A massacre caught on video

April 9, 2010

The footage of two reporters gunned down by U.S. troops is remarkable only because it gives an unfiltered glimpse at the effects of U.S. firepower, writes Eric Ruder.

THE APRIL 5 release of a classified video of U.S. troops in an Apache helicopter firing on and killing two Reuters reporters in 2007 has ignited renewed scrutiny of U.S. war crimes in Iraq.

WikiLeaks, a site dedicated to publishing documents exposing government wrongdoing, obtained the footage from military whistleblowers and posted it at collateralmurder.com. There have been more than 5 million views of the video at YouTube alone since it was posted there.

The U.S. military is scrambling to contain the fallout, releasing the results of an investigation conducted after the incident that concluded the soldiers had acted in a manner consistent with both international law and the U.S. military's own rules of engagement. But the firestorm has only seemed to grow since the video first went public.

The military's attempts at damage control are complicated by an equally horrific revelation that U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan killed five unarmed civilians--two men who were government officials and three women--on February 12.

The leaked video shows a U.S. military helicopter's sights set on two Reuters employees among a group of Iraqis in Baghdad
The leaked video shows a U.S. military helicopter's sights set on two Reuters employees among a group of Iraqis in Baghdad (wikileaks.org)

Initially, the media repeated the Pentagon's version of events--that the women were bound and gagged, the likely victims of Taliban-inspired "honor killings." Now, the U.S. military admits that its own troops carried out the massacre.

U.S. soldiers appear to have attempted a gruesome cover-up of the killings, using a knife to dig the bullets out of the corpses of the women, according to a New York Times report and a Times of London report.

FOR TWO years, Reuters sought to obtain the video of the shootings in Iraq through Freedom of Information Act requests--in order to learn the circumstances that led to the killing of reporters Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh. But the Pentagon claims that it can't find its own copy of the video.

"There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force," Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a U.S. military spokesperson, told the New York Times about the incident at the time.

But the video clearly shows that until the Apache opened fire, there was no combat--at all. At most, the military could assert that two of the men present (but not the Reuters reporters) do appear to be carrying weapons. But that's hardly unusual in occupied Iraq. Practically every Iraqi household has a weapon as a matter of basic security.

The video shows U.S. troops circling in a helicopter and focusing on a group of about 10 men, certain that the cameras slung over the reporters' shoulders are AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. "Fucking prick," one soldier says of the men with the camera.

After obtaining permission from commanding officers, one of the soldiers exclaims, "Light 'em all up," and the men are cut to pieces with a burst from the helicopter's 30mm machine gun. On the video, they disappear in a cloud of dust and smoke. "Look at those dead bastards," one pilot says. "Nice," responds another.

The helicopter continues to circle, watching as a van arrives, and a man jumps out to help the injured Chmagh to safety. One soldier remarks that the man from the van looks to be "picking up the wounded." But a few moments later, the troops again request--and receive--permission to open fire.

This is clearly a war crime--a violation of international law that forbids firing on people aiding the wounded.

After obliterating the van, ground troops are called in and quickly discover the camera belonging to the journalist, as well as two wounded children in the van. Their father, the van's driver, had just been killed by the soldiers in the Apache.

When they hear the report of children in the van, one of the soldiers renders a quick verdict: "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle." Another replies, "That's right."

GLENN GREENWALD of Salon.com pointed out that what's remarkable about the killing isn't the attitude of the soldiers, which alternates between casual indifference and gleeful excitement, but the fact that the public has a chance to view what is an entirely routine cascade of events in U.S.-occupied Iraq. As Greenwald wrote:

Shining light on what our government and military do is so critical precisely because it forces people to see what is really being done, and prevents myth and propaganda from distorting those realities. That's why the administration fights so hard to keep torture photos suppressed, why the military fought so hard here to keep this video concealed (and why they did the same with regard to the Afghan massacre), and why whistleblowers, real journalists and sites like WikiLeaks are the declared enemy of the government.

The discussions many people are having today--about the brutal reality of what the U.S. does when it engages in war, invasions and occupation--is exactly the discussion which they most want to avoid.

But there's a serious danger when incidents like this Iraq slaughter are exposed in a piecemeal and unusual fashion: namely, the tendency to talk about it as though it is an aberration. It isn't. It's the opposite: it's par for the course, standard operating procedure, what we do in wars, invasions and occupation.

The only thing that's rare about the Apache helicopter killings is that we know about it and are seeing what happened on video. And we're seeing it on video not because it's rare, but because it just so happened (a) to result in the deaths of two Reuters employees, and thus received more attention than the thousands of other similar incidents, where nameless Iraqi civilians are killed, and (b) to end up in the hands of WikiLeaks, which then published it.

In 2008, the Guardian's Jonathan Steele and Suzanne Goldenberg wrote about the death toll in Iraq, trying to grapple with the staggering estimate that more than 1 million Iraqis had likely died since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

They note that U.S. Lt. Gen. Tommy Franks gruffly declared, "We don't do body counts," in response to a reporter's question about civilian casualties, but that

even though the Americans were not counting, people were dying, and every victim had a name and a family. Wedding parties were bombed by U.S. planes, couples driving home at night were shot at checkpoints because they missed a flashlight warning them to stop, and hundreds of other unarmed civilians were killed for no legitimate cause. In just the last three weeks of April 2003, after Saddam's statue and his regime were toppled, U.S. forces killed at least 266 civilians--a pattern of overeager resort to fire which has continued to this day.

The leaked video demonstrates precisely how this pattern, multiplied by hundreds of thousands of encounters between U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, could add up to the enormous body count seven years after the war began.

In late March, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, handpicked by Obama to head up NATO operations in Afghanistan, acknowledged that U.S. troops have committed many such atrocities in Afghanistan.

"We've shot an amazing number of people, and killed a number, and to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force," McChrystal said in a videoconference with troops about civilian casualties. "[T]o my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it."

Nevertheless, there are apologists for the killings in Iraq. As Greenwald points out in reaponse:

What rational person can maintain that incidents like the one in the Iraq video are extraordinary and rare when the top general in Afghanistan is stating publicly that--even in Afghanistan, where avoidance of civilian casualties is a claimed top priority--we're shooting an "amazing number" of completely innocent people, including "families"?

In fact, the whole point of military training is to help soldiers overcome the fear of taking a human life. Atrocities are the logical and predictable outcome of that training.

"When an atrocity happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government either defends it or tries to dismiss it as the act of 'few bad apples' who must be harshly disciplined to show that this isn't tolerated," explained Phil Aliff, a combat soldier who did a tour in Iraq and then joined Iraq Veterans Against the War.

"In reality, the military indoctrinates soldiers in order to dehumanize Iraqi and Afghan civilians, so that soldiers will be able to pull the trigger. If you see human beings, it's harder to engage in combat. So if you really want to know where to put the blame, it belongs with the Pentagon and political leaders, including the president, who train troops to kill, and then put them on the field of battle in the first place."

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