[Caution: graphic video not suitable for work or children. Full-length version here.]
On the fifth of April, WikiLeaks released a classified US military video from an Apache helicopter gunship as it killed over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad in 2007, including two Reuters new staff, as well as seriously wounding two young children. One of the journalists, gravely wounded in the attack, was then shot in a second barrage as he tried to crawl away, and his body run over by a Humvee. Since the attack, Reuters had been attempting to obtain this video through the Freedom of Information Act, without success. Now it is public for the first time.
Wikileak’s organisers were given the footage by an unnamed source, which they then decrypted and posted on-line. So far, the Pentagon has had no response. The high-quality video, according to BBC’s Adam Brookes in Washington, appears to be authentic, and includes the recording of the pilot’s radio transmission and troops on the ground. Wikileaks has also published a statement from Reuters news editor-in-chief David Schlessinger saying that the video was ‘graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result’.
Wikileaks has complained of surveillance and harassment by the US and other governments, primarily for their role in leaking documents on sensitive subjects, from the assassination of human rights lawyers in Nairobi, photos of murders committed in Tibet followed by a mass attack on Swedish servers by Chinese computers in retaliation, threats by the head of Germany’s BNP of prosecution over a report of CIA involvement in Kosovo, and more. This tiny blogsite, which won Amnesty International’s 2009 media award, is nearly broke and has depended on donations from human rights groups, journalists, technology experts and simply concerned individuals for survival, a ludicrous game of David and Goliath of the internet.
But it seems someone within the DoD or US Army Counterintelligence or CIA or somewhere still believes in the public’s right to know what our elected government is up to. According to documents leaked to Wikileaks, even our own government has conspired to shut down the organization, including exposing sources and identifying whistleblowers and retaliating by termination of employment, criminal prosecution, defamation of the organization to weaken its credibility. The lessons of Valerie Plame and the Freedom of Information Act be damned.
Be warned. This video is not for the faint-hearted. I watched the whole thing. It made me feel ill, but I watched it all. It's the least I could do for those people who lost their lives. At one point you can even see one of the men from the van trying to rescue the wounded journalist looking up at the helicopter, he knew it was there. He knew what he was risking, and tried to help anyway. The bravery of that man is astounding. And he died. If it were left up to our own government, he would have died without you or me or anyone else ever knowing, our ignorance the biggest weapon in any military arsenal. If this ungodly, horrible war is ever to end, it is not only the public’s right to know what we have done and are still doing in Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is our responsibility to demand to know.
What truly bothers me is the absolute callousness of the conversation going on in the Apache helicopter. Beyond the 'fucking prick' and the 'bastards' comments, it's the laughter, particularly during the shooting as if it's all just a video game, cheering each other on as the wounded journalist crawls on the ground, willing him to reach for a ‘weapon’ so they can shoot him again, laughing when his body is run over by a military truck. The comment when the crew realized children have been wounded was shocking: ‘Well, it’s their own fault for bringing their kids to a battle.'
Bringing their kids to a battle? Those children live there! This wasn't a 'battlefield' - it was just an ordinary neighbourhood that got pasted by an American helicopter, twice. We brought the war to them. Where the hell were the kids supposed to have been? Loma Linda? Ann Arbor? Tampa?
Worse, this is a double tragedy: Those men in that helicopter are our sons. Our brothers. Fathers of innocent children just like those they’ve just shot to hell. What are we doing to our own people that we are turning them into such monsters? What kind of military do we now have that 'rules of engagement' means anyone carrying a camera bag, or walking down a street with friends, or driving a van trying to rescue wounded neighbours, is an 'insurgent' and thus fair game?
I'm not so concerned that the military punishes these soldiers for what they've done; it's obvious they were doing exactly what the military expected of them. You and I can sit in the faraway safety of our living rooms and clearly see that other than the two journalists, no one else was carrying anything – no weapons, no RPGs, nothing. The men in the street weren’t hiding or acting suspicious, they were a bunch of mates just strolling down the street, relaxed and chatting to each other. The guy behind the building is looking up at the circling helicopter, but there are no shots being fired from the ground. None.
To give as much benefit of the doubt as I humanly can, there was hostile activity going on in the area, and it is possible the guys in the helicopter may not have been lying; they may have seen what they expected to see, what they wanted to see - AK47s and RPGs that didn't exist - asked for and got permission from distant superiors who had no way to judge the threat other than from what they were told by the helicopter crew. Then they killed everyone in sight. Did it by the book.
It's just that the book is rotten.
That is the true horror - our military is becoming no better than Blackwater. Kill anyone you want, no problem, we'll cover it up and make excuses. Including shipping two small children we've shot to an inadequately staffed local hospital where they'll most likely conveniently die, rather than to a US Army hospital where they have a better chance of survival… and telling their side of the story to an American media.
No wonder the Iraqis hate us so much. No wonder the real insurgents are so relentless. No wonder so many terrorists feel justified in killing as many civilians as they can - we're killing them just as indiscriminately. No wonder our soldiers are coming back with mental problems. War isn't pretty, war isn't clear-cut, war isn't fair. But this isn't war - this is just slaughter for the hell of it.
Nor does it seem our military is going to do right, either by our soldiers or those civilians murdered by troops with carte blanche to shoot anything that moves, not until there's enough of a public outcry for our spineless politicians to start asking the hard questions.
Like… where are all those imaginary AK47s and RPGs? Did the children survive? Who were those other friends of the Reuters journalists who died because they were walking down the wrong street at the wrong time? Why, if we’re the good guys, is our own government trying so hard to keep this hidden from us?
And, more chilling, how much more don’t we know about?