In the Pentagon's telling of a July 2007 incident long shrouded in mystery, two Reuters staffers were accidentally killed in a firefight between insurgents and U.S. forces including an Apache attack helicopter. Yesterday, leaked video taken from that helicopter tells a very different story. The chilling footage, released by the non-profit website WikiLeaks and reproduced below, shows no one firing on the helicopter, and that the Reuters staffers, far from incidental bystanders, were the intended targets. The Americans apparently believed the Reuters journalist's shoulder-mounted camera to be a rocket-propelled grenade and considered the nearby armed Iraqi men to be imminent threats, though they showed no threatening behavior.
Critics are outraged at the unprovoked attack and at the needless deaths of the journalists. But, as in so many scandals, the cover-up may be far more damaging than the crime. After all, friendly fire is a horrific but inevitable element of any war. And though the Americans appear to have fired when they shouldn't have, they showed a clear, if misguided, attempt to protect themselves. Whether you fault or forgive the Apache gunner, the Pentagon's handling of the incident threatens to undermine the U.S. mission in Iraq far more than this attack on its own ever could have.
Transparency has proven crucial in this mission: When the military has been transparent with Iraqis it has enjoyed greater support, when it has been opaque it has had less. Since 2006, U.S. forces in Iraq have made tremendous gains by sitting down with Iraqis, from Baghdad legislators to Anbar goat herders, and talking with them openly about U.S. strategy. Whether working with Iraqi leaders, building trust with local communities, or protecting civilians, the U.S. made itself friendly and approachable by being transparent. General David Petraeus in particular has labored to demonstrate to all Iraqis that the U.S. is their partner in building a strong and stable Iraq. Partners, after all, share information. But the military's cover-up sends a different message, one that hearkens to the initial invasion and the disastrous years that followed. It says, We protect ourselves first and Iraqis second, whether that means shooting without cause or covering up the true nature of civilian deaths.
The military's opacity has an especially notorious history in Iraq. The military long maintained, for example, that the 15 women and children killed in Haditha in November 2005 were all insurgents. Standard practice after such incidents, in an apparent effort to curb anti-American sentiment, has been to issue a sunny report admitting no fault and then to clean up the mess as quietly as possible. After all, since Vietnam, the military has been incredibly sensitive to public opinion.
Were the Pentagon to have simply announced in 2007 that forces had wrongly killed several civilians, it would have drawn a media firestorm and wide condemnation in the U.S. and in Iraq. But it would also have signaled to Iraqis that the military condemns violence against civilians, that it holds itself accountable, and that it puts Iraqi well-being above narrow self-interest. But by lying about the incident, the military set itself up to be exposed as none of these things.
Petraeus' counterinsurgency works so well in part because it makes all Iraqis "stakeholders," to use a bit of business jargon, in the American mission. Because Iraqis helped build a local power plant, they will help protect it; because they helped craft a local government, they will support it. But opacity and cover-ups exclude Iraqis from the American mission, undermining the grand counterinsurgency strategy. To be sure, friendly fire incidents are going to happen. But in a country where conspiracy theories are the currency of idle salon chit-chat (a hold-over from the days of Saddam Hussein's opaque regime), even one lie in Iraq is as damaging as a hundred in the U.S. To come out in 2007 and admit that it had wrongly killed civilians would have damaged the military's standing in the U.S. and Iraq. But the costs of looking like the next Saddam are much higher.