A reader writes:
I'm going to try not to get into a semantic debate about the realities of war versus civilian perception of war, but I do want to clarify a little of what's happening in a technical sense so that the viewer understands what is and is not allowed in these situations. And I'm sure that, despite my best abilities, my personal bias as an Active Duty US Soldier will ultimately show through in the end. I'm currently deployed to a region in southeast Baghdad, near where this incident took place, and the Rules of Engagement that dictate the use of lethal force state 51% certainty that the individual represent a threat to you or another US Soldier. (To my knowledge, it always has been.)
First off, I would be interested in knowing whether or not Reuters reported the presence of journalists to the US Forces who were responsible for operating the battlespace they were located in.
That fact that the Bradley unit's ground commander clears the Apaches to engage without further target description implies that this was not the case, and if so it means that these journalists were operating completely independent of any ability of the US to track them, or even know they were present somewhere. This is incredibly dangerous, even now in 2010. Back in 2007, that sort of thing would have been damn near suicidal.
Despite the video's hesitancy in acknowledging that several of the men 'appear' to have weapons, it is clear to me that several of them are carrying AK-47s. If you look at graphics representing the positioning of these journalists from a Bradley convoy only a few blocks away, I think that it is entirely reasonable that the pilots would consider them a threat - particularly after mistaking a massive zoom lens peaking out from behind cover on the very street that an American patrol was taking place for an RPG. Complex ambushes with 8-12 men with AK-47s and RPGs were very common back in early 2007. I can't speak as to why the two Reuters journalists were walking around with men carrying AK-47s trying to sneak pictures of an unaware American combat patrol, and I certainly do not assume that the reason was nefarious.
My real problem with this video, as media, is that it takes conclusions drawn after careful and repeated analysis and includes those conclusions in the videos for others who are seeing it for the first time. Try to imagine watching the video WITHOUT the giant textual labels stating who each of the men are, or without the prior knowledge that two of the men are journalists and they're carrying massive camera equipment, or without the selectively enlarged segments near the end of the video that the pilots never had access to.
It is by no means obvious, without those labels, that the giant cylindrical object that Namir Noor-Eldeen is peeking out from behind the wall with is not an RPG, especially for an Apache gunner whose mind is immediately directed to the US troops down the street he believes this man is probably preparing to fire at. Saeed Chmagh had the misfortune of being on his cellular phone on top of all of these other circumstantial misfortunes, and the cell phone detonation is a classic element of a complex attack involving small arms, RPGs and radio-controlled IEDs.
Keep in mind also that an Apache cockpit has two Soldiers - a pilot and a gunner, and while you are seeing the gunner's IR footage, it is not necessarily conveying what the pilot saw on his monitors or with his own eyes.
I won't speak as to why they fired on the van after the initial attack. They were cleared by the ground commander after accurately conveying what was going on over the radio, and I don't have a comprehensive enough understanding of the Law of Land Warfare. I must say that my stomach turned watching the video at the tragic misunderstanding of it all, and the residual questions about what I would have done have kept me awake for hours now. If there is one act that this video validates an investigation beyond what's already been conducted, firing on the van would be it.
As far as the language of the pilots, the emotional status of the guys pulling the trigger... more than anything else, the outrage surrounding that is what I find the most absurd. Who are you to tell men at war how to react to being in a position that demands they take human life? Do civilians truly believe that Soldiers would be capable of performing their duties in any capacity if they were forced to confront the sheer wretched magnitude of their most prolific duty in the very instances that people are depending on them to perform it? Is the romanticized image of the reluctant warrior really so ingrained in the psyche of the general public that they honestly think that shock and melodrama is the only way remorse can manifest itself? Just hearing the pilot towards the end try and justify (to himself, more than anyone) why the children he had no idea were present were present is more heartbreaking than all the "Oh God, no's" in the world to me.
If the previous commenter is somehow shocked by the words of this incident, I would be willing to bet that his time in the military did not include placement on a line unit. Or if it did, he must have had shit jammed in his ears the entire time. The comparison of al-Amin al-Thaniyah to My Lai, where hundreds of unarmed women and children were systematically raped and executed point blank is a little bit ridiculous, regardless. The fact that his comparison somehow elevates the latter as a sign that we have declined since then is insulting.
There is no script for how one is supposed to react to systematically killing another person. Many laugh, many make macabre jokes during and after the fact and, in general, line troops revel in the death an destruction of their enemy. It's how they deal with the enormity of what they're doing. And if you or any of your readers assume for even a moment that things like that mean that they or the other hundreds of thousands of Soldiers who embrace dark humor and excess to cope with what they're doing are somehow depraved, then you need to be re-introduced to the reality.
Better yet, you can just look at the rising suicide statistics of Soldiers over the past few years. The number of PTSD cases. I'm here to let you know that the dialogue that took place in that cockpit was neither uncommon or, to me, even all that appalling. It was quite restrained, compared to what usually comes out of the mouths of Soldiers here when radio etiquette is not an issue. The video editor who included the George Orwell quote at the beginning was laughably misinformed. They were speaking in sterile terms for the purpose of observing radio protocols and clarity on their ASIPs; nothing more. Soldiers are intimately familiar with the unsanitary horrors of war, and are not for lack of a thousand unseemly two and three-syllable ways to described it. People needn't worry.
Instead of being outraged about the words or tone of the pilot willing the man to pick up a weapon, to give him an excuse, why not think about the discipline necessary to remember his Rules of Engagement? To recognize, as much hate as he may feel towards the enemy, he was not allowed to fire on the enemy unless he picked up a weapon?
This entire incident is an unbelievably sickening tragedy, and I don't mean for my tone to imply that the loss of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh was anything but. But it was also a tragedy when it happened to Pat Tillman. When it happened to any of the dozens, if not hundreds of Soldiers killed by fratricide in this war so far. 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.
War is a disgusting, horrible thing. As cliche as that excuse has become, for people to look at the natural heartbreaking nature of it and say that they're somehow anomalous just shows how far people who have not experienced war have to go to understanding it. That doesn't justify failing to take every reasonable precaution necessary to avoid incidents like these. However, a little humility, or a little desire to have a broader contextual understanding of why these pilots did what they did before condemning them as war criminals would be appreciated.