This Is War

The video is disturbing. From 2007, it shows the view through the gun sight along with audio of communications from an American Apache attack helicopter as it and a counterpart engage ground targets. Specifically, the two Apaches shoot their 30mm cannons at a group of Iraqi men standing on a street corner.

The unedited thirty-nine minute video opens with the Apaches flying above Baghdad giving support to American troops close by on the ground, who had been taking fire from insurgents. About a minute in, over the comms, comes a warning that a group of men can be seen below and at least one of them has a weapon. The Apaches focus in on the men as they begin to gather on the street. Two of the men can be seen with something slung over their shoulders. One of the Apache crew says, “That’s a weapon.”

“Yeah,” his colleague responds. The Apaches request permission to engage. Before they receive it, the camera continues to track and more men come into view, one of them carrying an AK-47, the other an RPG tube. The Apaches again request permission to engage and receive it. As they circle, a building comes between the Apache about to fire and the group below. One of the men peeks around a corner. There’s an object at his feet and he picks it up, appearing to look in the direction of the Apache, and possibly American troops down the street.

“He’s got an RPG!”

“All right we got a guy with an RPG.”

“I’m gonna fire.”

“Okay.”

“No hold on. Let’s come around.”

The crew from the Apaches and the ground troops begin stepping on each other’s comms a bit now, with the crew of the Apaches feeling under direct threat and anxious to fire. They come around and the group of Iraqis on the ground once again comes into view. Before the shooting begins, this is the best view yet of the men the Apaches are targeting. One of the men is the one from earlier carrying the RPG tube. Next to him is a man wearing a t-shirt with wide stripes, and from this new vantage point it is clear he is carrying an AK-47 with a banana clip. The Apache crew remark on none of this. They have already received permission to fire and were only waiting to get a clear shot. They have it.

“Light ’em all up.”

“Come on, fire!”

The results are devastating. The high velocity, high caliber rounds rip the group to shreds. As survivors stumble and try to flee, they are tracked and killed, unable to get more than a few yards from the site of the initial volley before they are struck down. One man fell to the ground as he fled, and a line of shells tore through his back before he was able to rise, flinging pieces of him into the air. More shooting follows, finally ceasing when American ground forces confirm they are on the way to secure the area. As the Apaches circle and assess the scene, waiting for the dust to settle, they see that one of the men has not been killed, only wounded, and is trying to crawl away. The crews of the Apaches are keeping an eye on the lone wounded man, openly wishing over their comms for him to pick up a weapon and thus clear them to shoot at him once more.

As the Apaches continue to circle, but before the American ground troops arrive, a van drives up to the scene. Two Iraqi men on the street rush to the wounded man. The driver jumps out of the van and opens the side door for the two men, then hops back in the driver’s seat. They begin to carry the wounded man to the van. Up in the air, the crew of the Apaches are feeling much consternation. They see what is happening down below and try repeatedly to get clearance to engage the van and the men helping the wounded Iraqi. It seems they don’t want wounded, dead, and weapons to be carted off before American forces arrive to police the scene. They get clearance, and fire on the new encroachers, although there is never an indication that these new arrivals are brandishing weapons or are there for any other reason than to help the wounded man. The results are as efficient as the earlier shooting. The wounded man is finished off, as are the two men who were attempting to aid him. The driver of the van makes a vain attempt to escape, throwing the van wildly into reverse, spinning and slamming it into a wall, but the 30mm rounds do their work and the van is disabled, the driver presumably killed.

American ground forces sporting dismounted soldiers, Bradleys, Humvees, and at least one flatbed truck arrive on the scene and secure the area, counting eleven dead Iraqis. Upon inspecting the van, they report finding a child wounded in the fire from the Apaches. The shock comes through in the comms from above, even though the crewman speaking is calm and even-toned.

“Ah damn. Oh well.”

A minute later he is cold, probably out of necessity.

“Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

“That’s right,” the other prominent voice from the Apaches says.

“We got eleven,” he continues, possibly reassuring his colleague that they had done good work that day despite shooting a child. Another wounded child is found soon after and pulled out of the van.

The Apaches continue to circle the scene, keeping an eye on events below. Word of another engagement comes over the comms and the Apaches move off to another scene. Armed men can be seen entering an empty building. There is no ambiguity or mystery about what they are carrying. The Apaches line up to hit the building with Hellfire missiles. As the first missile is fired, an unarmed man is passing by the front of the building. When it detonates, he disappears. The video ends shortly after the third missile impacts.

Thirty-nine minutes in all, the video was acquired and posted by WikiLeaks.org. The video is significant not because it shows a unique action from the Iraq War, but because two of the men killed at the street corner engagement were employees of Reuters, by the names of Namir Noor-Eldeen, a photographer, and Saeed Chmagh, his driver. An edited version of the video, seventeen minutes long, without the Hellfire engagement and with extraneous material pared down, was also posted. Onscreen captions were added to clarify what the video shows and also to identify the two Reuters employees.

It shows that one of the men initially identified as carrying a weapon was the photographer, Noor-Eldeen. However, it was not a weapon that was slung over his shoulder. Nor did it look like a weapon. It was his camera. He carried it in the same manner that thousands of people carry their cameras every day. At no point, even in the degraded video that was posted on the web, did it resemble a weapon, other than it having a strap. After the initial volley from the Apaches, it was Noor-Eldeen who was killed as he lay on the ground after falling while trying to flee. It has also been established that the wounded man, the one trying to crawl away from the scene only to be killed alongside his would-be rescuers, was the driver, Saeed Chmagh.

Viewing the video for the first time is a visceral experience. Knowing ahead of time that two of the dead were non-combatants, indeed, were employees of a respected news service, leads to the conclusion that the Apaches had no business shooting and killing the men gathered on the street. In fact, it was the misidentification of Noor-Eldeen as carrying a weapon that led to the shooting in the first place. But, following almost immediately behind Noor-Eldeen were men carrying weapons. Even had Noor-Eldeen not been carrying his camera, or even been at the scene, the Apaches still would have seen the armed men, and the outcome would likely have been the same.

Where the situation comes off the rails is at the appearance of the van coming to aid Saaed Chmagh. There were no weapons visible. The men around the van made no effort to approach the weapons scattered among the dead bodies. They were clearly trying to aid a grievously wounded man, and he and they were killed for it. If there is any moment in the video that is indefensible, it is this incident. They gave no indication at all that they were trying to do anything other than offer aid to a man who had just had huge bullets pass through his body.

The murky world of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) leave the behavior of the Apache crews ambiguous. In the initial engagement, weapons were visible, although not the weapons the pilots had at first identified. In real time, without the benefit of rewinding and reviewing the tape for its minutiae, there is some question as to whether or not the first volley should have been authorized. But, there were men with weapons in the vicinity of American ground troops. Of this there is no doubt. Not everyone standing on that corner with these presumed belligerents had weapons. Of the eleven men, only two were clearly armed. In Iraq, anyone who carries a weapon, or anyone who stands within a few feet of that person, takes their life in their own hands.

Does the ROE allow the Apache crews to fire on the van? Instinct and human decency say that it does not, but it would be wise to defer to experts in combat operations to make that determination. What is clear is that firing on the van defies any semblance of human decency, commonly absent in war, but beyond that, it defies sense. It crosses into the cruel and torturous. It is the modern day equivalent of shooting a medic coming to the aid of a wounded soldier, or, more accurately, a civilian coming to the aid of another civilian wounded in a crossfire. Engaging the van was a mistake, and no one needs to have a proper understanding of or experience with war to make that determination.

Ugly incidents happen during wartime. Our ability to absorb those incidents should be in direct relation to our willingness to engage in war. That is, if our country cannot stomach the awful realities of war, the messy parts where people die who should not, then the war should not be fought. Other alternatives should continue to be explored. That time has, of course, passed in Iraq.

WikiLeaks.org has done a service to truth by releasing the unedited form of the video. More videos like this should be made available, so that people in the United States can see and understand a little bit more what it is our military is doing for us overseas. These are the sacrifices we demand of them, the horror that we demand they not only endure, but perpetrate on others. Every American that dies is killed for us. Every insurgent we kill is killed in our name. Every civilian who suffers the same fate is also killed under the banner of the red, white, and blue. Perhaps, if more people were familiar with the ugliness that is war, there would be less war. That is not a naïve wish when considering the power of something like watching those Apaches kill eleven Iraqis.

Where WiliLeaks.org went wrong was in tailoring the information in the edited version of the video to suit an agenda. The edited version omits no important portions of the video. The cuts are entirely extraneous, including omitting the Hellfire attack at the end, which had nothing to do with the fate of the two Reuters employees. But, in adding onscreen captions pointing out the personages of Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, and showing they were unarmed, while not pointing out they were in the company of armed men, WikiLeaks.org is only telling half of the story. The captions in the edited video make it appear the U.S. Army was engaged in murder on that day in 2007. No objective assessment of the situation the Apaches were observing, or the troops on the ground were facing, is offered. The edited version of the video presents itself as an analysis of the events of that day, but WikiLeaks.org leaves out the most important information regarding that incident: that there were men present in the targeted group who were carrying weapons. In addition, the maudlin text before the footage begins and after the it ends, added by WikiLeaks.org, only undermines the credibility of the organization as a source of objective information.

This video is important. It shows war; how we fight it and what happens to anyone unfortunate enough to be in our sights. The effects of the video will reverberate, reinforcing the idea that how we fight our wars is just as important as the fact they are fought at all. Hopefully, it will also force any organization that puts similar media out there to be more responsible in its presentation, ensuring that interpretation of events is honest and impartial, and tells the whole story, rather than blatantly trying to influence what the audience thinks and feels about what it is seeing. Painting an honest portrait of war is too important for such trickery. That goes for anyone in the government who would rather such videos remain unseen, as well.

Finally, the language used by the Apache crews must be addressed. Crude, profane, irreverent, it makes its own mark on the events in the video. But, rather than being a reflection on the people manning the Apaches, I think it more accurately reflects the situations they were thrust into. The military has a unique tradition of butchering the English language in the service of slaughtering normal human emotions and expressions of empathy, and the comms from the Apaches are no exception. It is worth remembering that these soldiers were on a tour of duty in a war zone, and while such a serious situation would seem to call for serious discipline when it comes to talking over an open mic, it is worth remembering that these soldiers are no less human than you or I, and are no less susceptible to the less than elegant banter that surrounds all of us in our daily lives, whether it be in a personal or professional environment. They do find themselves in dangerous situations on a daily basis, but the language is at best a coping mechanism for what they are seeing and experiencing, at worst a symptom of the hell they are going through. It is not, however, a precipitating factor for the events that occurred in the video.