Bearing Witness to Collateral Murder

If you ever needed a reminder of the utter obscenity that is war, just watch this clip.

On July 2007, two American Apache helicopters fired on a group of people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad, killing approximately a dozen and wounding many others, including two children. The background of most of the dead are unknown but we do know that among the dead were two Reuters news employees named Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen.  Following the incident, Reuters demanded an investigation; US military authorities eventually concluded that the soldiers and pilots involved acted in accordance with the law of armed conflict and their Rules of Engagement.

Wikileaks has now obtained and decrypted a video of the entire incident.  After watching it there can be no doubt that the US military acted counter to its own rules – and that its “investigation” was an utter sham. According the Rules of Engagement, soldiers may only “engage the enemy” after hostile fire – but it is quite evident from the video that this firefight was clearly unprovoked.  At worst some of the men walking in the streets appeared to be carrying weapons. Potentially threatening, perhaps, but not in and of itself cause to open fire without warning.

The images in this video are graphic and disturbing enough, but what I found to be most devastating were the offhand, casual, even mocking comments of the soldiers as they mowed down these individuals in the streets. They might as well have been been playing a video game – and perhaps that is just the point. Among other things, this clip provides sobering testimony to the profoundly dehumanizing effects of war. (For me one of the most sickening moments in the video occurs when you hear one soldier chortling as another drives a  Bradley Fighting Vehicle over a dead body in the street.)

“Collateral damage,” of course, is the euphemistic term for the killing of innocents. Those who advocate for war consider the killing of civilians in wartime to be a regrettable but necessary part of the bargain. No doubt we will hear this justification all the more as modern militaries increasingly utilize drones and other forms of high tech military hardware. The more we turn war into a video game, the more we create an artificial distance between ourselves and the ones with whom we wage war. But rarely do we stop to consider the ripple effects of this “collateral damage:” the untold sorrow and grief it creates, the anger and hatred it unleashes in a population.

I encourage you, after watching the video, to read Israeli blogger Yaniv Reich’s piece in Hybrid States, in which he makes the unavoidable connection between this incident and Israel’s war in Gaza and the Goldstone Report:

Those ideologues who supported Israel’s onslaught against the imprisoned population in Gaza need to spend a few extra minutes watching and digesting this video. What this video shows is the massacre of about a dozen people in Iraq, and it shows how very easy it is for even the mightiest and most technologically advanced military in the world to butcher innocents. But we miss thousands of other such videos, which did not make it to Wikileaks.

The images in this video are extremely graphic and unsettling. But I think we at least owe it to ourselves to bear witness to the carnage we ourselves are enabling through our tax dollars – and our silence.

2 thoughts on “Bearing Witness to Collateral Murder

  1. I watched this video last night and felt sick most of the evening. And I continue to feel ashamed that these are American soldiers sounding for all the world like young teenagers playing the latest war video game. Ironically, I learned of the video from a young Israeli, a veteran of IDF intelligence, who, when I was in Israel in March, vehemently defended the Gaza invasion and denied Sharon’s provocation on the Temple Mount which precipitated the second intifada. We have engaged what I hope will be a productive conversation. We disagree on a great deal, but we do agree that the careless and wanton killing reflected by this video is totally abhorrent. I pray this video will disgust us all and lead to many such productive conversations.

  2. It is absolutely critical that we understand, recognize, and acknowledge privately and publicly that what we see in this video is not an exceptional incident at all, but something that has taken place on a daily basis, no doubt multiple times a day in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is not some bad apple soldiers “going rogue”, this is a “normal day at the office”, as you can tell from the tone as you listen to the audio. It’s just troops doing their jobs. And while acts such as this may violate official rules of engagement, they are standard operating procedure, and the disgustingly inhuman attitudes displayed here are quite, quite normal.

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