Iraq Video: Collateral Murder?  Or Fog of War?

Wikileaks massacre photo

A disturbing video which seems to show American soldiers shooting unarmed civilians in Iraq — and to contradict official accounts of the incident back in 2007 — is making the rounds.

CSM’s Dan Murphy has the backstory:

A video released on the Internet Monday by WikiLeaks, a small nonprofit dedicated to publishing classified information from the US and other governments, appears to show the killing of two Iraqi journalists with Reuters and about nine other Iraqis in a Baghdad suburb in 2007 that is sharply at odds of the official US account of the incident. WikiLeaks said the video was from the camera gun of one of two Apache attack helicopters that participated in the incident. The group said the video, with an audio feed between the helicopter’s crew and other US forces, was provided by "military whistleblowers" but didn’t elaborate further. "WikiLeaks goes to great lengths to verify the authenticity of the information it receives," wrote the group, which has a yearly budget of about $600,000 and is funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public, according to its website. "We have analyzed the information about this incident from a variety of source material. We have spoken to witnesses and journalists directly involved in the incident." The group, which does not list the names of anyone involved with the project, didn’t elaborate further on its sources. Reuters did not confirm if its two employees are among the dead show in the video, saying it needs to investigate further. "The deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh three years ago were tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones," said David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters news, in a short statement. “The video released today via Wikileaks is graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result. I spent more than four years reporting from Baghdad for the Monitor, including a number of tours embedded with US forces, during the war. While not an expert video analyst, I would say the video looks much like the neighborhood where the incident took place and – together with other details – make it likely the footage is authentic.

Foreign Policy assistant editor Josh Keating reports that,

A U.S. military official has confirmed the authenticity of the video. The Defense Department says the pilots were unaware of the presence of journalists and thought they were under threat from insurgents. "We regret the loss of innocent life, but this incident was promptly investigated and there was never any attempt to cover up any aspect of this engagement," said CentCom spokesman Shawn Kemp.

WikiLeaks has dubbed this "Collateral Murder" and launched a website with that name. They describe the incident as "the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff." American Security Project senior fellow Bernald Finel calls it "Cold Blooded Murder."

Sickening. A camera passes for an RPG. One armed man condemns a dozen others to death. It would be one thing if they had been engaging U.S. forces at the time. But no, they were just milling about, paying no attention to their surroundings. That was not a hostile force either pre- or post-hostilities. We killed those men in cold blood, and then shot at some poor soul who stopped to try to pick up a wounded man. This is the price of empire.

Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald calls it "slaughter" and juxtaposes it with recent reports of the military leadership trying to crack down on WikiLeaks.

Those two stories came together perfectly when WikiLeaks today released a video of the U.S. military, from an Apache helicopter, slaughtering civilians in Iraq in 2007 — including a Reuters photojournalist and his driver — and then killing and wounding several Iraqis who, minutes later, showed up at the scene to carry away the dead and wounded (including two of their children). The video (posted below) is truly gruesome and difficult even for the most hardened person to watch, but it should be viewed by everyone with responsibility for what the U.S. has done in Iraq and Afghanistan (i.e., every American citizen). Reuters has been attempting for two years to obtain this video through a FOIA request, but has been met with stonewalling by the U.S. military. As Dan Froomkin documents, the videotape demonstrates that military officials made outright false statements about what happened here and were clearly engaged in a cover-up: exactly as is true for the Afghanistan incident I wrote about earlier today, which should be read in conjunction with this post.

Ink Spots contributor MK takes a more cautious view.

The group that was targeted in the first instance included two people that appear to be armed, but it also includes two Reuters reporters carrying cameras that the pilots mistakenly identify as weapons. In fact, when one of the reporters crouches down and pokes his camera around a corner, the pilots report seeing an RPG. Partially mistaken or not, the Apaches opened fire on a group that did in fact include armed men. As tragic as the reporters’ deaths are, this seems to me part of the risk assumed by journalists who embed (however informally or momentarily) with combatants on either side. Notably, this seems to be Reuters’ position as well, who characterized it as a tragedy, rather than murder as Wikileaks alleges. A couple of issues do seem to bear consideration. First, these pilots seem awfully eager to engage, and one has to wonder if that eagerness led them to mis-identify the cameras as RPGs. I could be wrong (and I’d welcome correction), but I’d imagine that the pilots may have felt a greater urgency to engage if they believed they were in the threat envelope of RPGs. Eagerness by pilots to engage has led to tragic mistakes elsewhere, and therefore might constitute a problem unto itself. Nonetheless, there were two guys with weapons there, so it seems reasonable to have engaged. However, I am genuinely at a loss to understand the rationale for firing on the people who arrive in a van following the attack to help the wounded. None were armed. They weren’t spotters for other combatants. Their only actions were picking up one of the wounded reporters and moving him towards the van. Am I missing something here? What would the justification have been to engage? I’m not leaping to judgment, but on the face of it this seems outside the line. Whatever the reality was, whatever events led up to this incident (note that 38 minutes of video were released, of which Wikileaks posted 17), this is an info ops failure. The pilots come across as awfully cavalier, particularly when told there were small children in the van they demolished with 30mm fire. We may be missing a lot of context here, but revelling in the carnage when they weren’t under threat seems likely to make that context irrelevant for a lot of people.

Similarly, Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner — who says the video is "utterly sickening" — thinks we should withhold judgment.

I have no way of verifying that Wikileaks’ narrative here — that we’re witnessing the unprovoked murder of Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen — is accurate. All I see is a number of men cut down by an Apache gunship; the context appears to be unverifiable. Wired sees this story as evidence of "how a website dedicated to anonymous leaks has become a venue for a more traditional model of investigative reporting." I’m not so sure. The benefit of traditional reporting is that people are eventually forced to go on record: Individuals lend their names and reputations to a specific set of facts. That doesn’t appear to be happening here. Wikileaks promises that it "goes to great lengths to verify the authenticity of the information it receives," but it doesn’t quote any sources that can lend credence to its version of events. There is no doubt that this is a truly horrifying video to watch. But what it appears to be now, to my eyes, is an important lead to a story, rather than the final product.

That strikes me as exactly right. There have been enough incidents over the years of Americans seemingly too eager to kill to make the WikiLeaks narrative plausible. And this helicopter crew is easy to dislike, what with their cavalier regard for the lives of the people the kill. Further, as Greenwald and others remind us, there have been enough lies and coverups from the military brass over the last few years. At the same time, we’re seeing only part of the story here and it’s being told be people with a rather clear agenda. And, frankly, it’s pretty easy to dislike the WikiLeaks presentation, with its juvenile and over-the-top commentary, too. Indeed, Anthony Martinez, a combat veteran of the Iraq War, argues the video is misleading.

What could have been the case is identified for the viewer quite readily. What certainly is true, in several key moments, is not. When presenting source media as the core of your argument, it is grossly irresponsible to fail to make known variables not shown within that media. If you are going to take the time to highlight certain things in said media, you should make certain all key elements are brought to the attention of your viewer. WikiLeaks failed to do these things in this video, happily highlighting the positions and movements of the slain reporter and photographer while ignoring those of their company. It is also, until their arrival on scene, never clear where exactly the ground forces are in reference to Crazyhorse 18 and flight. I can make a pretty good guess, given my background. I would guess the same cannot be said by the vast majority of WikiLeaks’ target audience. Between 3:13 and 3:30 it is quite clear to me, as both a former infantry sergeant and a photographer, that the two men central to the gun-camera’s frame are carrying photographic equipment. This much is noted by WikiLeaks, and misidentified by the crew of Crazyhorse 18. At 3:39, the men central to the frame are armed, the one on the far left with some AK variant, and the one in the center with an RPG. The RPG is crystal clear even in the downsized, very low-resolution, video between 3:40 and 3:45 when the man carrying it turns counter-clockwise and then back to the direction of the Apache. This all goes by without any mention whatsoever from WikiLeaks, and that is unacceptable.

Still, he concedes,

The point at which I cannot support the actions of Crazyhorse 18, at all, comes when the van arrives somewhere around 9:45 and is engaged. Unless someone had jumped out with an RPG ready to fire on the aircraft, there was no threat warranting a hail of 30mm from above. Might it have been prudent to follow the vehicle (perhaps with a UAV), or at least put out a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for the vehicle? Absolutely without question. Was this portion of the engagement even remotely understandable, to me? No, it was not. All in all, the engagement clearly went bad. I would have objected when I was a private first-class pulling triple duty as an RTO, driver, and vehicle gunner. I would have objected when I was a sergeant working well above my pay-grade as the Brigade Battle NCO. My assessment is based on my experiences in that very theater of operations. I did not see a threat that warranted an engagement at any point. I did, however, see the elements indicating such a threat could develop at any moment. People can make their judgements however they wish, but what is clearly visible is not the entire picture.

In a follow-up, Finel writes,

In the final analysis, you have eight men, only two of whom appear to be armed. They are not engaging coalition forces at the time. There is no compelling military necessity to engage the entire group at that moment. We are the occupying power in Iraq. It is our affirmative duty to protect civilian lives under that circumstance. The presence of armed men, in a mixed group of people some of whom appear to be non-combatants (because they are clearly unarmed), does not justify killing them all. Attacking unarmed men who are helping a wounded man is also simply not justifiable. The man crawling on the ground is clearly no threat to coalition forces. He’s unarmed and crawling to his death. A van pulls up and unarmed men exit to help him, and we engage it? Given the presence of unarmed men, there ought to have been an assessment of proportionality. Can we justify killing six unarmed men in order to strike at the one or two who are armed? The answer to that is, maybe (probably yes), but only if they are actively engaging coalition force. Not if they are just milling about. There was no military necessity here to over-ride the presumption of non-combatant immunity. Sorry, but this was an unlawful killing. The Apache crew did not appear to be under fire. The men they attacked where not engaging anyone. This was not close air support. This was murder. Unless the video was doctored, this is not actually a particularly hard case. Which is not to say that I can’t empathize with the Apache crew or the difficulties of operating at that kind of environment. But empathy is one thing, excusing the inexcusable in another.

As of this writing, there’s no reason to believe that the has been doctored. The short version is, by all accounts, consistent with the fuller 38-minute version. But, as Martinez hints, the video doesn’t show what happened before the incident or what was going on outside the frame. But the incident looks horrible. It’s difficult to see the second wave of shooting at the ambulance — although admittedly, one that does not carry ambulance markings — as less than a tragedy. Indeed, it looks an awful lot like a war crime. Premature legal conclusions aside, the video is a public relations nightmare. The American people and those of our allies are already weary of this war. The sight of American soldiers appearing to revel in the cavalier murder of civilians will not help that. And, goodness knows, the ability of our enemies to use this to their advantage will be enormous. Alas, this is how young warriors talk. They’re trained to be decisive in combat situations, killing the bad guys — or people who appear to be bad guys — without hesitation. If they don’t, good guys may well die instead. And dehumanization of the enemy is a necessary if unfortunate part of war. It’s also much easier to see through the fog of war from the comfort of a computer monitor back where there’s no one shooting at you. Our soldiers volunteer are trained for the risks of combat, of course, and they’re expected to conduct themselves according to the laws of war. And that’s especially true in a counterinsurgency, when civilian deaths directly undermine the mission. But we need to get all the facts before rushing to judgment.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

Image: wikileaks.jpg