But I know no other way to translate “it’s (the children being wounded is) their (the parents) fault for bringing their kids into a battle. (other replies) That’s right”. I mean taken simply “It is their fault”. The “That’s right” (as in “That is true”) is just a bonus.

    For the parents it’s their fault for bringing the children. But the parents are dead so that has no meaning at all except to say that the pilots think they are alive which is different from reality.

    For the children it’s there fault for a) having stupid and/or evil parents and b) being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is something a kin to crazy thinking.

  26. For the parents it’s their fault for bringing the children. But the parents are dead so that has no meaning at all except to say that the pilots think they are alive which is different from reality

    Corrections:
    Firstly, that should be Guardians and not Parents

    Secondly, it is a far stretch of the imagination to assume that the the pilots think the Guardians are still alive because i have no problem blaming dead people for things they have done.

    But i think i see the confusion here.
    When i see “It’s their fault for” in this case i interpret this as “It serves them right for” which is where i make the “just” connection. But of course that’s a stretch too.

  27. When i see “It’s their fault for” in this case i interpret this as “It serves them right for” which is where i make the “just” connection. But of course that’s a stretch too.

    Yeah, that is likely where we’re differing here, because I see a big difference between saying “it’s their fault the kids were wounded” and saying “it serves them right that the kids were wounded.” If what was being said were the latter, I’d have no problem in thinking the sentiments as quite reprehensible.

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