Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Collateral Murder" and the Problem of Framing

I figure by now you’ve probably seen a video making the rounds called “Collateral Murder.”  It’s simple and straightforward and shows the cold-blooded murder of civilians and reporters at the hands of American soldiers in Iraq.  Specifically Americans at the controls of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.

Oh.  And children.  They shot children, too.

It’s quite chilling, really.  The sort of thing that that’s simultaneously revolting and fascinating.  It’s also the sort of thing that brings together disparate ends of the internet.  I saw the 18 minute video on Slacktivist the day after it was posted on Pharyngula.  That should tell you something right there.

As with any such thing the first round of responses we get to “Collateral Murder” were universal horror.  People were angry.  People were calling for blood.  Then we got some responses saying that everyone should calm down.  They didn’t know the whole story, these other voices claimed.  These second voices were quickly shot down.  No one wants to listen to a murder apologist, after all.

This, for the record, is the internet in microcosm.  Something happens and it makes it on to the web.  People rush in to attack.  Others show up to defend.  Then the two sides start arguing with each other over who is right and who is wrong.  In the end, no one actually learns much and no opinions are changed.

I was horrified by what I saw in “Collateral Murder.”  Quite frankly, I still am.  Let me walk you through.

The video starts with a grainy, black-and-white Apache gun cam focused on a group of people in a street.  They’re just kind of milling about.  It’s obvious that there’s some sort of meeting going on.  The video then helpfully points out the Reuters reporters who are the subject of the video and the camera equipment mis-identified as RPGs.  There are also AK-47s, but we can basically ignore them.*  The problem, as “Collateral Murder” points out over and over again, is that there aren’t any RPGs.  That’s camera equipment.

The pilots request permission to fire on the gathering and claim they have drawn fire, which does not appear to be the case.  Still, permission is granted and 30mm cannon fire rains down on the little knot of people.  Only one person is still moving afterwards.

This brings up part two.  A van arrives.  The people in the van get out and move to help the sole survivor of the attack.  They do not take defensive precautions against the Apaches.  If anything, they appear completely oblivious.  The video also helpfully points out that two figures moving inside the van are children.

Permission to fire is again requested.  After a delay its granted and the helicopters open up on the van.

Now we get to part three.  American ground forces arrive and discover that there were, indeed, children in the van.  Someone says, “Well, they shouldn’t have brought their children to a battle.”

“Collateral Murder” ends shortly after that with a reminder that the Pentagon tried to cover the incident up.

Again, this is horrifying.  It’s an indication of the truly despicable actions the United States engages in while fighting colonial wars on the other side of the world.

Before I go any further, I feel the need to make something clear.  Fred Clark puts it best:  you’re not allowed to kill civilians.  Period.  Full stop.  No ifs, ands, or buts.

There is such a thing as “collateral damage.”  That’s the bit where people who shouldn’t be killed happen to get caught in a blast radius intended for others.  It’s also what happens when bombs are targeted at the wrong place.  This is unfortunate.  It’s also, sadly, a reality of war.  “Collateral damage” cannot be called “murder,” as murder implies premeditation.

What we have in “Collateral Murder” appears to be murder, however.  Pilots opened fire on non-combatant civilians in the absence a clear and present danger.

At least, that’s what the video wants you to believe.  Reality is not quite so cut and dry.

Let me walk you through my response to “Collateral Murder.”  I saw it.  I was horrified.  Once I got over my initial revulsion I started to try to figure out how, exactly, the actions of the pilots could be justified.

I considered, first of all, the possibility that the mis-identification of the camera equipment as RPGs was honest.  I still couldn’t see how there was any possibility that the people in the gun camera were an imminent danger to the helicopters or American ground troops.  They were just milling around in the middle of a street.  This is not good form for setting an ambush.  Still, we have to bear in mind that there are a lot of people in Baghdad who want to set ambushes and the video was taken in 2007 during the Surge.  Things were bad in Baghdad then.  Well, bad-er.

Second, though, I considered the van.  This was the one that bugged me.  The people in the van appeared to be doing nothing but attempting to provide humanitarian aid.  Even in the absence of identifying that there were children in the van, the vehicle did not appear to take anything even closely approximating a threatening posture.  If anything, the van people seemed completely oblivious to the fact that the helicopters were loitering and focused entirely on helping an injured man.

Now, you can turn this around.  If the pilots genuinely thought they were firing on insurgents originally, then it’s not a stretch to believe they genuinely thought they were firing on reinforcements.  If you take Assumption A, then Assumption B follows quite easily.  “Collateral Murder” becomes “Tragic Case of Mistaken Identity Exacerbated by Continued Mistakes.”

Even so, I cannot watch that part of the video and see the van operating in any way other than that of an ambulance.  And you do not fire on ambulances, even if they’re helping your enemy.  This is simply not done.

Third, I considered that, again, this whole sordid affair is done in the absence of any real, credible threat to anyone from the street below.

Fourth, there’s the simple fact that cover-ups have a bad habit of making the parties doing the covering look really fucking guilty.

Then Big A watched the full video of the incident, not the 18 minute “Collateral Murder” segment.  His conclusion was that things were not as they seemed.  And here we come to the crux of the problem.

See, the people behind “Collateral Murder” have a story they want to tell.  This story they want to tell is set against a larger story.  The smaller story is that American troops are carelessly killing innocent Iraqis.  The larger story is that the US is in Iraq as part of a larger set of imperial ambitions and it should be stopped.

This is set against a different story, however.  This is the official White House and Pentagon story that the war has been one of liberation and everything is going quite well and everyone’s all happy because we liberated the Iraqi people and made everything better for them.

“Collateral Murder” undermines the official story.  Blows it out of the water, really.  It’s just too bad that in“Collateral Murder’s” own zeal to tell its story it actually undermines itself.

The fact is that members of the United States military killed people who weren’t doing anything to endanger American troops.  The fact is that attempts were then made to cover up the incident and claim that this was actually a battle and not a slaughter.  Moreover, the fact is that this was an extremely avoidable situation.

See, the helicopter pilots were looking for reasons to pull the trigger.  They were given clearance to do so by their superiors under the Rules of Engagement in place at the time.  They then treated a van full of people, including children, as enemy combatants because the people in the van were rendering aid to people who had already been deemed enemy combatants.  No rules were broken.

This is a problem.  We need new rules.  We need more circumspection in deciding who should be shot and who shouldn’t.  This video could be a powerful reminder.  It could also be a powerful reminder that war is a shitty, shitty thing to bring to other people.

That bit where the injury of the children was dismissed with the words, “They shouldn’t have brought their kids to a battle?”  There’s a simple response to that:  “We shouldn’t have brought a battlefield to their neighborhood.  We shouldn’t have allowed our politicians to goad us in to supporting a war based on nothing.

See, we wouldn’t be singing that tune if there were Iraqi helicopters firing on minivans full of kids in San Francisco or Boston.  We wouldn’t be saying, “Oops, shouldn’t have brought the kids.”  We’d be saying, “Why did you bring your violence here?”

In editing the video to create 18 minutes of thoughtless, senseless slaughter, the makers of “Collateral Murder” ruined that message.  Because there’s a larger context to that video that shows that things were a lot messier than that.

There were Americans on the ground nearby.  They’d been shot at by insurgents.  The helicopter pilots caught sight of someone with an RPG near the group of noncombatants and started asking for permission to open fire without spending enough time properly identifying their targets.  They then compounded the problem when they assumed that the people helping the “insurgents” were, themselves, insurgents and, therefore, viable targets.

Then, of course, there was that bit about the cover-up.  Cover-ups are bad.  Especially the bits after they’re uncovered.

But “Collateral Murder” is, itself, a cover-up.  It covers up the larger context of nearby insurgents firing on nearby American troops in favor of its own narrative about trigger-happy helo pilots.

It’s too bad, too.  There could have been a real learning moment.  The, "America never fucks up," crowd could have gotten an education on the general messiness of war.  The, "Soldiers are trigger-happy killers," could have gotten an education on what happens when mistakes are made in the heat of battle, especially when the goal is to keep Americans from getting killed.  Loveseat warriors who have never gotten closer to war than Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 could have learned that in the real world the bad guys aren't conveniently tagged.

Mostly, though, we could have learned that kids get caught in the crossfire when we bring war to their front doors, so maybe it would be a good idea to think about that while we rattle our sabers at Iran over that nuclear program that's been on schedule to deliver weapons "next year" since the eighties.

Instead we just get more internet rhetoric.  Then again, there are a lot of people who seem to think those are meaningful.


*Possession of an AK-47 is not so much a problem in Iraq, for the record.  Everyone is permitted to own one.  For the record, anyone who knows me knows that I do not own guns and have no intention of changing that.  This is a stance based on my general ambivalence towards guns and not any anti-gun stance.  However, I can assure you that if I wake up tomorrow and find I’ve been mysteriously transported to Baghdad in the night, my very first errand would involve a run to Kalashnikovs R Us.


Big A said...

Quick correction:

Children weren't identified in the van until after the shooting stopped and the ground crew came in to investigate. (How would you be able to spot children inside a van from ~1000ft away on a tiny-ass guncam?)

Everything else is pretty much bang on.

I will highlight, for clarity, that what the pilots did was within the Rules of Engagement at the time. Specifically, the Apache pilots were looking for insurgents who had been harassing themselves and the ground crews for the past 4 hours. Believing they had identified the insurgents, the Apaches did not need to have been fired upon at the time of attack.

Since the end of the Surge and our occupation, this point of the ROE has changed - in general: soldiers, pilots, etc are now only allowed to fire on people when they are immediately threatened.

Geds said...

Children weren't identified in the van until after the shooting stopped and the ground crew came in to investigate. (How would you be able to spot children inside a van from ~1000ft away on a tiny-ass guncam?)

I didn't quite clarify that enough. Sorry.

The video, as I said, pointed out the children, but it just circled a couple of blobs and identified them as such. The actions from the ground troops then proved that the video had, indeed, showed children. No one in the helicopter said, "Sweet, I get to shoot me some young'ins."

This actually highlights another problem with the video that I forgot to mention last night. I call it "The Ghost Hunters Problem." If you tell someone what they should be expecting to see or hear, they will inevitably see or hear that thing.

So the video says, "These are children," and, "These are cameras." You see them and it's obvious to you that the video is right.

It's not so obvious without the helpful circles.

And, of course, you have to consider the fact that the pilots went in looking for guys with RPGs. That's what they saw.

That change in the ROE is the sort of thing that makes me feel better. Ultimately, the thing I can't shake about the video is the fact that the people on the street aren't acting like combatants. The people in the van aren't acting like combatants. So it basically ends up being, "We were getting shot at from somewhere in this general area, there are people in this area holding things. It must be them."

If you're in an urban area that's accustomed to war, you can't assume that everyone on the street is an enemy. You might as well just nuke the city if that's going to be how you do it. It's cheaper and more efficient than spending ten years killing people one at a time with chain guns...

Big A said...

"And, of course, you have to consider the fact that the pilots went in looking for guys with RPGs. That's what they saw."

I think that's exactly what went wrong. I think the pilots got buck fever and never had it occur to them that what they thought were weapons might be cameras (something I can understand a lot more given this was during the '07 surge).

Khakjaan Wessington said...

Explosive Monochrome [News Poem, April 8, 2010]
“We had a guy shooting... and now he's behind the building.”
“Uh, negative, he was, uh, right in front of the brad. Uh, 'bout there... one o'clock. Haven't seen anything since then.”
“Just fuck it. Once you get on 'em just open 'em up.”

With monochrome eyeballs the whirlybird watches
And likewise we're fixed on the ignorant target;
And both of us think of the black and white movies—
Those cellulose nitrates, those obsolete pictures
Of characters featuring colorless faces,
Of subjects long dead and the lingering stigma
Of monochrome colors in digitized footage:
The murder it plays out like X-Box Three Sixty.

Khakjaan Wessington said...

Amazing how bad transcription changes everybody's perspective. He didn't say, "fuckin'" he said, "fuck it." That's difference between being confused and being malicious.

Geds said...


Of course it was malicious. You do not pull the trigger on a 30mm chain gun from an Apache attack helicopter without malice.

The point is that Collateral Murder attempted to frame the video to show that the pilots intentionally opened fire on civilians. That's not what happened. They mis-identified civilians as the insurgents who had been firing on American ground elements from somewhere near that area.

You don't need to point out some sort of confusion v. malice. There was no confusion on the part of the pilots. They believed they were engaging insurgents. Full stop.

And THAT is why armies shouldn't be used to occupy if the intention is to rebuild and get "win hearts and minds."