Regarding the Killing of Others
What the Apache attack video tells us about our imagery of war.
On Monday, a video was made public on the internet that shows an US helicopter in Iraq killing civilians in Bagdad. The video, published in a 39 min and an edited 17 minute version, is the recording of the helicopter’s gun camera and includes the soldier’s radio conversation. It was made available under the accusatory title „Collateral Murder“ by the website WikiLeaks.org. WikiLeaks facilitates the publishing of classified and sensitive documents – Mr. Assange, one of the founders, considers himself „both a journalist and an advocate“ – and it one of the exciting new forms of (investigative) journalism on the web, deepthroating 2.0, so to speak.
But what about the video and its content that WikiLeaks brought to light? On → this Wikipedia article and on the → appendant dicussion page one can get a good overview about the disputed incident, which occured almost three years ago, in July 2007. The news agency Reuters had tried to get access to the video material through court appeals under the Freedom of Information Act – in vain. Now it’s in the public eye; but what do we see? At first, one might find itself in the imagery of an air combat computer game. This is also how Julian Assange from WikiLeaks described the actions of the soldiers in the video. „The behavior of the pilots is like they’re playing a video game. Their desire is to get high-scores in their computer game.“ and „These are not bad apples. This is standard practice. You can hear it from the tones of the voices of the pilots that this is in fact another day at the office. These pilots […] and gunners have evidently become so corrupted, morally corrupted, by the war that they are looking for excuses to kill. That is why you hear this segment, “Come on, buddy! Just pick up a weapon,” when Saeed, one of the Reuters employees, is crawling on the curb. […] They just want an excuse to kill.„
But – of course – we regard it as a document of reality. It is a unquestionable prove of what happened. The website Democracy Now! calls it „a grim depiction of how routine the killing of civilians has become, and it is a stark reminder of how necessary journalism is, and how dangerous its practice has become.“ But is it really a representation of reality? Yes and no.
One who thought and wrote about the nature of images and their impact on us like few others, was Susan Sontag. What might she have said to this video? In her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, and also in an article about the prison photos from Abu Ghraib, Regarding the Torture of Others, published six months before her death in 2004, she noted some fundamental truths about war images, like this video, and the importance of watching them consciously.
Almost like the prison snapshots – the iconic hooded man or the pile of naked men (you all know the photos, of course) – it shows how „the American effort in Iraq [is] summed up by these images„. Like in the Abu Ghraib ’scandal‘, the Pentagon and the administration (now of course under a new president) are reluctant to call what happened by its name: „Torture„, or in this case „murder“ (the frequent labelling as „murder“ being debatable, if not wrong here, in a legal sense of the word, of course). And like then, the visual prove is considered primarily as a „public-relations disaster“ that damages „the reputation of the honorable men and women of the armed forces who are courageously and responsibly and professionaly [!] defending our freedom across the globe“ (as Donald Rumsfeld put it back then). So, as Susan Sontag aks, „is the real issue not the photographs themselves but what the photographs reveal to have happened„? One is tempted to say yes – after all men were killed and children injured in the firing of an US helicopter. The US soldiers had mistaken the big camera of a journalist for a R.P.G., or rocket-propelled grenade (which is after all, not so much different in a media war, one could cynically add).
♦ The Suffering on the Ground ♦
Important is not what you see, but what you don’t see: the suffering on the ground – this is the common and letigimate reaction of people watching the video. But you have to look closer, i.e. more abstractly; the real importance of what the video brought to public attention lies deeper. It’s not even the hush-up attemps by the military and the statements about the incidents that have now been proved to be lies. It is the question „whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this [the Bush] administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely.“ It may be called a „direct consequence of the with-us-or against-us doctrines“ the late US foreign policy based its „global war on terror“ on, as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks. „An endless war„, says Sontag, despite Bush’s → Mission is Accomplished (May 1st 2003 George W. Bush said „The War on Terror continues, yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.„, so its end was and still is indefinite, which means a constant state of war or a characteristical modern blending of War and Peace)
♦ The Blending of War and Peace ♦
So, to simplify the chain of ideas, the soldiers in Iraq are in a way ‚bound‘ or ‚tempted‘ to act as if everbody they encounter was a terrorist – which of course doesn’t excuses them personally. What strikes one most when watching the video from the morally save haven of one’s living room, are the comments by the soldiers about their victims and the athmosphere of fun in the air while below people are dying, i.e. get killed. It reminds one of the tank driver in Michael Moore’s „Fahrenheit 9/11“ who proudly tells the camera how he listens to „Burn, Motherfucker, Burn!“ via his headphones while he is in combat. „The easy delight taken in violence seems to have grown„, Sontag observes; and it’s this kind of cynic detachtment from the bloody reality of war that is maybe at the core of the problem. In this case, it’s not the facial „expression of satisfaction„, but the jolly tone of the soldier congratulating his comrade – „Good shooting“ „Thank you“ – i.e. the technical, mechanical approach to the killing they have just performed. And the labelling as collateral damage that is the inevitable reaction by officials afterwards.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and author of the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” says that to detach oneself from the bloody reality of killing is necessary in order to function in a war: „Military training is fundamentally an exercise in overcoming a fear of killing another human“ and, as the → New York Times adds, „many veterans have made the point that fighters cannot do their jobs without creating psychological distance from the enemy. One reason that the soldiers seemed as if they were playing a video game is that, in a morbid but necessary sense, they were.“ But do we have to accept these psychological devices of coping as given realities? Or – and that is the real question – how should military executives and war administrators deal with it?“The video’s emotional impact on viewers is also partly rooted in the combination of intimacy and distance it gives them, some experts said. The viewer sees a wider tragedy unfolding, in hindsight, from the safety of a desk; the soldiers are reacting in real time, on high alert, exposed. In recent studies, researchers have shown that such distance tempts people to script how they would act in the same place, and overestimate the force of their own professed moral principles.“ and „“What another person does in that situation should stand as forewarning for what we would do ourselves.”“ We, that we have never been to war zone, have never experienced the reality of death and combat first hand, shouldn’t be so fast to condemm the single soldier’s surreal detachtment from the suffering and the pain, as the real issue is not the individual soldier.
♦ Overcoming the Fear of Killing ♦
In an → interview, done by the independent, that is to say unembedded journalist Rick Rowley the day after the incident right where it happened, a man tells the viewers at home through the camera: „We demand that the American Congress and president Bush superwise their soldier’s actions in Iraq.“ We should not quickly blame the individual soldiers and leave it with that. No matter whether they acted inside the Rules of Engagement or not (which in this case they apparently did, „requesting permission to engage“). Of course the military legislation should see that soldiers follow these rules, which btw are also → available on WikiLeaks to read for everybody. And of course questions have to be asked about the context of the killing that lead to whether and when the streets of Bagdad are to be considered a war zone and what exact Rules of Engagement have to be put into practice according to that. (One especially infuriating remark by on of the soldiers on the fact that the children were injured was „Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.“)
♦ „Requesting Permission to Engage“ ♦
But that is not enough and not the real responsibility of „us“ or „the American public“ or any other watcher of the evening news. Our rational, distant judgement is inevitable and necessary, but we should be aware on what basis of representation we form it; even more so, because we are accomplices to the creation of an illusion of precise, clean warfare, not only the Bush administration, but especially most of the media with their coverage through embedded journalism have installed in our visual „Western memory museum“. What everbody constantly has to make oneself conscious of is that „the difference between photography and reality — as between spin and policy — can easily evaporate.“. It’s how „conflicts are judged and remembered“ that is primarily determined by the images, the visual representations of war. Also of course by the military lingo of „collateral damage“ and combat procedures („We just engaged all eight individuals.“ „I’ve got uh eleven Iraqi KIAs“ [Killed In Action])
♦ KIAs ♦
So the answer to the question if the video is ‚just‘ a representation of the really scandalous incident is „No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken.“ What in the case of the Abu Ghraib pictures was an even more direct circle – because the posing for the camera was part of the enjoyment the soldiers were having in the torture – here is a wider complex of visual coverage: The implementation of a understanding of war as a clean engagement between the forces of good and evil. And of policies based on mind sets of black and wide that was implemented to legitimize „America’s right, flowing from that virtue [of „American’s claim to moral superiority„], to undertake unilateral action on the world stage„, as Susan Sontag criticises. It is whether we see war through the military combat video of a helicopter or through the ‚civilian‘ eyes of war journalists, or war photographers like Namir Noor-eldeen, whom we can watch in the video being killed while doing a report. Because eventually, as Susan Sontag says, „the photographs are us„.
If you like the text, you can flattr it:
Many words have been uttered and articles written since the video came out, but I just want to point to one very interesting text: a letter of apology by two American soldiers, one of them being the guy pulling out one of the children in the video.
Words cannot have the same affective and therefore political effects as the images of the video – Words Against Images – this really is an asymmetric war. Still, it’s a great token gesture and there should be more uses of the words acknowledgment and responsibility together, as reactions to images of war.
An Open Letter of Reconciliation and Responsibility to the Iraqi People
Peace be with you. To all of those who were injured or lost loved ones during the July 2007 Baghdad shootings depicted in the „Collateral Murder“ Wikileaks video: […]
There is no bringing back all that was lost. What we seek is to learn from our mistakes and do everything we can to tell others of our experiences and how the people of the United States need to realize what have done and are doing to you and the people of your country. We humbly ask you what we can do to begin to repair the damage we caused.
We have been speaking to whoever will listen, telling them that what was shown in the Wikileaks video only begins to depict the suffering we have created. From our own experiences, and the experiences of other veterans we have talked to, we know that the acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war: this is the nature of how U.S.-led wars are carried out in this region.
We acknowledge our part in the deaths and injuries of your loved ones as we tell Americans what we were trained to do and carried out in the name of „god and country“. The soldier in video said that your husband shouldn’t have brought your children to battle, but we are acknowledging our responsibility for bringing the battle to your neighborhood, and to your family. […]
Though we have acted with cold hearts far too many times, we have not forgotten our actions towards you. Our heavy hearts still hold hope that we can restore inside our country the acknowledgment of your humanity, that we were taught to deny. […]
Our secretary of defense may say the U.S. won’t lose its reputation over this, but we stand and say that our reputation’s importance pales in comparison to our common humanity.
With such pain, friendship might be too much to ask. Please accept our apology, our sorrow, our care, and our dedication to change from the inside out. We are doing what we can to speak out against the wars and military policies responsible for what happened to you and your loved ones. Our hearts are open to hearing how we can take any steps to support you through the pain that we have caused.
Solemnly and Sincerely,
Josh Stieber, former specialist, U.S. Army
Ethan McCord, former specialist, U.S. Army
Accentuation in bold by me; you can read the full text → here on Michael Moore’s website.
Also read what Josh Stieber (also a former member of the company seen in the video and anti-war activist now) has to say about the incident and its broader significance → here [including a short video interview with him].
- WikiLeaks.org or the SunshinePress NGO
- CollateralMurder.com with the video, transcript, stills and other documents & articles related to the incident
- DemocracyNow.org with the witness video & an interview with an military expert, saying that the incident is part of a much larger problem.
- New York Times: Psychologists Explain Iraq Airstrike Video by Benedict Carey, published April 7, 2010
- New York Times: Reaction on Military Blogs by Timothy Hsia, published April 7, 2010
- New York Times Lens Blog: Remembering Namir Noor-Eldeen by ichael Kamber, published April 6, 2010
(14 photos by the killed journalist)
- The Guardian about the killing of journalists by Jim Boumelha: „US must deliver justice on friendly fire.“
- The German newspaper TAZ about WikiLeaks: „Wir brauchen die Obskurität noch„. Interview with their spokesman Daniel Schmitt
- On Michael Moore’s website anti-war activist and former soldier Josh Stieber reacts to the video. He also posted other reactions by so-called experts seen in a 9-min. TV recording of MSNBC.