Posted by Brad @ 11:19 am on April 6th 2010

That WikiLeaks Video

I watched it the other day and wasn’t going to post it—not really my beat—but since it’s reached a critical mass of blogosphere attention, I do want to add a few quick things.

Now, honestly, I’m less bothered by this than most people. Rules of engagement are tricky things, and the fog of war dictates that these are always going to be imperfect calls, and you just have to live with a certain margin of error. I agree with the Economist that this video appears to be within that margin of error. 8 guys on a street, a few definitely with guns and a photographer who looked, even to me, to be a combatant with an RPG, in what nobody denies was a combat zone with battles going on. To me, I think the helicopter team probably made the right call there.

More tricky is firing on the van which was, at that point, in use by two guys who were picking up a wounded/dead man. But even here, engagement rules are tricky, or should I say the gray area is indeed pretty gray. It comes down to whether or not the people are combatants or non-combatants, and the military team had already designated them combatants (whether they were right or not is another matter). Within the inner logic of this mission, the team that fired on them was probably in the right. Within the larger logic of the rules of engagement (the spirit of it, if you will)…that’s tougher, and I’d probably lean against.

I say all that in coming to the conclusion was not a war crime and probably within the bounds of ROE and SOP, but what I’m not saying is that this isn’t pretty horrible. Which is itself important. This is how modern battles go in unconventional theaters. And the people that are so gung-ho about rah-rahing every military engagement possible, or the people that are ambivalent, ought to see these things. Because once you go in, you are greenlighting this scenario, in essence, happening a thousand times or more. There’s nothing pretty or heroic about it. It is a brutal business, really a throwing open of the gates on slaughter and human suffering. I do believe there are times when it is a necessary evil. But watch these guys getting shot to bits from afar—a handful of nobody combatants mixed in with children and reporters. You better make damn sure you set the “necessary” bar real high. And nobody should be allowed the polite fiction that comes with insulating themselves from the reality of combat. You want it, you watch it, and you understand that this isn’t a game, and these aren’t cartoon terrorists twirling their mustaches that we’re heroically engaging. These are small crowds on street corners, and maybe they’re battle hardened terrorists, maybe they’re local insurgents, maybe they’re petty criminals, or maybe they’re just people standing around on a street corner. You’ll never make that determination with 100% accuracy. As Glenn Greenwald said this morning:

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. But what is shown is completely common. That includes not only the initial killing of a group of men, the vast majority of whom are clearly unarmed, but also the plainly unjustified killing of a group of unarmed men (with their children) carrying away an unarmed, seriously wounded man to safety — as though there’s something nefarious about human beings in an urban area trying to take an unarmed, wounded photographer to a hospital.

A major reason there are hundreds of thousands of dead innocent civilians in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan, is because this is what we do. This is why so many of those civilians are dead. What one sees on that video is how we conduct our wars.

However, my commentary on this isn’t really anything you won’t read elsewhere. The reason I want to pass this on is to once again highlight Wikileaks, which I wrote about just last week. In a society where we are conditioned to believe the polite fictions told to us and many of us actively protect that security blanket around us, Wikileaks is serving as a raw feed, a no-bullshit zone, an anti-ambivalator. Hats off to them.

For more on the video, Wikileaks, and the larger context of what you’re seeing, Greenwald is, as is often the case, the guy to see. Here and here. For as good a take from a combat vet as you’re going to see analyzing the video and the engagement, Sully got a terrific reader email today.


  1. Greenwald really fell all over himself on Twitter with his love for Wikileaks. I’ve been a fan of them for as long as I’ve known of them.

    I watched this video today and was going to post on it but as usual, I’m always a day late and a dollar short.

    My take on it is pretty similar to what Brad said. Watching the video, I was struck by a few things. First of all, that looked to me like a group of armed men. Not all of them, but some of them surely looked armed. The chopper audio did mention something to the effect of shots fired which I didn’t see, but overall that looked like a reasonable attack. I did not see a trigger-happy undisciplined attack on a group of people.

    The first time I watched the video I didn’t notice the kids in the van either. I don’t understand why they were brought in. I’m not quite of the “it’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle” mindset but I wouldn’t have brought my kids to the scene of an American military attack. I understand why the van was attacked though, as it looks as if additional insurgents are trying to clean up the scene (note the repeated comments regarding grabbing weapons, even though it looked to me that they were focused on the wounded guy), save their own, and keep them from falling into American custody. I don’t know what else could be done there, although theoretically the helo could have followed the van and either found an insurgent hideout or had soldiers meet them at a hospital.

    I don’t begrudge the comments made by the gunners. They weren’t overly morbid or antagonistic.

    I don’t know what else is being said about this. It doesn’t strike me as anything other than modern warfare though, in all its hideous glory.

    A recent scene in the video game Modern Warfare 2 caused a big stir. I think that we need more games that represent the reality of war the way this video reveals it. And we need more of these videos in general.

    Comment by Jerrod — 4/6/2010 @ 8:17 pm

  2. I watched this video today and was going to post on it but as usual, Iím always a day late and a dollar short.

    Don’t let that stop you. I just posted on it too.

    Comment by Jack — 4/6/2010 @ 8:47 pm

  3. Plus there’s the whole “everyone else already said it better” thing too.

    Comment by Jerrod — 4/7/2010 @ 1:31 am

  4. I always get caught in the too late and everyone else said it better zone.

    Comment by Liz — 4/7/2010 @ 8:51 am

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