The dogs of war

Print edition : May 07, 2010

A grab from a video shot from a U.S. Army Apache helicopter gunsight. Posted at Wikileaks.org, it shows the scene in the streets of the New Baghdad district just after a group of men were fired upon by the helicopter on July 12, 2007. Among those killed were Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver, Saeed Chmagh. Ten others were killed and two children were wounded.-AFP

ON July 12, 2007, Namir Noor-Eldeen left the Reuters office in Baghdad with his driver, Saeed Chmagh. Noor-Eldeen, at 22, was a veteran war photographer. They were going to take some pictures for a story on weightlifting in Iraq. The countrys only Olympic medal, a bronze in 1960, came from weightlifting. News of an outbreak of violence in the New Baghdad area diverted the Reuters crew. They went in search of another scene from the long summer of violence set off by the United States surge and the sectarian murders. Not long afterwards, Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh were killed by the deadly 30-millimetre M230 chain guns mounted on the AH-64D Apache helicopters favoured by the U.S. armed forces. They never stood a chance.

Reuters requested information about the killings but the U.S. armed forces kept mum. Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh were not the only ones dead on the side streets. With them were 10 other men and two grievously wounded children. It was a bloodbath. One of Noor-Eldeens colleagues remembers putting ice over his body to preserve it as long as possible. No real investigation was conducted. In 2007, 32 journalists died in the overheated combat zone (the same number as those who died in 2006). Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh joined the statistics.

Three years later, the video of the murder of these men surfaced on a little known website, Wikileaks. Someone inside the military leaked the 38-minute video to the confidential website, which then ran two versions. The first was edited to around 17 minutes, and the second (on a website called Collateral Murder) is the full, unedited video. Very quickly the video went viral. Most news sites carried one or the other version, and it garnered an enormous number of hits on YouTube and on the Wikileaks site itself. The U.S. military confirmed that it was authentic. The video is shot from the Apache helicopters. Eight men are walking casually. Two of them carry large black bags. It appears that at least one of the men is armed. None of them behaves suspiciously. The helicopters hover above. A pilot says, See all those people standing down there? The camera zooms down and we see Saeed Chmagh carrying one of the black bags. The pilot says, Thats a weapon.

He hastily calls his commandant at the base and asks for permission to fire. The assent comes surprisingly quickly. Keep in mind that the Iraqis on the ground have fired at no one and seem to be going about their business with a minimum of fuss. The Apache loses its target behind a building, and the airmen get frustrated. Noor-Eldeens camera has a 14-inch long 70-200 zoom lens. He seems to be pointing it to take a picture. The airmen claim that it is a weapon (the rocket propelled grenade, or RPG, launcher has a funnel that is four feet long). They open fire. The ground is a mess. All the targets fall. One continues to crawl. It is Chmagh. He is badly wounded. A pilot says, All you gotta do is pick up a weapon. They want to kill him.

A van pulls up. It is clear that these are people who have come to take the injured man to the hospital. As they gather Chmagh up, the pilots request permission to fire on them. Come on, let us shoot, they plead. Again, the assent comes quickly. They open fire and kill Chmagh along with those who were helping him. One missile goes through the front window of the van. It is a mess. Soon thereafter, U.S. ground forces arrive. One of their vehicles runs over Noor-Eldeen. The men in the sky cheer. The troops on the ground report that there are two wounded children in the van. The pilot says, Well, its their fault for bringing their kids into battle. There is no remorse. The tape ends.

The sequence of events from the 38-minute video leaked by someone in the U.S. military to Wikileaks. The U.S. military confirmed that it was authentic. The video included audio conversations between Apache pilots and ground controllers in which they identify the men in a Baghdad street as armed insurgents and ask for permission to open fire. The text in the image appears in the video as it is posted on Wikileaks.org and includes some identifications, transcripts of the pilots communications.-AP/WIKILEAKS.ORG

The tape comes as no surprise. In 2009, The Washington Post reporter David Finkel published The Good Soldiers. The book traces Finkels time in Iraq with the 2-16 battalion. On July 12, the fateful day, Finkel is with the 2-16 as they engage the Iraqi insurgency in the Al-Amin neighbourhood. It was a quiet day. It was a saffya daffya [sunny and warm] day, Finkel writes, and the soldiers found no resistance as they began clearing streets and houses. Birds chirped. A few people smiled. Then, after the worry about snipers, they heard a thundering sound. It was the Apache helicopters engaging the journalists.

Finkel had watched the tape, because he describes the action in detail (page 96 to 104). The fact of the ghastly killing is no surprise. There was little controversy when Finkels book came out. He defended the U.S. armed forces, who had, he wrote, reviewed everything they could about what had prefaced the killings in east Al-Amin, in other words that soldiers were being shot at, that they didnt know journalists were there, that the journalists were in a group of men carrying weapons, that the Apache crew had followed the rules of engagement when it fired at the men with weapons, at the journalists, and at the van with the children inside and had concluded that everyone acted appropriately.

The airmen get a clean chit from Finkel. They acted properly, but, Finkel asked, had the journalists? They were un-embedded. What the soldiers did know, he concluded, was that the good soldiers were still the good soldiers, and the time had come for dinner.

Journalists have not had it easy in the Iraq conflict. When the U.S. opened its assault in 2003, journalists who were not embedded with the U.S. troops faced the guns squarely. On April 8, 2003, an M1 Abrams tank of the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army opened fire at the Palestine Hotel, which housed 150 journalists. One shell hit the 15th floor, where the Reuters team lived. The Ukrainian reporter Taras Protsyuk was killed. Below her, on the 14th floor, Spanish cameraman Jos Couso was injured. He died at Baghdad Hospital. That same day, two surface-to-air missiles struck the Al Jazeera office and killed Palestinian reporter Tareq Ayyoub and wounded his Iraqi cameraman, Zouhair al-Iraqi.

The U.S. also struck the Abu Dhabi television office. Major General Stanley McChrystal fielded questions at a press conference in the Pentagon, where he said that un-embedded journalists would be in danger. When forces were in combat in urban areas, he said, it would be dangerous and difficult. In other words, journalists who travelled with the U.S. forces would be safe and the others would be in grave danger. It was a chilling statement from such a senior military official. It set the tone of what would come as the war unfolded.

AFP

Between the start of the war in 2003 and 2007, 125 journalists were killed in Iraq. During the most dangerous 20 years of the Vietnam War (from 1955 to 1975), 66 journalists were killed. The comparison is stark. It is this routine killing of journalists that has once more outraged the Iraqi Journalists Union, whose head told the media, I call upon the government to take a firm stance against the criminals who killed the journalists. Such action is unlikely.

The video demonstrates the callousness of the pilots. They seem to enjoy the killing. With the bodies on the ground, one pilot says, Look at those dead bastards. Another says, Nice.

The rules of engagement seem to be very weak (despite what Finkel says). The commandant seemed as willing as the pilots to let loose the dogs of war. It is against the Geneva Convention to fire at a wounded person who is not a threat. It is also against the Law of Armed Combat to shoot at those who are not a threat. Finally, the Geneva Convention asks that combatants protect those who collect, and care for the wounded, whether friend or foe. The pilots seem unaware or uninterested in such niceties.

Indeed, their callousness has found its defenders in the military. Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman (who wrote On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society) told The New York Times that combat training is the only technique that will reliably influence the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human being [to take another life]. Conditioning in flight simulators enables pilots to respond reflexively to emergency situations even when frightened. The Pentagon has been equally cavalier.

Noor-Eldeen, the Reuters journalist who was killed in the attack.-KHALID MOHAMMED/AP

In the U.S., some writers have compared this video with the revelations from Abu Ghraib prison. That was the impression given in the shorter Wikileaks video, which opens with a quote from George Orwell (Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind). This is not the first such foray of Wikileaks. From December 2006, this website has become a remarkable drop box for confidential materials, from Swiss bank documents to the British National Party membership list, from Icelandic government documents to a U.S. intelligence memorandum on Wikileaks (calling the website a threat to the U.S. Army).

Anchored by the Swedish web server that also hosts the file-sharing site Pirate Bay, Wikileaks is inspired by the work of Daniel Ellsberg, who smuggled out the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg gave the papers to the main newspapers, but they sat on it for two years. Wikileaks is not given over to such censorship by the media. If it finds that the material is authentic, it is on the Web (currently, there are over a million documents on the website). Wikileaks will not say how they got the video. But it has certainly had a chilling effect, for the moment.

A picture by him of children who had fled the battle-torn town of Falluja playing with toy guns at a temporary refugee camp in Baghdad on November 16, 2004.-REUTERS

Noor-Eldeen was 22 years old. In his short life, he had already accomplished a great deal. On assignment in Mosul from 2004 to 2006, Noor-Eldeen captured the heart of the war between the U.S. forces and the Iraqi resistance. There is an emblematic photograph that captured the chaos of the moment a masked Iraqi insurgent looking straight at the camera with an RPG launcher in one hand and a police flak jacket in the other. Two years later, Noor-Eldeen began to receive threats from some elements in the insurgency. Reuters moved him to Baghdad.

In Baghdad, this young reporter continued to use his daring to good effect. He photographed the worst parts of the collapse of his country, pictures of dead bodies and car blasts, insurgents and survivors.

There is one picture from January 2007 that I remember vividly. I saw it on the Web. It was perhaps too uncomfortable to run in U.S. newspapers. A young boy carries a football under his arm. He steps around a pool of blood. Beside the bright red blood sit a few rumpled schoolbooks. The boy, perhaps around 12, tries to find some normality in the midst of such violence. It was Noor-Eldeens humane eye that went for that shot, with the boy walking around the danger as if it were nothing more than garbage on the sidewalk.

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