Backlog: WikiLeaks, Dylan in China, and So On

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The nightmare of, sigh, "work" means that I have done nothing with large numbers of interesting and important responses about a number of open topics, especially the WikiLeaks footage of the shooting of civilians in Baghdad three years ago, and, on a whole different plane of implications, the mystery of why Bob Dylan will not be making a concert tour of China. (Previous items on WikiLeaks start here and here and here. You know what I'm going to say next! Will have a general link when our site supports "categories" again.) The complexity of the first is obvious; in the second case, there are a lot more Rashomon aspects than I could have imagined.

For the moment, several more WikiLeaks reflections on the rules of engagement, what is inevitable and what is avoidable during urban war, and what if anything can be learned from this grim episode.

1. Unit Leadership Matters.
A reader writes:

In your posts you speak of a string of responsibility. I notice that within that string, the all-important role of unit commanders is almost never mentioned. It's either bad apples at the bottom, or Bush/Cheney at the top.

The problem with cover-ups is not just that people get off scot-free. It's that the lie has to be absolute. If every dead civilian is branded an insurgent, or a terrorist, then logically you have to give a medal to the soldier who killed  them - or at least a pat on the back. You certainly can't discipline him. This creates a terrible incentive structure wherein war crimes actually have to be rewarded - or else the cover-up fails.

From the Winter Soldier testimonies I gathered that it made all the difference what unit soldiers belonged to. In the worst units it was apparently expected of soldiers that they kill civilians - and they were congratulated when they did it. In others, the opposite. I don't think the Bush administration ever gave the order to kill "amazing numbers" of civilians. But they did make clear that they didn't really mind, either. And so units and their commanders were free to develop their own policies, in a skewed situation where - because of the cover-up culture - they knew beforehand that every war crime would be branded a heroic deed.

2. There Can Be No Excuse. From another reader:

Neither the 'context' nor the specific situation seem to justify the trigger happiness I've observed.  And I've reviewed a few videos of pilots in combat -I've never seen anything close to this - except where the operating area was plainly hostile territory and virtually anything that moved was considered an enemy (as in the first wave of the first gulf war as well as the 'turkey shoot' on the retreating Iraqi army at the end.)  While it's easy enough for us to say 'that's a camera' vs. their ID of an AK-47 and while the crew did have reports of small arms fire that I suppose led them to that location in the first place, they plainly did not feel that they were threatened or under attack and could have orbited and observed for a long time.

3. Why Aren't We Noticing All The Other Grisly Videos? Below and after the jump from reader Chip Moore, details of similar footage that has long been available online. I have checked the links to see that they are real (ie, not RickRoll etc) but have not yet watched to see what they reveal:

What a 30mm cannon does to a human body is brutal. What surprises me is that most people writing about this video did not say that footage like this is available and easy to find online, including official video from American gunships. No one has mentioned combat porn in anything I have read or heard about the wikileaks video. Of course, these videos usually do not include journalists being splattered, but nothing else is unusual. The radio transmissions are similar. The results of the gunfire is similar. The point of view of the American combatants is similar. 
(The TV networks do a reasonable job of keeping copyrighted material off youtube and other such sites. Material I produced has been removed from Facebook because it contained copyrighted music. I assume FB have some automated method of finding DRM tags. Why the DOD does not do likewise is surprising, to say the least.)

In 2006 I started to make a short animated film using some audio a friend recorded in Iraq in 2004. I wanted some Iraq footage for rotoscoping. I thought if I was lucky I might find a little, and I was very lucky. The internet is awash in combat video from Iraq and Afghanistan, shot from both sides.

Most American combat groups seem to have a resident video hobbyist shooting unit action. This shows up as raw footage or produced, with considerable skill, as music videos documenting their activity. These videos are actually fun to watch by and large. There is a lot of movement and shooting, but not much on screen killing. They provide some sense of combat and what goes on in a small combat groups.

There is also official combat footage from attack aircraft of various sorts. The footage contains the radio traffic for the action. This stuff is often quite graphic. The videos usually begin with a gunship lurking over some site watching the ground. There is much radio discussion about whether to engage. After a while, the crew is cleared to engage and there is a brief period of pretty graphic violence. More lurking follows with discussion about who is dead and who is wounded and what do do about any wounded individuals. The crew is eventually cleared to reengage, with the expected result.

(Presumably the people on the ground can hear or see the American gunships. I suppose they believe they are too distant to be a danger.)

On the other side, a videographer often joins an ambush to document IED and RPG attacks on American units. These videos tend to be shorter and cruder. One such video showed two American soldiers standing by a HumVee on a city street. A rocket is fired from the lower right corner of a frame. The HumVee is hit. There is a large explosion. The HumVee is badly damaged and the soldiers just disappear.

I don't know if the journalists writing about the wikileaks video do not know about online combat video, or just chose not to mention it. Other gunship video online does demonstrate that the actions of the wikileaks gunship crew, reasonable or not, are typical and ordinary.

In any case, if you are interested, here are a few links. Youtube and archive.org are not the best sources for combat video, but they do demonstrate how easy it is to find. The last two links are pretty ugly to watch.

Footage of nighttime action in some Iraqi city.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-AJgtceVMg

Footage of nighttime action in Iraq. This may be part of the same operation as the above video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yob78XCgBXE

Music video of unit in action in Mosul.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHTjjZo1PbE

Very graphic gunship video of killing of three men with a weapon. This is widely distributed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3V27DeVcME

Very graphic video of RPG attack on HumVee in Iraqi city.

http://www.archive.org/details/AsaebAhulHaqqRpg

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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