In early April, when WikiLeaks released the video of two US Apache gunships machine-gunning civilians in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad in July 2007, anybody who watched it would have perhaps been moved by two things. Firstly, the appalling, terrifying, gut-wrenching tension in watching the endless circling of the two Apache’s as they agitate for the order to open fire (‘C’mon! Let us shoot!’). Secondly, the US soldier on the ground whose voice you strain desperately to listen for amid the radio chatter. Who pulls an unconscious and seriously wounded child out of the shot-up van, and attempts to get her and her brother to medical aid, requesting assistance to get the children to an American military hospital, a request that was refused.
Digging around online about the Apache attack (trying to find some way of grounding myself I think), I found myself unexpectedly running into another side of it, and a story I still haven’t completely unravelled about the soldier who pulled the children out of the shot-up van. His name is Ethan McCord. McCord’s story has had some very limited mainstream media coverage in the past couple of weeks (see the Lateline video above), but mostly is still percolating around online.
McCord, who says he was already having big questions about the conduct of the Iraq War prior to the Apache attack, got out of the military in 2008. In the hours after the attack, back at his base trying to clean the blood of the children he’d rescued off his uniform, he realised he needed help for his mental state, but refrained from accessing that help because of the bullying of various NCOs. A not uncommon practice in the US military, McCord was threatened – told to suck it up, to get the sand out of his vagina, and so on. After he quit the military, McCord did his best to deal with the incident in his own way (i.e. forget it), until early last month, having dropped his kids off at school, he sat down in front of the TV and saw his trauma re-enacted via WikiLeaks.
With former military colleague Josh Stieber, who was also on duty the day of the Apache attack, McCord has now written an open letter, a letter of apology, to the people of Iraq and specifically anyone affected by the Apache attack. Stieber in fact would normally have been part of that attack, except that a few days previously he had started refusing to follow orders and was therefore grounded.
In their interviews, which include the Lateline appearance and others I found at various places online, both McCord and Stieber make a couple of critical points. Firstly, attacks such as those revealed by the WikiLeaks video are not unusual. In fact, they happen all the time. Secondly, blaming the soldiers involved in the attack is not only counterproductive, but also misses the point. Demonising the murderers is an easy way to ground our grief and misery and anger, it always is, but demonising always simplifies things to the point of unthinking. The bigger picture of the situation, of the Iraq War and war in general, is what McCord and Stieber say they want to draw our attention to.
McCord says that when he arrived on the scene of the attack, shortly after the van had been machine-gunned, he saw a couple of rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s lying on the ground near the corpses. On this basis, he feels that the first attack was understandable. Whether it was or not, and whether or not he really did see RPGs, he also points out that the rules of engagement for combat were changing so frequently it was difficult to know what they were.
Of course if there were no RPGs – and it does seem odd to me that a bunch of guys with RPGs and AK-47s would be so carefree with a couple of Apache gunships circling above them – ‘remembering’ that there were weapons (which is not the same as saying that Ethan McCord is lying) would protect him from thinking about an unthinkable thing; the thing he obviously doesn’t want to think about, that his buddies in the chopper were murderers.
Either way, what comes through for me in McCord’s testimony is that once we engage in war and cross into a comic-book pursuit of ‘evildoers’, things get morally very, very murky indeed. That is war’s revealed nature – to cloud the massacre of innocents with apparent moral dilemmas, to put a fog over things so that they can’t be seen clearly, at which point it is too easy to abandon the field of debate or just let propaganda have its way.
It seems to me that perhaps McCord and Stieber exemplify this situation in their actions, as they strive to maintain some sort of moral coherence. To come to grips with the morality of something very immediate and very profound and somewhat treacherous to boot; to wonder about how the massacre happened and how they came to be part of the forces that created this horrible scene in the first place.
Somehow they have to make their thinking able to encompass their own feelings of personal responsibility over the murders; the fraudulent political causes of the Iraq War; their own naivety in joining the military in the first place; the state of mind of those who did the killing; and the conditions that enable such things to happen, conditions that make it possible to take ignorant American kids and turn them into people who will machine-gun children from other countries.
The comments at Overland on the release of the WikiLeaks video brought some of us to the brink of despair. For myself, I think perhaps the relentless circling of the Apache gunships – gunships we are trapped inside with the killers, with soldiers paranoiacally eager to gun down the civilians chatting below them – emphasised my own helplessness, drew a line under it as if to say, all you can do is watch. As if the release of the video hadn’t been carried out by WikiLeaks as a public service, but by some deranged warmonger who wanted to show us all how helpless and pitiful we are in the face of such insane and deliberate actions.
What seems to have been so difficult for both Stieber and McCord, post-Iraq, has been their bewilderment at finding any resonance in what they are now trying to do. Naively expecting some support from the US military they found none. Trying to get some reasoned understanding from their own communities, and even from their own churches, they found none. What they have had to content themselves with is learning to speak when they know they are both guilty parties, but also the only ones who can speak out of the heart of the situation because everyone else who could is either dead or – in the case of the soldiers who did the killing – too brutalised to do so.