More on WikiLeaks and the Baghdad Footage

By James Fallows

I won't carry this on forever, but here are reader notes representing two strong themes in responses I have received. I have been saying that it's a mistake to concentrate on this crew and its real-time "fog of war" decisions. The deeper responsibility is with the string of policy choices that put them in position to make these kill-or-be-killed choices about civilians in a crowded foreign city. Several people, notably including combat veterans, have written back to say that's letting the crew off too easily. Sample of this reasoning:

First a question: If these loose rules of engagement were in common use in 2007, how do we explain the behavior of the victims? They were aware of the helicopter. Why didn't they recognize their danger? [Ie, if it was commonplace for gunships to be shooting people with as little immediate provocation as we see, why did they dare expose themselves?]
 
Next, an observation: Door gunner-ship is not randomly assigned. It may well be that 99% (or 99.9%) of U.S. troops would not have allowed this tragedy to occur, but that simple fact quite possibly disqualified all those individuals from being in that position. (And I note this as a direct result of my Army tour in Viet Nam.) The same, of course, applies to Granger and gang at Abu Ghraib. It is possible to indict the individuals involved and their commanders and 'the system' without involving American troops categorically.
 
And a conclusion: Until one can say one would apply precisely the same reasoning and the same judgment without knowing the nationality of the miscreants, one flounders. (As in the case of the Michigan terrorists, who are just as frightening as Christians as they would be as Moslems.)
 
I am in the middle of Matterhorn now, on your recommendation, and that book is pointedly relevant to this matter. Please re-recommend it! [JF note: Yes. Buy and read this book!]

The other dominant theme is that there is a big moral-calculus difference between the two attacks shown in the footage: the initial one, on a group of men on foot who might or might not have been carrying weapons; and the followup, on a van and its occupants who were trying to collect a still-living victims of the first attack. Sample note:

You might -- MIGHT -- justify the initial attack on the group on the ground, but the American soldiers were itching to fire on the two men whose only crime was that they were trying to come to the aid of a wounded man. Those men in the van clearly did not have any weapons, and posed no threat to anyone. But the American soldiers were almost pleading with their command to be given permission to kill them. If you are going to excuse this by putting it into "context," then you can excuse almost any behavior.
But if we want to look at context, we need to look at the even bigger context. We are the invaders. We are in Iraq, supposedly to free Iraqis from tyranny. Shouldn't that mission demand restraint in this very kind of situation, when there is ample reason to believe that the people you have in your gun sights might be innocent civilians? If our military policy is to shoot first and ask questions later because we want to minimize the danger to our own soldiers, even if this means killing the people we are supposed to be helping, then the best policy would have been to keep the soldiers home in the first place, where they would face the least danger. You can't have it both ways and have a successful mission, which time has proven.

And finally on the matter of calling this video "Collateral Murder." Yes, this may be ill-chosen. But come on! Almost every story about Iraq, especially in the early days, had far more blatant propaganda, including the mission name itself, "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Please!

And one other point, mentioned by several readers, regarding the possibility that "these young kids" in the helicopters might end up as scapegoats for larger policy failures:

I don't have much to add to the discussion other than what's already covered - these things happen and should be considered before deciding to go to war; DoD should have put this out in the open much earlier; while I feel the attitude and the actions were wrong, I at least understand the thought process behind it; how many more times has this happened to victims with less of a voice; etc., etc.

One thing I wanted to point out, though, in response to one of your reader emails. "These young kids" are probably in their thirties and up. Apache pilots are generally not young men, and the ranks of those involved (the sworn statements indicate that they were between CW2 and CW4) indicate that these soldiers have been in Army aviation for quite some time. These guys are professionals who had decided to make long term careers in the Army, and have almost certainly been flying combat helicopters since before the war in Iraq began.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/04/more-on-wikileaks-and-the-baghdad-footage/38594/