Thursday, April 8, 2010

And now for what we DID see on a video

If my last post was about what wasn’t seen in a video, this one is about what is. This Monday, an organization called WikiLeaks released footage of an attack on July 12, 2007, by two US Army Apache helicopters on a group of Iraqi civilians, killing about a dozen people and wounding two children. The incident would no doubt have attracted little attention except for the single and utterly random fact that two of the dead were employees of Reuters News Service: driver/assistant Saeed Chmagh and photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen. Reuters, apparently, doesn’t take kindly to losing its people in unprovoked fits of arrogance by the US military. Moreover, they know how to negotiate the vagaries of the Freedom of Information Act, and both have and are willing to employ the resources to get to the truth. After nearly three years, the video shot from the lead helicopter has apparently come to light.

The footage shows the American helicopters opening fire on a group of Iraqis who have committed no apparent offense other than being in the vicinity of each other. One of the Americans talks about seeing a weapon… but there is no evidence of one: one suspects that he was misidentifying Noor-Eldeen’s camera equipment. I’m not trained in this stuff, so maybe there’s a weapon there somewhere that I don’t see. But I do earn my living, in part, by knowing what gestural patterns are plausible manifestations of what psychological impulses: in the terms of Konstantin Stanislavsky, the relationship between the action (psychological) and the activity (physical). And I’m here to tell you that there’s no way that those men in those pictures were engaged in any sort of belligerent activity. They are relaxed, paying no attention whatsoever to the attack helicopter a couple hundred yards away from them—they had to have both seen it and heard it—until, of course, it opened fire on them.

The report back to the base, that the pilots can see “five to six individuals with AK47s” is at best an obvious exaggeration—even counting the camera equipment, they have identified precisely two even possible weapons. But even if we take them at their word on that, they aren’t satisfied until they have slaughtered everyone in the area, well over half of whom, by their own numbers, are unarmed. They subsequently claim that “we had a guy shooting”; the tape doesn’t confirm that assertion, but, again, it might be true. Of course, it might be true that Rush Limbaugh will honor his pledge to leave the country since health care reform passed, but I’m not holding my breath.

Our Beloved Boys in Uniform then gloat about “those dead bastards.” A short while later a van approaches and some men emerge, obviously with the intent of coming to the aid of a wounded man (who turns out to be one of the Reuters men) who has managed to crawl up onto the sidewalk. The guys in the helicopter start sounding like three-year-olds in the candy store, impatiently demanding of the base, “C’mon, let us shoot.” Permission is granted: apparently such basic human decency as caring for the wounded—any wounded—is now a capital offense. Anyway, the helicopters proceed to blast the crap out of the van, killing most of those inside but—miraculously—only wounding the two children.

A few minutes later, ground forces arrive, and the helicopter guys get a good chuckle when their comrades appear to drive over one of the bodies. When the soldiers find the wounded children, there’s a brief moment when it almost seems like there’s someone human there, but then we get this exchange: “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” “That’s right.” This has got to be one of the most disturbing moments of a very disturbing piece of video. The implication is that although we shot these kids, it wasn’t our fault… they were brought into a “battle.” No, actually, they were brought into a massacre. And apparently when attempting to rescue an unarmed man who has been seriously wounded, it's protocol to drop your kids off first: to do otherwise is reckless. No one in this sequence did anything even remotely deserving of being slaughtered by a gaggle of trigger-happy goons: not the wounded man, not those who tried to help him, certainly not the children themselves.

Ultimately, however, this isn’t about the soldiers. I was fortunate enough to have been just a little too young to have been drafted into the Vietnam War, but I’ve done enough reading on the subject and have known enough veterans to understand that it is a different world there. Protestations that “none of the soldiers I know are like that” are as hollow as the claims that all soldiers are monsters. The fact is, we don’t know how any individual will respond until he’s there. Indeed, we don’t know how behavior will change (or won’t) from minute to minute. If what it takes to cling to a shred of sanity in that environment is to dehumanize anyone who isn’t one of us, to reduce the human carnage below us to a sort of video game, I understand. I don’t like it, but it’s one of life’s little contradictions. I don’t want to hang out at the slaughterhouse, either, but I do like those steaks and chops.

So I am perfectly willing to believe that the men we saw and heard behave so callously and indeed ghoulishly on this footage are actually quite wonderful fellows when removed from this environment: they were before they got there, and they are/will be again. The Army brass, on the other hand, are, to coin a phrase, liars. Here’s the report in the New York Times the next day: “Clashes in a southeastern neighborhood here between the American military and Shiite militias on Thursday left at least 16 people dead, including two Reuters journalists who had driven to the area to cover the turbulence, according to an official at the Interior Ministry…. The American military said in a statement late Thursday that 11 people had been killed: nine insurgents and two civilians. According to the statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed.”

Now, whether there were any Shiite militiamen in the area may be open for debate, but those two journalists sure as hell didn’t die in any “fight.” They were simply attacked. Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl is quoted as asserting that ''There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force.” This is, of course, an outright lie. There’s plenty to question about Bleichwehl's assertion—the military just wanted to sweep another “oops” moment under their very large rug. They’d have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling journalists. (Any resemblance to Scooby Doo dialogue in the previous sentence is entirely coincidental.)

On July 16, some four days after the attack, Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger, citing a preliminary police report of a “random American bombardment” and Reuters’s own preliminary investigation which “raise[d] real questions about whether there was fighting at the time the two men were killed,” demanded a “thorough and objective investigation” of the circumstances of the two Reuters employees’ deaths. (It would be nice if alleged news organizations cared about the truth all the time, not just when one of their people has been killed, but I guess we take what we can get.)

Gentle Reader, you may have noticed that I equivocated at the end of my first paragraph. You know, when I said “the video shot from the lead helicopter has apparently come to light”? That’s because the tape has not been confirmed as authentic because… wait for it… the military can’t find their copy. According to the Associated Press, “Military officials said they believed the video was authentic, but that they had to compare the images and audio with their own video before confirming it publicly. When pressed Tuesday on why the military had not released the video when other documents related to the investigation were made public, officials said they were still looking for it and weren't entirely sure where it was.” Yep, really. If nothing else, this makes me feel a little better about the stuff that disappears into the abyss I call my desk. Seriously, though, I suspect that copy will somehow never be found, thereby making that rather damning tape unconfirmed. Hate it when that happens. Wikileaks says they are scrupulous about authentication, but John McCain said he vetted his running mate. And Wikileaks, to the extent that they have a reputation at all, are known for protecting their sources. So I’m guessing that we’re just going to have to assume the footage is real.

If we do that, then, there’s only one question. Not whether the helicopter guys got a testosterone overdose and started shooting up the place just because they could: they did. Not whether the Army brass consciously, brazenly, lied about what had happened: they did. Not whether Reuters gave a damn about only two of the dozen or so dead: they did. The only question is whether Glenn Greenwald is accurate in his assertion that “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” [emphasis his]. Based on the testimony of the necessarily anonymous reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog who wrote “90% of what occurs in that video has been commonplace in Iraq for the last 7 years, and the 10% that differs is entirely based on the fact that two of the gentlemen killed were journalists,” I’d have to say yes. Based on what I’ve been reading (or re-reading) to prep for my course on the American Theatre and the Vietnam War, yes. Based on over a half-century of observing human nature, yes. But you’re free to disagree. As long as you share whatever you've got in that pipe…

1 comment:

Steve said...

Terrific essay, Rick — you sure can write, brother-man!