Death On Tape


(See end of article for update)

I posted the video late last night, a couple of hours after it was published by Wikileaks. Do not read this until you watch the video in its entirety.

The footage shows what appears to be the gunsight for a U.S. Apache helicopter, with the pilot and gunner speaking in the background. On the radio, it appears that the crew of the Apache were communicating with a superior officer who had to give them the okay before they attacked.

In its sight, the Apache crew saw 8 to 9 individuals, with some of them carrying what they thought to be AK-47’s. The crew also thought that one of the men in their sight had an RPG(Rocket-Propelled Grenade). Nonetheless, the video did not show any hostile gestures from the men carrying the weapons. Furthermore, it is not even clear if the men were aware of the Apache’s presence. Amongst the men on the ground were two Iraqi journalists.

The Apache received clearance to “engage”, and strafed the men on the ground with the Apache’s cannon. Once you hear the gunfire, there is about a two second delay until you see the bullets hit ground. I will not partake in the math of the speed of sound, but I think the Apache was quite a distance away from the men on the ground.(military people, please let me know if the Apache, in this situation, was within range of the fire of an AK-47 or an RPG).

The first spate of firing was over, 8 to 9 men were dead or near death. At this juncture, I believe the crew was within the range of what reasonable actors would do in a highly stressful war zone. They thought one of the men had an RPG, which if true would present a danger to an Apache helicopter. However, what occurred afterward tells a different story.

Immediately after looking at the carnage, a crewmember states: “Look at all those dead bastards” to which the response “nice” is given.

It gets worse.

They spot one of the men(who was one of the Reuters journalists) who was shot; he was wounded and futilely trying to crawl away. They ceased fire at this point. But the one of the crew actively wanted to kill the wounded man, as he stated: “Come on, buddy…All you have to do is pick up a weapon”

The crew then states: “We have a van that is approaching and picking up the bodies.” They went on: “We have individuals going to the scene, possibly picking up bodies and weapons”. Note that they only said possibly picking up weapons, although there is not any clear footage of the people from the van picking up weapons.

The voice then skips to what is a recurrent theme: “let me engage” and “can i shoot?” all the while while acknowledging what the van was really there to do: “picking up the wounded?” Right after, again, “Come on, let us shoot!” and again bolstering the purpose of the people from the van: “they’re taking him”.

The Apache crew then explains to its superior that they have a “bongo truck, picking up bodies.”. Finally, about 30 seconds of begging for permission to engage, the Apache gets what it wants and lets loose on the van, destroying it, the wounded journalist, and the would-be rescuers.

Apparently, either the Apache crew did not see or did not care to see that there were two children in the front seat of the van. Once the Apache crew was aware that they had wounded two children, their response was chillingly without remorse: “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle” echoed by a crewmember stating: “That’s right.”

To nail the point home of disregard for civilians, this little bit took place: the ground troops arrived at the scene. A soldier on the ground is heard on the radio, in an urgent tone: “I got a wounded girl that we need to take to Rustamiyah(U.S. military base)” The soldier was denied his request by a superior officer, which was repeated on the radio as follows: “Roger, that’s a negative on the evac of the two, ah, civilian, ah, kids to, ah, rusty they’re going to have the IPs link up…IPs will take them to a local hospital”

As the makers of the video pointed out, the denial of the evac of the kids to a military hospital was damaging in two ways: 1)by not directly going to the U.S. Hospital, there was probably a delay in treatment and 2)Local hospitals probably do not have the same level of care as a U.S. military one. What’s baffling is that the U.S. was responsible for wounding these two children but did not have the decency to cure their error by ensuring their survival as best as they could.

The Verdict

The line from reasonable wartime activity to murder was crossed at the moment the Apache opened fire on the van. By the crew’s own admission, as well as by the concrete evidence of the video, the individuals in the van came to the scene for one reason: to rescue the wounded journalist. At no point did the van or its occupants present a threat to the Apache; they were not armed and were simply trying to rescue a wounded man. Furthermore, in the context of the whole 17 minute video, there was a consistent pattern to the speech of the Apache’s crew: shoot first, do not even ask questions afterward. Some claim that the Apache crew acted within the military’s “rules of engagement”.  Maybe they did, but even IF that is the case, it is only evidence that the rules of engagement are not sufficient to protect innocent civilians from being gunned down.

I am conflicted on whether the release of this video to the public will serve a positive purpose. On the one hand, the video will surely enrage a large assortment of people, from the peace activists in the U.S. to the militants in Iraq and Afghanistan. After watching the visceral, raw footage, one has to ask themselves: are you really surprised that this happened?

Regardless of what army a nation derives from, the individuals that make it up are humans, and on the aggregate, humans employed in the business of killing are, by mandate, required to dehumanize their targets. And dehumanization always creates the possibility of atrocities. That is what happened here; the Apache crew enjoyed killing, so much as to wound two children and not feel one sliver of guilt for doing so.

The likely backlash from this video amongst U.S. citizens will be an initial “gasp” with three principal responses, broken down upon partisan political lines. The Left will say something like the following: “We are murderers! End all wars now!”, without probing any deeper.  The Right will say: “they acted within the rules of engagement and therefore it is irrelevant that two journalists were killed and two children were wounded”. The Indifferent will say: “That’s messed up; I’m going to watch dancing with the stars now”,  if they even watch the footage.”

And the beat will march on. The hate will build, the insurgents will “surge” with new recruits, and the lines of battle for the future will be ever more insurmountable.

I say that I do not know what to say.

(UPDATE:  A memorandum on the investigation into this incident by the military revealed that the ground troops that arrived on the scene found an RPG launcher loaded with a live round and several, AK-47s, and ammunition for the RPG. Therefore, it appears that the Apache crew had a justified reason to engage in the first round of fire. However, this does not change my initial assessment of the attack on the van. In fact, it only enhances it, as it states: ” The van arrives as if on cue, and is immediately joined by two military-aged males who appear from the nearby is unknown what, if any, connection the van had to the insurgent activity.” In effect, the military concluded that the Apache helicopter opened up fire on individuals(the van’s occupants) without any degree of certainty to their involvement in insurgent activity. In other words, if insurgents are around, it is of no importance if civilians may be killed, even if the van presented no immediate threat.

Also of note in this update is that the publisher of the video–wikileaks–edited its footage in a manner that was purposely designed to mislead in the interests of a more entertaining, less thought-invoking video.(like all of the media these days) This is evidenced by the introduction on their website: “WikiLeaks has 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 first round of killings was not indiscriminate slaying; there was at least one individual with an RPG. Wikileaks also began its video with this attempt at counter-argument: “Although some of the men appear to have been armed, the behavior of nearly everyone was relaxed”  The mere presence of an RPG is clear evidence that these relaxing men could have, in a moment, become unrelaxed and fired an RPG at the helicopter or ground troops that were in the area. The danger in wikileaks’ deception is that viewers will more likely allow emotions to rule and not consider what the truth was, which is still just as bad. But I digress.

If wikileaks was misleading, the government has been more so. They never granted Reuters request to release footage on the deaths of two of its employees. Further, the same memo that I cited to earlier redacts perhaps its most relevant part: the investigating officer’s recommendations to avoid similar civilian casualties in the future, which leads me to believe that the military is, unsurprisingly, trying to avoid any potential wrongdoing. Did the recommendation call for refraining from firing on targets that A. do not pose an imminent threat(van) and B. that could very well be civilians? I sure hope so.


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