The WikiLeaks war

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.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Good piece Jeff. I watched that Lateline interview with some fascination a few weeks back. What a terrible, terrible situation for all concerned.

  2. Hi Stephen, it’s all so deplorably sad it has that paralysing effect, and, unfortunately, it seems we’ve heard these sorts of stories before. When I was in Vietnam a few years ago I met American veterans travelling around over there, trying (it was evident when reading between the lines) to come to terms with things they’d been through during that war and – what is it? 40 years on.

    I certainly think you’re exactly on the money when you talk about not blaming individual soldiers. I can only imagine they’re so inculcated with the war, they are, to put it mildly, not themselves. They say and do things, as the previous post about this wikileak pointed out, that sound, plainly put, just not right.

    Grave. The whole thing is grave.

  3. Thanks for your efforts with this post Stephen. Sadly, but not surprising, the official channels offered no help to these soldiers, as the longstanding culture is to hide the truth.

  4. Thanks Stephen, for the thought-provoking post. This is territory I’ve been thinking about a lot since I watched the WikiLeaks video and read the 5-part ‘Home Fired’ series in the NYT.

    One of the pieces, ‘Narrative and Memory at War’, has stayed with me, especially the idea of the narrative dichotomy we need for soldiers, and war, and the military to exist. I won’t butcher what Roman Skaskiw wrote; I’ll let his words speak for him:

    I feel the reality of my experiences seeping through my fingers as my own life tries with all its might to resemble one of two stories: that of hero or victim. I can be the hero who in the face of danger mustered all the old truths of the heart, or, and perhaps simultaneously, I can be a well-intentioned victim of circumstance forced to commune with death through the moral ambiguities of war.

    I’ve listened to a reading of “The Iliad” from nine cassette tapes three times. Its heroes were legitimately distinguished by valor and prowess in specific opposition to those who stayed with the ships during battle. The rest were neither victim nor hero, but soldiers doing their jobs and shouldering their burdens — unglamorous labor, homecoming and all.

    But who will tell the story of those who don’t struggle to adjust? Is there space in our consciousness for those who enjoy themselves? For those who choose to return to do similar work as contractors for a salary three times as high? Those who return because they didn’t get enough action? Who will admit that many of us are capable of facing combat? …

    Although it puts me and many of my personal friends in a flattering light, I fear the narrative of the reluctant, well-intentioned soldier because, along with similar reverence for all things military, it seems a requisite for endless war. The misguided motives of empire hide behind the sympathetic portrayal of its servants. I also know, as we all probably do but hesitate to admit, that many of us servants were far from reluctant.

    I don’t think we should confuse the individual soldier, who has little to gain but employment, including meagre pay and few benefits, with the might, machinations and imperialist agenda of the military. For the average soldier, this is a day job. And I don’t think soldiers are hopeless and helpless, as a long history of soldier resistance and mutiny illustrates (see Grossman’s article on a brief history of US military resistance in recent conflicts).

    The behaviour we witnessed on Collateral Murder is what these soldiers are trained to do, so how can we be surprised by the callousness and indifference of their disembodied voices and actions in the Apache? Are they supposed to be devastated when they discover there are children in that shot-up van? How are they supposed to react, and, indeed, how do we expect them to react?

    At a launch of What’s wrong with ANZAC?, Marilyn Lake said that the reason the DVA is involved in developing school syllabuses and the reason our society is so militarised is because we never discuss the unsightly facts and details of war. ‘War’ is a noble and remote term that means grappling empires and righting wrongs and, at worst, cultural imposition; it rarely means running someone through with a bayonet and watching the expression on their face as they die, or having to wash the blood out of your clothes. It never means death and murder and disfigurement and decay.

    Regarding the AK-47 and RPG debate, unembedded journalist Rick Rowley, on the scene the day after the massacre, had this to say when interviewed on Democracy Now! in April:

    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.

    This seems like crucial information because surely the military’s ROE allowed for the fact that so many households and individuals were armed. And if not, why the fuck not?

  5. Thanks Jacinda, for this considered response and the links within it. As I wrote, once war starts then things become very ambiguous morally. I don’t just mean that it becomes difficult to tell good from bad, but that war tends to cause a lot of interior splits in the perpetrators, the soldiers. This is the case in the Skaskiw post i think. For someone who has listened to a reading of the Iliad thru 3 times, the fact that the Iliad is about how war makes heroes (among other things) might have passed him by. There are no journeymen in the Iliad. Just heroes and heroes-wannabe. As Skaskiw says, there has to be room in the stories of war for those who enjoy war and can’t wait to get back there, or can’t live without it. There are: its called the Iliad. The Iliad is mostly concerned with professional warriors, and those addicted to that life, fighting other warriors – who they seem to know by name – and not about murdering children and their parents, and so on.
    The psychology of soldiers bonding together and so on is what to me is most heartbreaking about the soldier-survivor’s experience. It’s as though that’s the only thing keeping them together, stopping them from disintegrating. This definitely comes through in Ethan McCord’s interviews. The thing he wants to avoid at all costs is saying that his comrades in the Apache’s murdered those on the ground.
    For a soldier who wants to confront the system that sent him to war, and somehow turned him into someone who would kill children, overcoming the loyalty to one’s comrades must be crippling and nearly unbearable. You can hear it in the the voice of the soldier in the video at the end of your own post on war a few months, which I linked to above. The discussion about the soldier-survivors of war doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between heroes and victims. Because there are no heroes. There’s just victims on all sides, some dead and some alive. The discussion perhaps that could be had is, more about the nature of what it means to be a victim I think.
    Thanks for the Grossman link on military resistance. That was very helpful indeed. i wish I’d read it before I posted.
    I hope this post was coherent enough.

  6. Jesus. That’s scary and horrible. I have never watched WikiLeaks but am now feeling I probably should… I’ve heard of it before and turned my attention off, probably because I know I won’t handle well what I’ll see and hear; because I know some of it at least will be awful.

    The trapped positions soldiers find themselves in sometimes (often?) is awful. When trying to do something sane and fair and typically good is against orders – when you are at war, when acting sanely isn’t what you’re there to do – how can the world not reel? And seeing these men who somehow managed to resist doing something horrific being misunderstood and excluded… ugh. SO many things are wrong in the world because we fight. But how can we not?

  7. Don’t watch the Wikileaks video because you think you should Georgia. It IS horrible. Extremely. You can find a description of it in many places if you really need to get a handle on it.

  8. Thanks for this posting. The only place this story still seems to be alive is in the alternative blogosphere. I am in the U.S. and I am appalled at the lack of media attention to this story in particular, and of course to the war in general.

    In response to a few of the comments here–yes, there most certainly were weapons at the scene, including an RPG. I have seen the photos of the scene myself. That said, the ROE are basically a joke, the majority of people on the ground in that video are unarmed, and the attack on the van is simply appalling. Yet even that, according to the ROE, was perfectly acceptable. You can hear it in the audio exchange just before the attack on the van, the pilot lumps “picking up bodies” with “picking up weapons”–even though no weapons of any kind are visible–and presto, they have met the ROE. Fire away!

    It’s disgusting, but its worse than that, it’s par for the course. The US military actually trains its infantry to shoot civilians, even if they are kids. I have this from the lips of guys who were there. It’s ugly, ugly, ugly, but no one here wants to know about it, because it only affects the tiny segment of the populace that actually volunteers for military service.

  9. Thanks for this input and clarification Jimbo. It’s difficult to come to terms with the Iraq War and how truly horrible it is, and what its implications are. Mainstream media coverage is minimal, and over the past decade the economic boom has seen most of us so busy making money that a war in the middle east – about which our government has been extremely secretive in regard to Australian involvement – just doesn’t register. In 2004 a Lancet report argued that 100,000 people had been killed as a result of the initial invasion, predominantly from airstrikes, of which most were women and children. That was seven years ago.
    In regard to the ROE, there seem to be the official ROE and the unofficial ROE, the unofficial being the sanctioned culture of a kind of racist project largely carried out by an unbelievably huge political-military complex using the more marginalised of American youth to see it through.
    There was of course a third attack that day in which three (!) Hellfire missiles were fired into a building on the basis that there may be ‘insurgents’ in it.
    The two children who were shot by the way, seem to have survived ( I wasn’t sure of this when I wrote the blog) though the Lateline report stated that the boy had died.

    1. ‘It’s disgusting, but its worse than that, it’s par for the course. The US military actually trains its infantry to shoot civilians, even if they are kids.’

      Yes. That’s what war is: invade a country and vanquish and subdue the population. The line between civilian and not-civilian, ROE or unofficial-ROE – the fabled good war – never was.

      I’ve been reading Wilfred Owen, who says in his preface:

      This book is not about heroes.
      Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
      Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
      My subject is War, and the pity of War.

      1. Yes, thanks again Jacinda. Its amazing and very interesting how we come to justify and mythologise war over and over, when such a hideous enterprise’s unthinkableness should be obvious to anybody. As you say, and this is critical I think, the line between civilian and non-civilian NEVER WAS.
        Owen puts it wonderfully doesn’t he: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.” What a brilliant, radical intelligent thing to say. I think I need a Wilfred Owen t-shirt with that line on it.

  10. Jacinda: You wrote – “At a launch of What’s wrong with ANZAC?, Marilyn Lake said that the reason the DVA is involved in developing school syllabuses and the reason our society is so militarised is because we never discuss the unsightly facts and details of war. ‘War’ is a noble and remote term that means grappling empires and righting wrongs and, at worst, cultural imposition; it rarely means running someone through with a bayonet and watching the expression on their face as they die, or having to wash the blood out of your clothes. It never means death and murder and disfigurement and decay.”

    This has got me thinking about a ‘militarised society’ and what that mind-set might be like, what it imply that we accept. I haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but it has me going in the direction of seeing the suffering of others as remote, as a kind of casual thing. So thanks for the seed of the idea.
    Also if you have any more info on the involvement of the DVA in the development of curricula for schools I’d be very interested to hear/see it. Ta

  11. It’s worth noting, too, that the situation in Iraq once again seems to be deteriorating, both politically in the wake of the election and militarily, with a surge in bombings. Contrary to what the media would have you think, the war is by no means over.

  12. And the question is always: why is the media – state, national, international – not bringing us the story of what is happening in Iraq (and elsewhere, too). Is it vested interests, is it to protect the public from the truth, is it that they don’t think its newsworthy, is it lack of media diversity,is it because they don’t care or worse they think the public do not care,is it because we the public don’t care, is it because it’s happening far away, is it because it’s dragged on for too long, is it because war supports the armaments industry and therefore capitalism? Is it because we always need to have an enemy to fight and to hate? Is it that we are still primitive enough to believe war is the answer.Why is it?

    1. That’s the million-dollar question Trish isn’t it? It may well be a perfect storm of all the issues you mentioned. However I would imagine that Jeff or Jacinda would have some opinions on that topic, ones more informed than mine.

  13. The media are not in danger of making me think anything Jeff. Has the situation in Iraq ever not been deteriorating? It’s interesting that Bush, Cheney and co having warned us that the war on terror would last for decades, then went and created a war which may well last for decades. It seems obvious that the media narrative is already moving toward some variant on ‘the Iraq war is over’ but that the coalition forces are now combating ‘ancient tribal hatreds’ about which we can only throw our hands up in despair. The US are desperate to get out of Iraq at no matter what and will do whatever it takes to prop Karzai up I would think. The longterm consequences of the Iraq War are difficult to think about, because they will be so horrendous I think.

    1. Thank your those posts Clare. Highly appropriate, and a very charged summary of what we have been trying to discuss. Perhaps on the soundtrack for a revolution posted a few weeks ago, we should have added a few songs of mourning as well.
      Vets homelessness is a huge problem in the US (well, not a problem inasmuch as no-one really gives a toss about it) but umpteen thousands of vets are on the streets. For me that again drives home the point that war just creates victims of one kind or another.
      The ‘Dies Irae’ music contained a musical quote from the soundtrack of Miyazaki’s early film ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’, a film concerned, like a lot of his films, with war and its uselessness.

  14. On the topic of unspeakable acts that inevitably accompany any war, Seymour Hersh says that it’s routine for US troops to execute prisoners in Afghanistan. Why? Because if they can’t prove detainees are Taliban, they have to free them. So, as Hersh says: ‘Well, if they can’t prove they’re Taliban, bam. If we don’t do it ourselves, we turn them over to the nearby Afghan troops and by the time we walk three feet the bullets are flying. And that’s going on now.’
    Such battlefield executions are war’s dirty little secrets. They were common in the Great War, where trench fighting made prisoners inconvenient. Robert Graves wrote in Goodbye to All That:

    ‘Nearly every instructor in the mess could quote specific instances of prisoners having been murdered on the way back. The commonest motives were, it seems, revenge for the death of friends or relatives, jealousy of the prisoner’s trip to a comfortable prison camp in England, military enthusiasm, fear of being suddenly overpowered by the prisoners, or, more simply, impatience with the escorting job.’

    Similar things happened in the Second World War, especially in the Pacific, where quite often neither side took prisoners.
    And now, if Hersh is to be believed, they are happening in Afghanistan.

  15. Well Hersh has a long record of getting it right on atrocities. And given what else we know of the US invasions of Afghanistan/Iraq, its not surprising.
    There were battlefield executions in WW2 after Normandy too (as well as the ‘farmyard’ executions in Germany of Allied airmen) though nowhere near as systemic as in the Pacific. I guess there’s a relation between how dehumanised one’s enemies are deemed to be, ie: ragheads, gooks, etc, as well as a perception of an enemy’s capability of atrocity.

  16. Iraq Violence Set to Delay US Troop Withdrawal

    The United States is likely to delay the withdrawal of the first large phase of combat troops from Iraq for at least a month after escalating bloodshed and political instability in the country.

    The US Commanding General Ray Odierno had been due to give the order within 60 days of the general election held in Iraq on 7 March, when the cross-sectarian candidate Ayad Allawi edged out the incumbent leader, Nouri al-Maliki.

    US officials had been prepared for delays in negotiations to form a new government, but now appear to have balked after Maliki’s coalition aligned itself with the theocratic Shia bloc to the exclusion of Allawi, who attracted the bulk of the minority Sunni vote. There is also concern over interference from Iraq’s neighbours, Iran, Turkey and Syria

    With sectarian tensions rising, the al-Qaida fighters in Iraq and affiliated Sunni extremist groups have mounted bombing campaigns and assassinations around the country. The violence is widely seen as an attempt to intimidate all sides of the political spectrum and press home the message to the departing US forces that militancy remains a formidable foe.

    All US combat forces are due to leave Iraq by 31 August, a date the Obama administration is keen to observe as the US president sends greater reinforcements to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan – a campaign he has set apart from the Iraq war, by describing it as “just”.

    1. Mission Accomplished then. Iraq will drop off the media radar and we can all go about our business. The ‘just war’ concept can be used to justify a whole lot of things I think, simplify war’s sinister boundaries, smooth over the geo-political issues, imperialist agendas and so on.

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