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The rules of engagement

Much of the outrage around the 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq recorded in video revealed by Wikileaks has centred on whether or not the Apache crew committed a war crime. That’s, however, the wrong frame to understand what took place. What’s most significant about the killings is not the extent that they differ from standard operating procedures but the extent to which they reveal them.

Thus the US military’s Central Command says it has no current plans to reopen an inquiry into the episode. Why? According to an internal US military investigation, the helicopters ‘acted in accordance with both the laws of war and the Army’s rules for engagement with the enemy’. Indeed, the crew ‘exercised sound judgment … during attempts to acquire insurgents’.

Which, in its way, is true. The occupation can only succeed by taking advantage of the US’s tremendous military and technological superiority. That means deploying Apaches and drones and other such high-tech weaponry across Iraq, even – or perhaps especially – in urban areas. Helicopter crews enjoy a birds-eye view of the landscape but, as you can see on the video, their perspective is by no means perfect. In the Wikileaks clip, it’s genuinely difficult to tell the difference between a camera and a RPG. Insofar as the military relies upon Apaches – and it needs to do so to maintain the occupation – the air crews must necessarily make judgements based on ambiguous visual cues.

Thus, from the perspective of the military, the Apache team did nothing wrong. They discussed the legitimacy of the target. They concluded that the men on the ground were carrying weapons and were thus insurgents. From that, they deduced that the van picking up survivors was also an insurgent vehicle, and therefore could be destroyed.

In other words, the crew was behaving precisely as it had been trained. Why then should the military investigate? Hence the general response of the western media. A tragic episode, most regrettable. But war is hell, and collateral damage will inevitably be incurred. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Of course, you only have to shift the frame slightly for the affair to seem entirely and monstrously different. After all, the Iraqis in that clip probably did not even register the helicopters’ presence. Certainly, they seem entirely relaxed. And why not? They’re walking in their own neighbourhood, doing nothing wrong  – and then suddenly they are mown down by cannon fire from gunners they probably never even saw.

Which is simply to make the obvious point that an ongoing military occupation produces these kinds of atrocities on a regular basis – and that those who have internalised the logic of occupation won’t see anything wrong with that. The imperial sensibility cannot, almost by definition, understand the situation from the perspective of Iraqis. Most media commentators empathise, without even thinking about it, with the foreign troops. Well, what do you expect helicopter gunners to do? Sure, they might make mistakes occasionally – but, hey, they’re only human. Give the guys a break! They’re doing the best they can in difficult circumstances!

The clip above comes from an event held a few years ago by Iraq Veterans Against the War, in which returned US soldiers spoke about what they saw and did in combat. The actions they discuss seem extreme but they represent the same mentality that you see in the Wikileaks clip. Working on my book Killing, I spoke to veterans who put it like this: enforcing an occupation necessarily leads soldiers to see the population around them with either indifference or overt hostility. In that context, your own survival – and the requirements of your mission – become far more significant than the lives and well-being of the people who just happen to live in the country. Thus, if you come under fire in a built-up area, well, it makes sense to reply with every weapon at your disposal, even though there’s civilians all around. As Jon Turner says in the clip, ‘Pinpoint where the fire is coming from – and throw a rocket at it.’ Or, if you’re in an Apache and you think men on the ground might be insurgents, light ’em up. Sure, you might occasionally be wrong but that’s what it takes to get the job done.

The same phenomenon manifests in occupations throughout history, from Northern Ireland to Palestine. Enforcing a foreign military presence leads soldiers to see the locals as either inferiors or enemies, which allows them to be mistreated with impunity. Despite his own political convictions, George Orwell made precisely this point: ‘In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. […] With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.’

The Wikileaks video records an atrocity. But it’s an atrocity that’s inseparable from the war itself, rather than  an anomaly. That’s why everyone who supports this war needs to see the clip. For what does ‘success’ in Iraq and Afghanistan involve? Success involves these kind of episodes happening, again and again and again, until the population’s entirely subdued.

All of this can seem very depressing – and in some ways it is. After all, even though there’s no totally reliable figures for deaths in Iraq, some credible estimates now put the toll at a million or so.

Nonetheless, in another sense, the IVAW video is actually quite inspiring.  ‘I am sorry for the things that I did,’ says Turner in his testimony. ‘I am no longer the monster that I once was.’

Things can change. We don’t have to allow this war to continue.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Well said. It’s important also to remember that this attack was carried out at the height of the “surge”; when politicians crow over the success of that strategy, what it entails is precisely these kind of brutal, cowardly actions, planned by DC chicken-hawks and carried out against the population by soldiers equipped with the most advanced technology in the world.

  2. This whole piece made me think about the documentary ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ by Errol Morris, about Abu Ghraib http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0896866/

    What’s really interesting about the movie is how things cleave into crimes and standard procedure – not at all what you’d think from a moral or even political perspective.

    Currently reading ‘The Good Soldiers’ after having seen an interview with David Finkel. Have you read it Jeff?

    • No, I haven’t read it. Finkel was actually present during the episode captured on the Wikileaks tape. I thought his analysis of it spectacularly missed the point, precisely because his focus was about the morality of the individual soldiers involved.

  3. Where’s his analysis? I’d like to read it. My only qualm about the book as such is that its focus is the American troops, not the Iraqis (or some mix). But that’s the brief he has chosen. Still it’s interesting.

  4. Finkel’s discussion is here . Here’s a snippet:

    David Finkel: More context — you’re seeing an edited version of the video. The full video runs much longer. And it doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight, in this case zoom,ing in on the van and seeing those two children. The helicopters were perhaps a mile away. And as all of this unfolded, it was unclear to the soldiers involved whether the van was a van of good samaritans or of insurgents showing up to rescue a wounded comrade. I bring these things up not to excuse the soldiers but to emphasize some of the real-time blurriness of those moments.

  5. I just watched an interview with an unembedded journalist in Iraq at the time who interviewed witnesses the day after the massacre. This is what he had to say in regards to whether or not any of the civilians were armed:

    I mean, the thing that was most chilling to me about this, as an independent journalist who works unembedded often, is that when the reports came out—the military investigations came out a few days later, you can read them all on the internet now—and they basically—I mean, essentially they blamed the reporters for causing this. They say they did three things wrong. First, they failed to identify themselves to a helicopter gunship flying, I don’t know, hundreds of feet above their heads. Second, their proximity to armed insurgents was reason for them to be killed. And third, their furtive attempt to take a photograph of American troops.

    I mean, so, first of all, there is no reason at all to believe or to conclude that any of the people in that picture are armed insurgents. I mean, you can see two men with Kalashnikovs, but this is 2007 in Baghdad. This is the height of the civil war, when dozens of bodies a day were being picked up from the street, when sectarian militias filled the Iraqi security forces, the police and the army. Every neighborhood in Baghdad organized its own protection force. And it was legal at the time for every household to own a Kalashnikov in Iraq, and every household I ever went to did. So the presence of two men, dangling at their sides Kalashnikovs, in a crowd of civilians who have no weapons at all, I mean, is absolutely no—I mean, it’s—the whole thing is ridiculous.

    Here’s the whole interview:

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