The Dish is grateful for the number of servicemembers sharing their expertise and experience on this issue. Previous emails here, here, and here. (And a blogger reax here if you missed it.) Another writes:
I spent 20 years in the USAF (1986-2006) working in reconnaissance and air-to-air / air-to-ground engagements and spend thousands of hours in the air listening to radio broadcasts and directing or assisting in engagements. I’m not stupid enough to think that combat isn’t messy, gruesome, and often chaotic. But the circumstances of that video are very clear in my mind (and harken back to the shooting down of U.N. helicopters over Northern Iraq).
It was horrible to watch for two reasons: first, the opening salvo, and second, the follow-on shooting of the van. The initial engagement probably fit very narrowly under the rules of engagement (ROE) during that time period in Iraq. But not the second.
During my 20 years of certification, review, and application of ROE across Desert Storm and it’s follow-ons, all the Balkans conflicts, and Iraqi Freedom, there have been precious few that allowed for engagement of air or ground targets without requiring positive identification regardless of time or situation (an exception includes a fixed-wing aircraft present in a no-fly zone). In fact, most ROE have required either that positive ID or a hostile act to be in progress.
The first question that came to mind as the pilots were ID’ing the targets was: What are they doing right now that requires killing them? How many people in Iraq have guns? Does having a gun meet the requirement to engage and destroy? I can’t necessarily answer those questions from the video but that is where I believe the narrow definition of ROE criteria might not have been met. Regardless of those questions, when one looks at time and place and what may have been the ROE for that time, I don’t have serious issue with the first barrage.
The follow-on is what turned my stomach. After a journalist or any target has been mowed down by .30 caliber fire (his legs blasted away) there is no need to then wait and hope that you can just blast him to kingdom come for fun. Make no mistake about the radio comms throughout this event, but particularly prior to the van destruction: there is no urgency in the voices, at all. This isn’t a by-product of the profession military man (since I know that will be the first defense), because my thousands of hours of experience can tell when urgency, death, and necessity are foremost in the engager there’s none here.
Once a downed enemy is being assisted, Red Cross or not, in a non-military vehicle that poses no threat, then engagement is a pretty strong violation of whatever ROE is in place, and a moral code of soldiers. There was no evidence in the video or from the Army in response to this event that indicates these were combatants who had been tailed from a firefight and targeted. This appears to be a group of men ID’d as insurgents from quite a distance purely visual. We know mistakes were made in ID’ing guns vs. cameras, but I don’t condemn the initial attack, under the fog of war ideal. However, the follow-on slaughter that involved the van and the kids being there doesn’t make it better or worse, objectively is exactly the type of engagement we must avoid.
When separated, as they clearly are along this timeline, my support of the first salvo in now way excuses the second, or vice versa. As military men, we don’t do what they did to that van ever. They know it, the chain of command knows it, we know it.
My friends and I discussed the Wikileaks video yesterday. After watching both videos and reading the transcripts and timeline, I am not convinced that this was a war crime. This was in July 2007, I happened to be in Baghdad at that time. Although I do not have direct personal knowledge of this particular incident, I can assure you that this was a very tense time for the military and it was an extremely violent time in Baghdad. And that location in particular was nasty.
Some of my friends criticized the targeting of the black SUV or bongo truck picking up the dead and wounded. The problem is that ambulances are marked on the top; they need to be. This vehicle was clearly not, so what were the pilot and gunner to conclude? I think if I were in their shoes, I would see fellow insurgents trying to retrieve personnel and weapons. Given the SAF report, my belief that I had just engaged legitimate military targets, and the actions of the people from the vehicle, I would be inclined to conclude that this too was a valid target.
What we really need to see are the AARs -- the After-Action Reports -- from the dismounted G.I.'s ("Bushmaster 1-6" in the audio) who would be, I believe, from B Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). The AARs or the SigActs (Significant Actions) would tell us what the dismounts saw -- specifically, whether they found weapons around the bodies (more specifically, that they didn't find weapons). Why is that important? That information would have been known to higher echelons within hours of the incident, which would enable us to make a fair determination as to whether the Army lied or whether, at the time of the presser, there was still uncertainty and, in the way of bureaucracies, the spokespeople fell back on the safest story in the absence of more information.