Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lessons from the horrific WikiLeaks video - UPDATED

So if you missed it, a group called WikiLeaks released a video showing an attack by U.S. troops on 12 people in Iraq in July of 2007. The soldiers in the Apache helicopter thought that the 12 men were insurgents. It turns out that they were not and two employees of Reuters news were killed in the attack. Their cameras were mistaken for AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). After the initial attack, a van pulls up and several unarmed men get out to carry the wounded away. They are then attacked by the same Apache helicopter. Two children in the van were seriously wounded.

I should warn you that the video is very disturbing. Here are a few lessons that I am taking away from watching it and the ensuing reaction that I've seen thus far.

Lesson 1: Although some of the actions taken by the troops in the helicopter were terribly wrong and appeared to violate the Rules of Engagement (firing at unarmed civilians trying to remove the wounded), these troops should not be blamed or vilified for what happened. Those of us who have not served in the military will never know what it's like to be in those situations where it is kill or be killed. This occurred right at the peak of the Awakening and this part of Baghdad was one of the most dangerous in the country. American troops were being killed, RPGs were shooting down helicopters. While it is absolutely sickening what is on that video, we have to be careful not to disparage those who fight in the military under excruciating circumstances that we cannot even begin to comprehend.

Lesson 2: This is what happens when the U.S. invades countries and battles insurgencies. This is what happens when people support a war of this kind. Horrible, horrible things happen to innocent people. It's not that we are bloodthirsty savages...it's just the unassailable fact that we will inevitably kill innocent civilians when we are fighting an insurgency in a country where a large percentage of the population perceives us as an occupying force that should get the F%&K out of their country. We should not blame the troops for this event. We should blame the government who went to war and ourselves for allowing it to happen.

Lesson 3: This is not an isolated or even a terribly rare incident as an active duty soldier in Iraq puts it. Glenn Greenwald adds:
This incident is commonplace, not unusual, because it's what war is and it's what has been happening in our wars throughout the decade.  We just don't usually see it, and this time we did.  That -- and the fact that Reuters journalists were killed and it thus generated more pressure than normal -- are the only things that make it unusual.
Another example came in a NY Times article yesterday that described a cover up of another horrific incident in Afghanistan back in February of this year involving the all-too-common mistake of confusing militant insurgents with innocent and unarmed civilians.

Lesson 4: The people who hate the U.S. and are inspired to take up arms against us do not hate us because they hate freedom or Lady GaGa. They hate us because of events like what happened in July 2007 in New Baghdad. The most important lesson that all of us should know by now is that the people we are fighting in the "War on Terror" are not all crazed and irrational people (even though it's a lot easier to justify a war against people like that). They respond the same way that we would if our innocent family members and friends were killed by a foreign military...with outrageous anger. The simple act of realizing that our military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are sometimes counterintuitive (not to mention horribly oppressive) to our own goals of national security is so easily missed today. We ignore it at our peril.

UPDATE: I should have also mentioned this under-reported story under Lesson 3: The NY Times reported a few weeks ago that Gen. Stanley McChrystal (senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan) said the following while taking questions from troops:
We really ask a lot of our young service people out on the checkpoints because there's danger, they're asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it...That doesn't mean I'm criticizing the people who are executing. I'm just giving you perspective. 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.
Quite a frank admission coming from a lead commander in Afghanistan. 

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