Posted by Jack @ 8:07 pm on April 6th 2010

A few more probably redundant thoughts on the wikileak video of the Apache helicopter attack

If you have not seen it, start here, and then read Brad’s initial take. For those who have been without television, radio, the internet, newspapers, or human contact for the last few days, and then made The Crossed Pond your first stop in returning to civilization, and are also unwilling to click on links, a one paragraph summary, skip it you are familiar:

In 2007 a U.S. Military attack helicopter on patrol in Iraq identified as insurgents a group of approximately eleven men, among whom were two Reuters reporters. Though only two, possibly three of them appear to have been armed, they reported them as carrying AK-47s and RPGs. The latter was actually the telephoto lens carried over the shoulder of one of the reporters. The helicopter crew reported or implied that the insurgents were exhibiting potentially hostile behavior; it is unclear how much of that determination was made solely because they were a group of men, some of whom were armed, in a hot area that had seen intense conflict in recent days, and how much of it was based upon mistaking the telephoto lens, at one point aimed generally in the direction of the Apache, as an RPG. They were granted permission to engage, and did so, killing most of the men, but leaving one of the reporters alive and seriously injured. After a few minutes, a passerby in a panel truck stopped to render aide, and with the assistance of another man attempted to load the injured reporter into the vehicle. The helicopter crew reported these new men as potential insurgents attempting to take the bodies and weapons, implying some sort of cover up attempt. They again requested permission to engage, were granted permission, and did so, killing the would be good Samaritans. The attack also injured the two children that were inside their father’s truck. The military investigated and found everything to be in accordance with all procedures: Though an unfortunate tragedy, it was a perfectly legitimate engagement against confirmed insurgents, the reporters were collateral damage. Reuters has been attempting to acquire the rumored helicopter gun-site camera video for years. Recently, someone leaked it to the controversial whistle blower site WikiLeaks, and the blogosphere has been going a bit nuts on it since then.

Many other bloggers and journalists have correctly noted that there are two distinct issues at play, both of which deserve significant discussion and analysis: First, the incident itself, to include the helicopter crew’s actions within the context of battlefield activity, hostile combatant identification, and Rules of Engagement. Second, the nature of armed conflict and how incidents such as this are inevitable and, unfortunately, common. Wrapped up in such a discussion is the question of how these inevitable and common incidents should inform our decision to enter into armed engagement on foreign soil.

The Initial Engagement: Keeping in mind that this engagement occurred at the height of the 2007 surge, in a highly contested area, and on a day that had seen significant hostile activity, I cannot condemn the helicopter crew for their initial ID of the group of Iraqis and Reuters reporters as armed insurgents, and their subsequent request to engage. It appears to me that they are at least arguably in compliance with the ROE at the time. The pressure of battle naturally produces a tendency to see a threat where others, given the benefit of hindsight and a much more casual environment in which to observe it, might otherwise recognize that none existed. We can fault the crew for making a mistake in the ID, i.e., a camera lens is not an RPG, but given that they seemed to honestly believe that they were observing a group of men with at least a few AK-47s and an RPG, which at one time might have been aimed at the helicopter, in an area where ground troops were taking fire, with the mission to provide close air support, and operating under hot Rules of Engagement, I am unwilling to go any further than that without additional evidence. The incident reminds me of the USS Vincennes shoot down of Iran Air 655 A horrific tragedy in which clear mistakes in identificaiton were made during a highly stressful and confusing battle scenario during or shortly after weapons fire had been exchanged with Iranian naval forces. Environment, command climate, and leadership failures contributed significantly to the shoot down, but during the actual engagement, given the admittedly error-ridden information he had available, I can not fault Captain Rogers for his decision to fire.

The Second Engagement: Here we cross definitively over the line of acceptable conduct. I am not familiar with the specific aspects of the ROE at the time as they relate to taking bodies and weapons from the casualties. It is possible that there is no such authority to engage simply because an unidentified Iraqi is taking a dead body, in which case the crew would have violated said ROE. But for the sake of argument, let us suppose that the ROE were loose enough to allow an attack: I still condemn the crew for their actions because they seems to have made a concerted effort to distort what they were seeing such that it would rise to a level of hostile activity that was clearly not on display, and thus gain permission to fire. They repeatedly described the actions of the “bongo truck” driver and the other unidentified Iraqi as trying to take the bodies and weapons in order to hide some sort of nefarious activity, when it is rather clear that they were in fact attempting to load up the injured but still living casualty, who happened to be one of the Reuters reporters. Mistakes in war will absolutely happen, and maybe this does not rise to the level of a war crime due to some technical issues, such as the lack of medical markings on the bongo truck, but I can see no justification for engagement of this good Samaritan attempting to render aid to an injured man.

The tone and language of the helicopter crew:
Several people with whom I reviewed the footage were aghast at the helicopter crew’s language, or at least the tone of it. The casual attitude towards killing, the eagerness to engage, the cold humor regarding the dead, the callous reaction to finding children in the truck, etc. All those that I have heard or read expressing this sentiment are civilians with no military experience. For those that take exception to this aspect of the footage: I found it quite tame, and was rather surprised at how little triumphalism or cold-bloodedness was on display. This is the nature of war. Your troops are there to kill, and if you expect them to be good at it, then they will adopt an attitude that allows them to do it without dangerous hesitation. If you seek to create a fighting force that agonizes over each shot, then you will create a pathetically ineffective military. This is not to say that this attitude is, in the larger sense, a good thing. The impact that such a war mentality has on individual troops and our society as a whole is certainly negative, even monstrous when viewed without the understanding that such a cost is sometimes necessary for a greater good. But please, let’s not get all excited over, much less surprised by, men and women trained and ordered to kill finding a way to emotionally distance themselves from the act and its victims. This is what we ask for when we send our troops into battle. As a final point, the truly disturbing sound bite of the crewman urging the wounded reporter to pick up a weapon so he can shoot him actually gives me even more confidence that they were generally in compliance with the ROE at the time, or at least their understanding of it. Why else wait for him to take such a specific action but to classify him as a legitimate target under a specific set of rules?

The Bigger Issue: As tragic and incomprehensible as this incident seems, you delude yourself if you think it a rare occurrence. Hostile identification on a complex battle field in a counter insurgency environment is often extraordinarily difficult. While collateral damage in the most conservative sense, i.e., non-combatants killed during an engagement with legitimate targets, is the most common event under the larger umbrella of innocent casualties of war, plain old misidentification of neutrals as hostiles and friendly fire occur with alarming frequency. This incident stands out only for the status of two of the victims (the Reuters reporters, not the children), and the availability of the video. I don’t want to beat a dead horse by repeating what so many others are saying: This is what war is. You don’t have to be a pacifist, an isolationist, or even a limited interventionist to understand that it is a hideous undertaking that will inevitably have incident after tragic incident just like this. You may acknowledge such risks and elect to support a specific military intervention despite these consequences, but don’t be so ignorant as to pretend they do not exist.

Furthermore, understand that we in the U.S. tend to shelter ourselves from this ugly reality. We pretend that all the casualties are hostiles or an unfortunate but acceptable level of collateral damage justified by the larger goals of the conflict and the perilous alternative of non-intervention or withdrawal. We see incidents like this one and the Pat Tillman friendly fire incident and subsequent cover up as extremely rare, whereas in reality they are rather common. We rarely see or acknowledge this, while in the Islamic world, the opposite holds true. Al Jazeera and other Muslim news agencies display the carnage resulting from armed conflict, especially where the U.S. is involved, with uncensored enthusiasm. The assumptions their viewers make are precisely the opposite of ours: They see every incident as a gross error, an intentionally cruel war crime, as representative of American disdain for the lives of Muslims. It doesn’t have to be fair, it merely is, and we must accept that Islamic observations of these events will be decidedly more hostile, and will thus breed further animosity. Our most legitimate collateral damage victim can become a martyr and a lightening rod for additional anti-American sentiment. It is “blowback” in the most classic sense. You might, in anticipation of a pending military intervention, and after careful consideration, choose to accept the possible worst case consequences of this blowback, but for God’s sake don’t pretend that there are none.


  1. It was almost eerie reading this Andrew Sullivan reader’s comments.

    I had not seen it before I posted, but that active duty Iraq combat vet and I are almost of one mind on this, though I think he goes a little out of his way to find an excuse for the second engagement.

    Comment by Jack — 4/6/2010 @ 9:39 pm

  2. Always good to get the perspectives of the professional murder community. ;)

    Comment by Rojas — 4/7/2010 @ 12:02 am

  3. I’m bothered by the reaction that this incident deserves special consideration and treatment. Yes, it’s horrendous and revolting but it’s nothing special. This is what happens, plain and simple. This isn’t Abu Ghraib or torture either, not even close. This is our military doing what it’s supposed to do (and doing a damn good job of it, I might add). Yes, they mis-identified the enemy, but it wasn’t blatant (I can understand how they made the ID). It wasn’t Mai Lai or even Haditha. It wasn’t an errant bomb that went off course and blew up a wedding party (although I think some of those wedding massacres were pretty much the same thing we saw here: big crowd + weapons ID + gunfire (celebratory perhaps, but discharged weaponry) = lots of dead civilians.

    I’m surprised that people are surprised by this. What the hell did they think was going on over there? Talk about video games: maybe people thought that it was like a VG where there’s only bad guys on the screen.

    Comment by Jerrod — 4/7/2010 @ 8:52 pm

  4. I’d be willing to wager that the universe of people who 1. supported the initial intervention and 2. consider this to be a suprise and an outrage, is fairly small.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/7/2010 @ 11:29 pm

  5. But even for those who opposed it, what were they thinking? They are treating this video as if it was Blackwater in Nisour Square or something.

    Comment by Jerrod — 4/8/2010 @ 9:04 pm

  6. Jerrod I think the second engagement is pretty horrific, so yes, people are viewing that appropriately. I’m not sure Iam parsing you correctly. I can’t quite tell if you are taking the position that “yes this is horrible and aspects might be downright criminal but why are you suprised, horrible things like this are happening every day over there, that is the nature of war” or if you are instead saying “its horrible only in the sense that war is horrible, this incident, even the second engagement, is in compliance with rules of armed conflict.” I think these are two different things. The first is perhaps a combination of realism and ennui, the second is dismissal.

    I’m not so sure. Many of those that supported the war will certainly find a way to excuse or downplay this incident, or at least consider it very rare. But I would hope that there is a segment of the original war supporters, perhaps those that have been in the process of reevaluating there position, that will see this video and come to the realization that, in accordance with ROE or not, this is a horrible incident and, as so many of us have been saying, ought to make our nation that much more wary of armed conflict.

    Comment by Jack — 4/8/2010 @ 10:31 pm

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