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.