Part of this story centers around the release of a classified U.S. military video through WikiLeaks, now available through a site provocatively called “CollateralMurder,” which has now been aired across the web and cable TV. Elizabeth Bumiller confirming that the video is authentic. Other parts of the story revolve around rules of engagement, but also the dangers of war correspondents and their support teams, especially when reporting within weapon carrying groups of individuals being scout by U.S. military scoping out areas in Baghdad, circa 2007. It’s a complicated situation.
In the video posted above, at around 3:50, it is clearly heard that the military surveying the situation not only sees weapons, obviously AK47s, but also believe the armed individuals have an RPG weapon launcher, something taken seriously when you’re in a U.S. Apache gunship.
As is now known, Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh were killed in this U.S. Apache strike. The request for the release of the video of the scene was made right around that time, which is what WikiLeaks released.
… On the day of the attack, United States military officials said that the helicopters had been called in to help American troops who had been exposed to small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades in a raid. “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad, said then.
But the video does not show hostile action. Instead, it begins with a group of people milling around on a street, among them, according to WikiLeaks, Mr. Noor-Eldeen and Mr. Chmagh. The pilots believe them to be insurgents, and mistake Mr. Noor-Eldeen’s camera for a weapon. They aim and fire at the group, then revel in their kills.
“Look at those dead bastards,” one pilot says. “Nice,” the other responds.
A wounded man can be seen crawling and the pilots impatiently hope that he will try to fire at them so that under the rules of engagement they can shoot him again. “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” one pilot says.
A short time later a van arrives to pick up the wounded and the pilots open fire on it, wounding two children inside. “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one pilot says.
At another point, an American armored vehicle arrives and appears to roll over one of the dead. “I think they just drove over a body,” one of the pilots says, chuckling a little. [...]
It’s a harrowing transcript read out that is anything but flattering to these soldiers. However, to call it a “massacre,” as Matthew Yglesias wrote today, is unfair, however heartbreaking the video or heartless the comments captured. Glenn Greenwald calls it a slaughter, though I think it’s very safe to surmise that there was an effort by the U.S. military to conceal the video.
The United States Central Command is also quoted in Bumiller’s report, via a redacted report on the Reuters’ reporters saying they…
“made no effort to visibly display their status as press or media representatives and their familiar behavior with, and close proximity to, the armed insurgents and their furtive attempts to photograph the coalition ground forces made them appear as hostile combatants to the Apaches that engaged them.”
What it definitely is in my assessment is the tragedy of war, where there are no guarantees. Iraq was a volatile war zone in 2007, where embedded journalists and their teams took their lives in their hands to report the war. Their bravery was incredible, with over 170 journalists giving their lives to get the story.
Let’s also remember the job of soldiers, especially when they see armed enemies that they are trained to seek out and to kill, which is their mission.
I’ll let you be the judge as to whether this is a tragic tale of collateral damage or “collateral murder.”