July 12, 2007

July 12, 2007

I don’t typically write about current events and politics here at TGW, but the leaked audio and video taken from the turret camera of an Apache gunship killing at least twelve people, including two Reuters reporters, seems so explosive and has weighed so heavily on my mind since it was first released via WikiLeaks on Monday afternoon, that I want to take this opportunity to compose some of my thoughts about this tragedy.  Please pardon what may be considerable gaps in my understanding of the events that take place.  I write as a concerned citizen, not terribly versed in the U.S military’s Rules of Engagement, the Law of Armed Combat, or the application of the Geneva Conventions, however this video has persuaded me that it is my responsibility to learn more about all of these.

I’ve gathered the information I write about here from the WikiLinks article, and from one and two articles reported in the New York Times, as well as a Times photo essay on Reuters Photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen.

My Summary of the Events and Video Content

On July 12, 2007, in New Baghdad, a subdivision of Baghdad, a ground patrol reports to have come under attack from small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades.  Two Apache helicopters offering air support scan the area for the source of the attack, but find no live fire.  They focus on a group of men walking casually through an open air plaza and observe that several of them appear to be carrying weapons, specifically identifying RPG’s and and AK-47’s.  Here is a still taken from the video where the pilot makes this ID:

Among the group of men are two Reuters employeees, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver, Saeed Chmagh.

When one Apache rounds a corner of a building, Namir is seen poking his camera around the building to snap shots down the street.  In the replay of the video, he is clearly holding a camera, but the pilot ID’s the tube-shaped lens of the camera as an RPG, and requests permission to engage the group.  The men are standing in a tight group when the Apache finds a clear shot and fires, instantly killing all but one of the men.

The lone survivor crawls away on the sidewalk, struggling to hold up his body with his broken limbs.  The wounded man is clearly unarmed when one of the gunners, holding his fire, says, “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon.”

At this point a man runs up to the situation ahead of a black van.  The van stops next to the wounded man and several unarmed men get out and begin to assist by carrying the wounded and loading him into the van.  The Apache audio is very important here:

07:18  Bushmaster; Crazyhorse. We have individuals going to the scene, looks like possibly uh picking up bodies and weapons.
07:25  Let me engage.
07:28  Can I shoot?
07:31  Roger. Break. Uh Crazyhorse One-Eight request permission to uh engage.
07:36 Picking up the wounded?
07:38 Yeah, we're trying to get permission to engage.
07:41 Come on, let us shoot! 07:44Bushmaster; Crazyhorse One-Eight.
07:49 They're taking him.
07:51 Bushmaster; Crazyhorse One-Eight.
07:56 This is Bushmaster Seven, go ahead.
07:59 Roger. We have a black SUV-uh Bongo truck [van] picking up the bodies. Request permission to engage.
08:02 Fuck.
08:06 This is Bushmaster Seven, roger. This is Bushmaster Seven, roger. Engage.
08:12 One-Eight, engage.
08:12 Clear.
08:13 Come on!
08:17 Clear.
08:20 Clear.
08:21 We're engaging.

The two Apaches open fire, killing everyone at the scene except for two children in the van.  The children are severely wounded.

A few minutes later, the ground units arrive:

13:00  We're moving in the vicinity of the engagement area and looks like we've got some slight movement from ah, the ah van that was engaged.
13:06  Looks like a kid. Over.

There is a five second pause before radio chatter continues to describe unit movements and the ground situation.  In the fifteenth minute, the gunner describes why he felt the attack was necessary, referring to the moment when the photographer was seen snapping photos around the corner of a building:

15:28  Yeah Two-Six. One-Eight I just also wanted to make sure you knew that we had a guy with an RPG cropping round the corner getting ready to fire on your location.
15:36  That's why we ah, requested permission to engage.

A ground unit member reports on the condition of one of the wounded children, and the chopper gunner responds:

17:04  Roger, we need, we need a uh to evac [evacuate] this child. Ah, she's got a uh, she's got a wound to the belly.
17:10  I can't do anything here. She needs to get evaced. Over.
17:46  Well it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.
17:48  That's right.

The children are evacuated, the site is secured, and the chopper gunners go prowling for more targets.  They find two more men in the vicinity who appear to be carrying weapons.  The men walk into a building, which gunners identify as a ‘abandoned,’ or ‘under construction.’  (Witnesses later reveal to WikiLeaks that at least two families were living in the building).  The gunners request and receive permission to fire a total of three hellfire missiles into the building, destroying it and killing all of the occupants.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the incident, the military confiscated two cameras from the scene, they classified the Apache videos to prevent their release in a Freedom of Information Act inquiry, and they classified unit reports detailing any weapons taken from the site of the incident.  In reports to the media, military officials indicate that the “Coalition Forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” though early Reauters reports cast doubts as to whether there was any fighting taking place when the two reporters were killed.  The military identifies all but the reporters as “Insurgents,” and claims no knowledge about how the reporters were killed, or how the children were wounded.  The leaked videos show a very different picture of these events.

The Videos

On Monday, April 5th, WikiLeaks releases two videos to the public.  One is uncut, and shows the entire 39 minutes of footage taken from the gunsights of the lead Apache.  The second video is edited, and contains only portions of the events.  Both videos contain graphic images of real violence, so viewers should watch with discretion.  In the shorter video, the moment when the reporter misidentified looking around the corner with his camera happens at 4:06.  The violence commences at 4:48, so proceed with caution:

(video embedding is having some problems, so I provide links)

The Shorter Video, at 17m47s

The Longer Video, at 39m14s

On the day the videos are released to the public, Julian Assange, one of the founders of WikiLeaks, reports and reflects on their content in an interview with English language Al Jazeera:

Julian Assange on Al Jazeera

The First Wave of Violence and the Rules of Engagement

I’m inclined to give our men and women in uniform the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making choices in a combat situation.  In this case, the gunners ID’ed weapons and opened fire.  I assume the gunners were acting in accordance to the Rules of Engagement, so what I find shocking is the laxness of these rules.  The men in the video may have been carrying weapons, but at no time were they firing them.  Apparently the RoE allow for the killing of people for merely possessing weapons.  Moreover, most of the people in the crowd were clearly unarmed, so at a minimum the RoE allow for a lot of collateral damage.

A second concern about the ID of weapons comes from the twitchy, grainy, black and white video footage used to make the call.  To me, the poor video quality, combined with the fact that a camera was incorrectly ID’ed as a an RPG, suggests that this setup will always be prone to error.  As the cameras zoom in and out during the video, it becomes apparent that the Apaches are several kilometers from the incident.  This fact is made most palpable when rounds are fired.  The ship rocks back from the recoil, but seconds pass before the blasts strike their target.  What I learned from the first attack is that a lot of innocent people can be killed from a far distance based on the kind of grainy video footage one might expect from a surveillance camera at a convenience store.

The Second Wave of Violence, the Atrocity of the Van

Though the RoE, as deduced above, strike me as a terrible way to conduct a war, I am willing to accept that the misidentification of the reporter’s camera as an RPG was an ‘honest mistake.’  What happens when the van arrives with two children and several unarmed adults who attempt to rescue a wounded man, I can only describe as an atrocity.
When the wounded man was crawling, the gunner seemed to express hope that the downed man might reach for a weapon, thus giving the gunner reason to finish him off.  From this I learn that it is unlawful to shoot a wounded unarmed man.  When the van arrives, the gunner asks for permission to fire, pointing out that the van’s occupants might be there to collect weapons and take bodies (evidence).  It is this observation that leads the central command to give the gunner permission to shoot.  The gunner kills everyone but the children, who survive by chance.

I call this killing an atrocity because the occupants of the van were unarmed, and were only there to assist the wounded man.  As the adults carry the wounded into the van, the chopper gunner is begging for permission to fire.  Through the entire event these people were never a danger to anyone.  I can’t understand how any reasonable person could interpret this as anything but an atrocity.

The Military Cover-up

As with the Pat Tillman case before, I’m not surprised that there was a military cover-up, but now we know about it, and this knowledge should compel our country to do something about it.  High command is on record stating they didn’t know what caused the reporters’ deaths, or how the children were wounded.  They are on record stating that the engagement was a firefight with insurgents, though the video shows no shots fired by anyone other than the chopper gunners.  The military claims to have recovered AK-47’s and RPG’s from the site, but considering the lies told about the children and reporters, and the obfuscation encountered when Reuters tried to investigate, it is difficult for me to accept the weapons claims at face value.  If the military can kill with impunity, and hide its actions from the light of day, then the military is broken.

Last Thoughts on the Incident and WikiLeaks

We know about this incident because two reporters were killed, which brought enough attention to the matter so that someone decided to anonymously provide the footage to WikiLeaks.  Watching the video, and seeing how quickly poor weapon ID’s led to carnage, there is simply no reason to believe that this is an isolated incident.  The cameras used to make the ID’s, and the guns used in the slaughter, are in service today.  I also think that this will be an explosive story, perhaps as significant as Abu Ghraib.  I don’t know how we can take this story seriously and continue with business as usual.

WikiLeaks emerges from this situation as an incredibly important new media source.  Watching how calmly and thoughtfully Julian Assange discusses the WikiLinks revelation is inspiring.  Twitter also played an interesting role in the story, since it was on Twitter that WikiLeaks announced the possession of the video, and requested private access to a supercomputer to help break the encryption on the video.  YouTube has a small role, as it hosts the most widely seen versions of the video.  Though I feel serious dismay when I consider the decline of print journalism, this groundbreaking news event offers a glimmer of hope that somehow the internet might deliver on the promise to shine a light into every dark corner.  For me, this is the only positive takeaway from this terrible tragedy.

6 responses to “July 12, 2007”

  1. Dave says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful write-up, Rogan. I’ve been thinking about this video a lot since I watched it yesterday.

    There’s a lot to say about the specifics of the video. Like you, I feel that I need to research the relevant ROE — it’s horrifying that, as one blogger put it, simply “carrying a bag in Baghdad” is enough to bring down the deadly force of the U.S. military on you and your associates. It seems from the chatter before the first attack that the ROE simply require that the targets be armed. On the other hand, there’s that crucial statement at about 4:22 in the short video, “Yeah, we had a guy shooting” — which sounds like a sloppy misstatement to me, an offhand-sounding move from “He’s got an RPG” or identifying AK-47s to something that’s crucially much more significant. That remark isn’t questions bur rather is amplified as a much more urgent reason to “engage.”

    And as you said, the military says the choppers were in a firefight with insurgents, when it certainly seems from the video that only the choppers fired any rounds. (I wonder if anyone in the group of men on the ground fired a few rounds from an AK-47 in a place that was obscured from the camera’s view, some time before the 4:22 remark, or if there was a group of insurgents somewhere else nearby that fired shots. I doubt it, but you can’t rule it out from the video.) So did the ROE require that shots be fired before the choppers fired back? That the targets demonstrate hostile intent?

    Whatever the ROE were, the standards of evidence required to engage were clearly not very stringent.

    The casualness of the whole encounter is unnerving and certainly indicates that this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. We know about this one because it involved Reuters employees. So the casual cruelty of the soldiers on the radio — hoping the wounded man will pick up a gun so they can shoot him again, excusing the shooting of the children as the fault of the people who put them in the van — is something that’s repeated again and again. I imagine it’s nearly impossible for U.S. soldiers with those duties to avoid becoming, situationally, quite removed from the moral standards we apply at home.

    The horror of this encounter, then, is a near-inevitable consequence of our occupying Iraq. When I think about who’s responsible, I can’t help moving up the chain of command to those who ordered this immoral and illegal war and occupation, and those who continue it.

  2. I hope that this video helps America lose its stomach for war very quickly.

    Dave, you talk about the casualness of the whole encounter, and how unnerving that is. I tried not to dwell too much on this casualness, since I think that it is kind of distracting from what I see as truly actionable conduct when the gunners light up the van and all of the unarmed people trying to help the wounded man, but I think that for many Americans, it will be this haunting casualness that changes how they think about war.

    I also think that this video makes for a fascinating litmus test. I just can’t understand how any reasonable person could chalk this up to ‘the fog of war.’

  3. LP says:

    I watched this video yesterday with dread, expecting to be completely morally outraged. In the end, I was more saddened than outraged, upset more at the senselessness of if all than at the gunners’ actions specifically.

    Part of me feels like this is a moral failing on my part – isn’t this a black-and-white issue, as Rogan suggests? But then I read this post, from a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, and thought it made some fair points. None of us knows what it’s like to be there; the important point is that we shouldn’t be there at all.

  4. Dave says:

    Here’s an informed comment about the aviators’ actions, although the author of the post, Starbuck, is treating the incident as a lesson on why combat aviators should apply counterinsurgency doctrine (specifically, don’t shoot up the locals when you don’t have to so they won’t hate you), rather than as a potential war crime.

    Rogan, I agree that shooting the van is the most clearly horrible action here. (I haven’t had time to watch the longer video, which shows the use of Hellfire missile against a building). I take the casualness as evidence that the actions in the video are not particularly out of the ordinary for the people talking on the radio.

    And speaking of the “fog of war,” I know that phrase is usually used to mean something like, “well, the battle was really confusing, bullets were flying and bombs were bursting, and these soldiers made a mistake they shouldn’t be held accountable for.” But the video does depict a certain fog. The soldiers/aviators have really degraded epistemic standards — you can’t tell what the guys on the ground are carrying, and we are pretty sure that at least a couple of them are carrying cameras not guns, yet the guys in the helicopters (which are quite a ways away, looking at the people on the ground with high-powered lenses) jump to the conclusion that they’ve got guns and an RPG. Then there’s the line about “we had a guy shooting,” when it sure looks like there hasn’t been any shooting. There’s the statement about the van: “possibly picking up bodies and weapons.” The guys making these statements are in a jumpy frame of mind, to say the least — you’d call them paranoid, but I’m sure they had been shot at, and that every sortie they flew carried a non-negligible chance of death. So that’s a fog of war. And the justifications for their actions that we discount — the van was picking up bodies and weapons, “it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle” — these are a fog of judgment, and I’m not sure it’s possible to operate in a war zone without that kind of fogginess.

    I don’t say this to exonerate the individuals involved in this incident, but to point out that such incidents are pretty much the inevitable result of how the U.S. fights, and specifically of how the U.S. conducts its occupation of Iraq.

  5. LP says:

    More insightful comments, on both sides of the debate, here (Daily Dish). And here is a summary of the military’s post-incident reports (Wired).

    I would be really interested to hear what the helicopter crew’s reactions were when they realized what had happened. But I’m sure we’ll never know.

  6. 3. LP, it is always interesting to read a soldier’s perspective on these things. As I wrote, I’m inclined to give these young men and women the benefit of the doubt when it comes to these terrible situations, but I had to draw a line at the destruction of the van. That is the black and white moment, when the gunner misrepresents what is happening by suggesting the occupants are collecting weapons and bodies (destroying evidence) when all they are really doing is helping a wounded person. In the post you link to, the writer says something similar, “I won’t speak as to why they fired on the van after the initial attack. They were cleared by the ground commander after accurately conveying what was going on over the radio, and I don’t have a comprehensive enough understanding of the Law of Land Warfare.” I would disagree that they “accurately” conveyed what was going on, but it is only that part of the incident that crosses a clear and distinct line — they shot and killed a group of unarmed people who were administering first aid.

    A lot of people focus on the tragic loss of the two journalists. Anyone who checks out the photo essay about Namir’s work will see that he DID spend time near insurgents. In some ways, like soldiers who enlist, Namir knew that his job was inherently dangerous, so I don’t feel outrage about his tragedy. I feel outrage about the van, and the children, and the unarmed men who were slaughtered while providing aid to a wounded person.