On Monday, 5 April, the whistleblower site WikiLeaks caused uproar when they posted a video from an Apache patrol from 12 July 2007, in New Baghdad. In the subsequent firing from attack aviation, two local Reuters employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, were killed. The US Government (USG) has not denied the authenticity of the footage. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange reported that the video was provided by government sources to WikiLeaks.
I applaud WikiLeaks for exercising the first amendment and playing a vital role in checks and balances in the United States. Though, in their attempt to uncover the “indiscriminate slaying” of the crowd of Iraqi men, they are now endangering service members currently deployed to Iraq. In addition to the ongoing string of bombings in reaction to the parliamentary election in March, more fuel has been added to the fire.
I am a big supporter of Amy Goodman and her independent media outlet Democracy Now!. In fact, I flocked to Columbia University’s auditorium Tuesday night to see her speak as part of the conference Facing the Fracture. Though I am disappointed that she failed to note the pattern of on-the-ground threats in the area and how this affects the operating capacity of these combat pilots. Dr. Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist noted that the neighborhood was contested and the assumed threat of a shoot down was very high. In the end, one of the men shot in the video was in fact carrying a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), which had it fired, would have downed the Apache in seconds.
Independent journalist Rick Rowley essentially excused two of the Iraqi men in the group, for arming themselves with automatic rifles. During his interview with Democracy Now! he stated that since it was during a time of civil war, it is justified for Iraqis to carry AK-47s, in what he previously called a peaceful neighborhood of refugees. In my view, the quelling of violence in Iraq will be largely dependent on Iraqis laying down their arms, despite their fears of instability. In addition, the economy won’t get the boost it vitally needs until the rifles are kept out of the marketplaces.
Upon my initial screening of the Apache footage, it was apparent to me why there was such a strong public reaction. The pilots were clearly heard on the audio laughing. To the outsider not familiar with the psyche in war, it seems that these combat pilots were actually delighted to pull the trigger. I laud Benedict Carey for writing in the New York Times about the psychological distancing necessary for combat soldiers to complete their missions. In fact, it is essential for the soldiers not to be overly emotional during moments of intense decision-making. Over the years, the American public has turned their back on the strain war causes, focusing instead on the isolated failures. At our computers now, we have the luxury of replay and fresh eyes. To the overworked, sleep-deprived attack aviation pilot, the threat was present, and in line with their training, they took the actions necessary to ensure their safety.
As Nancy Scola addresses, Reuters hit a wall when approaching the USG for the helicopter footage, citing the Freedom of Information Act. The line is unclear regarding civilian access to information that details ongoing combat operations and US tactics. The US military fervently defended the Apache pilots as engaging with a hostile force. The Reuters investigation claimed the men were innocent non-combatants. A game of he said, she said, ensues. Currently, the USG does not have plans for reopening the case for further investigation.
If anything, this video should give more insight into the stresses of a 3rd, 4th, or 5th combat deployment. Attack aviation spots a military-age male through their scope, mounting a medium-sized object on their shoulder- what are they to think? Had this been a different circumstance and had they hesitated, we may be watching videos of the Apache in flames on the ground with jubilant Iraqi men dragging the burnt corpse of the pilot through the street. This is not a hawkish statement in an attempt to write off this tragedy. The reality is that the fog of war does not allow one to see every detail. The number one priority is survival. To point out black dots on footage after the fact and call the pilots indiscriminate murderers is not just. If being a combat pilot were an easy job, couldn’t we all do it?