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This is what the war looks like

Wikileaks has just released this footage from a US Apache helicopter killing a group of civilians in Baghdad in 2007. The clip shows the crew strafing the men from the air and then returning to kill the occupants of a van attempting to collect the wounded.

The dead included two journalists from Reuters. In the aftermath of the incident, the New York Times reported:

The American military said in a statement late Thursday that 11 people had been killed: nine insurgents and two civilians. According to the statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed.

“There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad.

As the video shows, that’s entirely untrue. The helicopter crew rely exclusively on their own visual identification that the men have weapons, evidently mistaking camera equipment for a RPG. On that basis, they open fire, even though the group is walking down a city street.

Indeed, the cavalier basis on which the crew decides to kill ten or more Iraqis helps explain why the death toll from the conflict is so high – Mohamed ElBaradei, former chief of International Atomic Energy Agency, recently explained that those who launched the war in Iraq were responsible for killing a million innocent people.

Furthermore, the video highlights the utter lack of accountability for atrocities, both in that war and in Afghanistan. That is, in the wake of the killings, the first response of the military was simply to lie. Look at Bleichwehl’s statement again. The clip makes clear that the crew engaged solely because they thought the civilians were carrying weapons. There’s no suggestion – none at all – of a fight involving small-arms and RPGs. After the killings, Reuters pressed for the video footage to be shown. The military refused. The footage has only come out now because of Wikileaks, a tiny whistleblowing website.

The obvious comparison is with this latest episode in Afghanistan, reported by the Age as follows:

US-LED troops in Afghanistan have been accused of digging bullets out of the dead bodies of three Afghan women in an attempted cover-up of a bungled raid they conducted in a village earlier this year.

After initially denying responsibility for the deaths, NATO commanders have now confirmed that their troops killed two pregnant women and another female villager in the botched raid on February 12.

NATO at first suggested that the women – one of them a pregnant mother of 10 and another a pregnant mother of six – had died by some other means hours before the raid.

In a statement released yesterday Melbourne time, the US-led military command in Kabul said investigators had concluded the women were ”accidentally killed” as a result of joint forces firing at two armed men, who also died. ”We deeply regret the outcome of this operation,” said NATO spokesman Brigadier General Eric Tremblay.

In a potentially scandalous turn, The Times in London has reported findings by Afghan investigators that US forces not only killed the women but ”dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath” and then ”washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened”.

The helicopter footage is shocking. But what really matters is what happens now. It’s rare for atrocities to be documented so clearly. We have real time footage of the attack taking place; we have the military blatantly caught out lying. Will the press take up the story? Will there be accountability, reparations? Most of all, will there be any lessons drawn whatsoever?

After all, the clip is grotesque. But it documents what happens during a military occupation. These wars are atrocities – and that video is what they look like.

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. Thanks for this. I read a detailed description of it just a few minutes ago elsewhere, and glad you’ve picked it up. The contents of the video itself, and the way it was obtained give us a way of understanding (again) what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hence an ability to think about what is increasingly unthinkable.

  2. What gets me the most about it, is that there’s no suggestion from the crew that they’re doing anything unusual. It puts the para below into some context:

    In a stark assessment of shootings of locals by US troops at checkpoints in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in little-noticed comments last month that during his time as commander there, “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.”

    • Amazing, hideous things do come out of McChrystal’s mouth. On the Marja offensive:

      This is all a war of perceptions … This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.

  3. Oh, but wait — there’s more. The Guardian says: ‘Wikileaks says it will shortly release a second secret US military video showing the deaths of civilians in an attack in Afghanistan.’

  4. The US have also responded by declaring Wiikleaks a threat to national security. Anyone who can’t bring themselves to look at the video can read a breakdown of it at The Guardian. It’s pretty harrowing.
    Not only are the aircrew not doing anything unusual from their perspective, they are also rejoicing in their actions. It would be hard enough to bear if the incident were a mistake; harder still if the aircrew don’t care if it’s a mistake: But overwhelming to know that they exult in what they are doing.

  5. I think you summed it up in the title: this is what war looks like.

    So why are we surprised when we’re confronted with the reality?

  6. There’s been an assiduous attempt to ensure that the reality doesn’t get seen. Kevin Foster documented this well, both in the current edition of Overland and a previous one. He points out:

    Not a single Australian correspondent is based [in Afghanistan]. As such, the news we get from Afghanistan, ‘almost every picture and video of Australian troops, every audio “grab” and almost every quote from a digger comes from ADF [Australian Defence Forces] “public affairs and imagery specialists”‘. These are soldiers ‘trained to use cameras and write press releases’.

  7. Yes, I’m reading the book Foster edited, The media and the military at war, at the moment.

    But my point is that we know these wars exist. What do we imagine is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    History has again and again revealed the ugly countenance of war. There is no other conflict to make us think this one in Iraq or this one in Afghanistan would be any different. There is no good war.

    ‘War’ is now a sanitised and accepted concept. We need to be reminded of what ‘war’ looks like, and tastes like and that other people will never sleep again because of it.

  8. Auden:
    And the truth cannot be hid;
    Somebody chose their pain,
    What needn’t have happened did.

  9. Jacinda I don’t agree that war has become sanitized and accepted – people just don’t know how to (or, in some cases, want to) stop it in the face of a US government which has been carrying on like this for at least 60 years now. And no one is calling that government to account. Perhaps the war they have won is the one against the media, which just does what it’s told these days.

    • I agree Sophie, the war against the media has been won, which is why we’re relying on Wikileaks. As Glenn Greenwald said, they’ve broken more stories in their short life than WaPo has in 30 years. It’s also why journalists aren’t relentlessly pursuing the US soldiers and Blackwater ops involved in the handcuffed execution of 9 children in Afghanistan. Or any of the other war crimes and atrocities that every one of those 42 countries in Afghanistan [and Iraq] have been, and continue to be, involved in. No wonder no one is buying papers.

      I agree that many, many people are against the wars, but we are numb and desensitised and overwhelmed by where to begin.

      But we do accept that war exists and we keep its mass of bleeding, torn and twisted limbs and rubble at a distance. And we are shocked by the footage on this video, even though we hear of the mounting civilian death toll [one million at least in Iraq] daily.

      How could we delude ourselves into thinking that any of those instances were different to the one depicted here? And if we accept that they’re not, how do we go on every day as before?

      • And further to the media and their responsibility, Greenwald also has a column about the media coverage of civilians murdered in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan that US troops tried to pass off as ‘honour killings’ (the one Jeff mentions above):

        Note how the headline states as fact that the women were dead as the result of an “honor killing.” The entire CNN article does nothing but repeat what an “unnamed senior military official said” about the incident, and it even helpfully explained:

        An honor killing is a murder carried out by a family or community member against someone thought to have brought dishonor onto them.

        The U.S. official said it isn’t clear whether the dishonor in this case stemmed from accusations of acts such as adultery or even cooperating with NATO forces.

        “It has the earmarks of a traditional honor killing,” said the official, who added the Taliban could be responsible. . .

        The operation unfolded when Afghan and international forces went to the compound, which was thought to be a site of militant activity. A firefight ensued and several insurgents died, several people left the compound, and eight others were detained.

        Similarly, The New York Times, while noting that there were “varying accounts of what happened” among U.S. forces and their allies in the Afghan police, also passed along the Pentagon’s false version of events with no questioning. Here’s the NYT’s February 12 article in its entirety:

        Several civilians were killed in Paktia Province on Friday when a joint Afghan-NATO force went to investigate a report of militant activity, but NATO and the Afghan police gave varying accounts of what happened. A NATO statement said the joint force went to a compound in the village of Khatabeh, in the Gardez district, where insurgents opened fire on them from a residential compound. Several insurgents were killed and a large number of men, women and children fled and were detained by the NATO force. Inside the compound, soldiers “found the bodies of three women who had been tied up, gagged and killed,” the NATO statement said. The Paktia Province police chief, Aziz Ahmad Wardak, confirmed the episode but said the dead in the house were two men and three women, who he said were killed by Taliban militants. He said the killings took place while the residents were celebrating the birth of a baby.

  10. I think the part that disturbs me the most is “Well it’s their fault for bringing their children into a battle.”

    No, no, I don’t think it is.

  11. This is what war has always looked like. Only the technology has changed. Behind the thin curtain of propaganda, governments of all political persuasions fight wars to gain strategic and economic advantage and it has forever been so. What we see now in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine is the high point of a seamless merger between military and surveillance technology and free market economics.

    Naomi Klein’s analysis in The Shock Doctrine sums it up:

    1) Subject the population to a trauma so severe that it subjugates the collective will.

    2) On the ‘blank slate’ achieved by the eradication of civic order and moral compass, rebuild the state through the enforcement of ‘homeland security’ solutions and the rapid deployment of a new economic order that shifts wealth to a multinational, corporate oligarchy represented by a new ‘democratic’ regime .

    The systematic destruction of nations and populations is good for business. Obliterate and rebuild. Kill a million in Iraq, secure the oil resources and reconstruction contracts, siphon off the wealth, then claim that it was all done for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Or, in the case of Afghanistan, claim the moral superiority of the ‘war on terror’. In the case of Israel, play the ‘never again’ card. Such a simple, neat formula.

    Chaos breeds the worst form of anarchy and that, of course, is part of the strategy. Factional warfare sustains the climate required for subjugation to be successful. There is no justice within easy reach for the people of these places where human nature thrives in its most vicious incarnation. All strategies of resistance are temporarily reduced to the reflexive, the ad hoc, a kind of survivalist, tactical improvisation symbolised by the cruel ingenuity of roadside IEDs and suicide bombers.

    The populations of Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza are the new disposable people, the collateral damage necessary to secure the aims of a corporatised cabal, bizarrely intent it seems on reducing the world to a global supermarket and, ultimately, to an environmental wasteland.

    But just as war has remained essentially the same project throughout history, so has resistance. Defying the logic of defeat against insurmountable odds human beings continue to resist oppression if not at first by their actions then in their hearts and minds and memories. Resistance has patience on its side if nothing else and that may be the only hope.

    Sorry to have resorted to the rhetorical in this post but I can’t find any other tone with which to express my immediate reaction to the Wikileak revelation and its wider implications. Forensic commentary seems inadequate.
    What do I do now? Lobby my local member? Write a letter to Kevin Rudd? Paint a banner? Sign up to a well meaning but demonstrably impotent, disorganised green-left movement? Clearly, I need some anti-cynicism medicine.

  12. A disgusting and disturbing video. I don’t so much blame the attackers, who see things that make them hate; work in situations that are insanely pressurised; and necessarily but sadly become inured to a basic level of humanity. I blame the governments that instigate the wars, and perpetuate them way beyond their initial fraudulent reasons, and, most awfully, seek to cover-up the things that go wrong. Even if that means taking the children to a lesser hospital in order to lose them within the general Iraqi system, rather than risk the scrutiny of giving them US hospital treatment. This, of all the acts, is the most disgusting, because it is not done in the heat of anything but shame and deceit.

    FInally, I don’t like that the Reuters men are mentioned and mourned most. The others are not named, nor really paid attention to. Many men died that day.

  13. CNN shows how this is going to be played. ‘We can’t show the full clip. War is very sad, very dangerous. The military investigated. No-one was at fault. Move along, nothing to see here.’

  14. And here’s the caption CNN used: ‘Newly released video shows a 2007 attack by a U.S. Apache helicopter in Iraq. Several people were killed in the attack, two of them journalists. The helicopter crew members believed they were firing on armed insurgents.’
    Un-fucking-believable
    (via Hullabaloo)

  15. Thanks for posting this Jeff. Gobsmacking. And I agree with you Jacinda – ‘History has again and again revealed the ugly countenance of war. There is no other conflict to make us think this one in Iraq or this one in Afghanistan would be any different. There is no good war.’

    War may not be a sanitised and accepted concept as Sophie points out (although I do think it’s tending that way, eg the way some wars have become central to the telling of Australian history and Gallipoli (aka our assistance with the British invasion of Turkey) has become our founding myth – what is that about?!) but there is a massive disconnect not only between the reality and how it’s portrayed/discussed by the media, politicians, the military and many people, but also by those soldiers as they fire. ‘Engage’ they say, and shoot to kill. ‘Good shootin’ they say, as if in a games arcade. (The view through those crosshairs looks very like some computer games I’ve seen.) And yes, Stephanie, perhaps worst of all, blaming CIVILIANS for bringing children into battle. The problem is that the battle came to the children.

    And because of this disconnect which Naomi Klein portrays so powerfully in ‘The Shock Doctrine’ insanity can be uttered, as in the following insanity which Jacinda quotes, and actually contain a horrible truth:

    ‘This is all a war of perceptions … This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.’

    Yes, what now? Here’s Wilfred Owen on his urge to return to the western front, to speak for those who can’t:

    ‘For leaning out last midnight on my sill,
    I heard the sighs of men that have no skill,
    To speak of their distress, no, nor the will!
    A voice I know. And this time I must go.’

  16. In his book ‘The Great War for Civilisation’, Robert Fisk says that war is a failure of humanity. It is also the failure of our media, a failure of government but ultimately it is our failure, too.

  17. Some years ago I had a chance to talk to a PR person stationed in Afghanistan for the SAS. This Australian officer told disturbing stories about Australian officials, politicians and others flying in, getting completely intoxicated (drunk) and demanding that they carry out their itineraries – as in go where they needed to get the publicity shots they wanted, etc – without any real regard for the fact that a war was going on. The job for that officer became a nightmare in trying to protect these people. And listening to the stories that person told, I was struck by how divorced the establishment is about the realities of war.

    These officials knew enough to know that their time in these dangerous places would be dulled a little by being drunk, but would often turn these trips into more dangerous excursions by going against advice of those on the ground to get their ‘photo opportunity’ or some good media, at any cost.

    This only spoke to me of the un-professionalism of much of what’s going on in war zones. Soldiers must be so drunk on fear, adrenalin, being out-of-control, they are literally ‘going-off’ making the whole atrocious mess even more of a debacle.

  18. Jeff

    Truly horrific viewing. One thing that dumbfounds me is why hasn’t YouTube and the Net generally put a stop to war? More than 40 years ago, a clip on the American nightly news of the Mai Lai massacre, and that horrific shot of the little Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, virtually burning to death following a US napalm attack, mobilised a nation, and eventually stopped the madness.

    Today, we have Tom Brockaw’s and Nick Ut’s showing us footage in real time 24-7, and yet the horror continues.

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