Two Reader Responses on the Wikileaks Footage

My two previous arguments, again:

     Round 1: The video is "damaging" because its makes so vivid the consequences of urban irregular war. If we saw such footage of gunships with Chinese troops, or Russian, or Iranian, or whatever, we would be sickened by the results -- even if none of the troops involved was doing anything "wrong." This is what happens in urban war. But our country is now the one involved in this kind of combat.

     Round 2: The troops themselves were operating in real time, with no clear knowledge of what was going on, but aware that their comrades had recently been under attack in the vicinity. Someone closer to the scene may be able to judge the troops' reaction. I do not. I do say that the result -- the death of 11 civilians, including two journalists and two children -- was sickening by any human standard. Given the high probability of such miscalculations in this kind of combat, the lesson is to be very cautious about putting troops where they face immediate kill-or-be-killed choices about civilians on the ground. This is true even when, or especially when, you are the unchallenged "superpower."

In assent, one reader writes:

My first reaction to the story on the Wikileaks Footage (and I haven't actually even seen it) was, I think, exactly as yours:

How tragic, and these young kids will probably get the blame.

But the higher-ups have put them in an untenable situation where it is inevitable that such events will happen.

Some young guys get screwed, maybe in prison, because we told them to do what they are supposed to do: get in a situation where hyper-vigilence is required.

In dissent, below and after the jump, from Sean Willis:

I read your initial blurb concerning the WikiLinks posting of the 2007 Apache helicopter gunsight footage this morning, viewed the expanded footage and the "Collateral Murder" site immediately after, and then as I was preparing to write you, noted your most recent blog entry on the same topic. I did not develop the same level of disgust that it appears you did, as I can see a valid line of reasoning for those involved in this tragedy.
Judging from the running commentary on the radio, it appears the Apache was called into the area to provide close air support for US troops receiving small arms and RPG fire from non-uniformed enemy fighters. The Apache went about identifying and confirming the location of these fighters, and then requested permission to fire when it appeared to them that these "fighters" were attempting to engage US ground troops again. Later, an unmarked van shows up and several adults exit to assist a wounded "fighter" into the van for presumed evacuation. The Apache again requests permission to fire on the van and those nearby, still under the impression that they are enemy fighters. It is only after ground troops move in to assess damage and further clear the area that there's a realization some civilians were mixed up in the fray. And once it's determined that children were wounded in the attack, the radio conversation takes on a much more somber tone, and the ground troops set about to evacuate the wounded.

You state, "But at face value it is the most damaging documentation of abuse since the Abu Ghraib prison-torture photos." Yes, taken out of context, the notion that US Military personnel would "chuckle" about the taking of human life or running over the remains of a dead person is very disturbing. But when looking at the incident from the perspective of a person defending their fellow soldiers during an active gunfight, the tone to my mind becomes understandable, if not ideal. I do not think this was abuse.

Conversely, the domain name of the website, "Collateral Murder", improperly prejudices the content contained within. Amongst the dead in this footage were several persons of military age who were seen to be carrying weapons in an area where US forces had received small arms fire. The Reuters photographer, with no identifying marks to show him as such, crouched into what was perceived as an aggressor's stance and pointed what was perceived to be a weapon (RPG) toward US ground troops. As the Apache's mission was to protect those troops, I cannot see how they should have acted otherwise.

As for the US Military decision not to originally release this footage, I think the response here is exactly why they would choose not to. It is too easy to take things like this out of context and purport them to be massacres and "War Crimes". If the van had a Red Cross on the roof, or if the photographer had been wearing a Reuters-logo'd vest, I doubt this incident would have happened. Though if it did, I would then think the rhetoric be more than justified.

That the Military had shown the footage to Reuters personnel and investigated the incident within a week after the event feels like an appropriate response. I do not deny that this was a tragic event, but I also don't see the malice that perhaps you and others are reading into the evidence.

I agree that "Collateral Murder" is a bad name for the site. I disagree about the military's decision not to discuss the situation fully, early on. The local people themselves know that such things occur. The difference is whether they see the United States taking responsibility -- for what, even if understandable in its confused origins, was a terrible tragedy -- or whether they see us pretending it did not occur. In the long run these things come out.

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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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