Collateral Murder Part Two

This is the second in a pair of posts analysing this video, a version of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video released in 2010 by Wikileaks. The last time covered the first five minutes of content, analysing the strange tactics used by the US military in Iraq at the time, but that isn’t why the video was released. The reason this caused such a stir is thanks to the next ten minutes, as an Apache helicopter opens fire on a group of seemingly inoffensive people, including a pair of journalists.

Watching this portion of the video is more tragic than anything, because so much of it could be considered standard military procedure. As mentioned in my last post, with so few men on the ground trying to cover such a large area (the problem that, ultimately, caused all the issues the video explores) the US army had to rely on its superior air force to provide cover for the foot soldiers it did have. The helicopter’s pilot identifies the group as ‘six or seven men with AK-47s’, and despite the point that the video makes that the journalist’s camera was mistaken for a weapon, there were armed insurgents in the group (hence why said journalists were filming with them). As, presumably, the result of a breakdown in communications, the proximity of Ethan McCord’s little group of soldiers is not relayed to the chopper and they are given permission to open fire on the group.

If opening up a 30mm cannon on an unaware group of disorganised insurgents seems an excessive use of force it’s because it, frankly, is, and reflects how desperate the army had become just to kill every insurgent they could find (slightly losing sight of the point of a counter-insurgency operation and probably prolonging the war; but that isn’t the soldiers’ job to know). Not only that, but it is a reflection of the rules of engagement at the time, that McCord describes later, which allowed you to open fire on anyone who you ‘felt threatened’ by. Quite how a group of trained soldiers in the most heavily armed helicopter used by any army in the world  are feeling threatened by a group of unprotected, unaware men armed with assault rifles 3 miles away rather escapes me, and reflects the complete idiocy of that system. Because ‘feeling threatened’ is not a quantitative, provable description, it is not possible for any claim that these rules were being violated to be upheld; even if the victim is unarmed, they could still be shot if it is claimed the soldier thought they could have been wired to explosives. Though, to be honest, such claims would likely have scarcely ever been made even in the worst instances; the high-ups care too much about their previously stated goals to ‘kill every mother f***er’ available.

Regarding the deaths themselves however… this is war, and bad guys get killed: arguing over the niceties of that opens a whole new can of worms. The carnage McCord describes is part and parcel of modern warfare, horrible though it may be, and the role of an army in this situation is to ensure that the damage it inflicts is less than the damage that would be caused were the situation allowed to get out of hand. The very title of the video, ‘Collateral Murder’, offers a sense of bitter irony at the Pentagon euphemism of ‘collateral damage’ used whenever innocent people are killed in an operation, but in this situation this is not a result of the US Army actively deciding that these lives are expendable. This is not deciding to bomb a town despite knowing there are innocents present, but about opening fire on a group of suspected terrorists and misidentifying innocent journalists. It is an accident; a deadly one to be sure, but an honest accident nonetheless.

No, the really shocking thing about this section of the video is what comes afterwards: the way that the crew of the Apache seem so blasé about the fact that they’ve just gunned down eight people. I can well appreciate that these men are soldiers; killing people is, ultimately, their job, and they wouldn’t be good at it were they to burst into tears every time somebody dies. But the fact remains that they have just slaughtered eight people and seem positively elated at the prospect, as if killing in this way is their idea of fun. This could be argued to be the result of their elevated position; they don’t have to get down & dirty, to see what they have wrought. At the risk of sounding preachy, killing for enjoyment is among the single worst traits any human could have, and such people are patently unsuited for being left unrestricted on any front line.

Worse is to follow. The gunship then proceeds to open fire on a people carrier containing young children; hardly a technical or APC. Although the children could almost certainly not have been identified from the gunship’s position, the act of opening fire on clearly unarmed men in an unprotected, unarmed vehicle is so against every rule of warfare and rule of engagement that it is positively ridiculous. It doesn’t matter that by clearing up bodies and weapons they are ‘on the other side’: they are not acting as a threat and they are not to be engaged. That’s what these bloody rules are for. Hell, the chopper’s crew even know that there’s a group of infantry on their way in vehicles, and it surely wouldn’t have been too much to simply wait for them to deal with the whole mess properly. Here, the term ‘collateral murder’ seems a little more appropriate. Again, we see more evidence (especially when they continue shooting the ‘disabled’ van, and are able to laugh about it afterwards) that these men in the Apache are shooting because they find it fun. And, indeed, that there are far too many people giving orders who are quite happy to let them do so.

Most of the rest of the video deals with McCord & his platoon’s reaction to the horrific scene left by the Apache; the scale of death and destruction, his desperate efforts to help in any way he could, the death of a child in his arms, and crucially the (entirely justifiable) immense shock and emotional kickback he felt in response to the incident. Even for a soldier, this is ugly stuff, and McCord is clearly a man in need of sympathy and help. It has taken a long time for the world to realise the importance of mental health to soldiers, but after studying the domestic abuse figures for soldiers post-Vietnam, its importance becomes clear.

Except that sympathy is precisely the opposite of what he receives. Perhaps his platoon commander’s response of ‘you need to stop worrying about those f***ing kids and pull security’ is understandable; they are, after all, still unprotected in dangerous territory and they still have a job to do. On patrol, emotions have to be put to one side purely for everyone’s safety and wellbeing. One could also argue that his platoon members’ reaction of having ‘pretty much ignored what just happened’ is also justifiable, for these men are soldiers and are used to death and pain surrounding them; hell, McCord even says that the army told them, quite rightly, never to let their emotions take over whilst on a mission. That the whole debacle has affected Ethan McCord differently to them is just a product of the experience and his mind, so his decision to see a mental health counsellor, someone trained in this most strange of fields, is an eminently sensible one.

What makes absolutely no sense is the idea that, as McCord says, ‘needing to talk to someone could constitute a crime in the army’; even in the field of operations, just ‘sucking it up’ is most often not a sensible long-term strategy. Soldiers go on tours of duty for very long periods, up to a year on occasion, and that is a long time to try and ‘suck up’ a serious mental health issue. If a soldier’s mental stability is compromised that makes them a potential liability in the field, and it makes absolutely no sense that counselling, one of the best tools we currently have to combat these issues, is in any way restricted to soldiers. Sometimes, even the toughest need a hand, and to prevent them from getting it is just plain old stupid. One only needs to listen to the rest of McCord’s speech to see how profoundly this has affected him.

It’s not easy to summarise this video. It’s a story covering so many different aspects; of the need for manpower when combating an insurgency and the consequences thereof, of how confusion and lack of information can lead to catastrophic consequences, how different people suffer different things in different ways to different extents and of the importance of properly enforced, sensible rules of engagement. But the primary theme governing the actual mistakes made by the US military in this situation concern man management; of managing the deployment of soldiers incorrectly for the situation (albeit whilst somewhat caught between a rock and a hard place), of giving the wrong people access to unrestricted, no strings attached lethal force, and of failing to take care of people when they need it. Those mistakes cost the lives of several innocent people, two of them children, cost the US army a soldier, and cost Ethan McCord his mind and his happiness. The lessons they offer should be heeded.

Collateral Murder

This post, I’m going to be performing an analysis of a video that popped up on my Facebook feed earlier this week; but, before I link it, it’s worth giving you fair warning that the content is pretty graphic, and the content is not to be taken lightly. The video in question is nothing especially new (the content was released by Wikileaks in a video entitled ‘Collateral Murder’ back in 2010), and deals with a snapshot of the Iraq war; namely, the killing of a group of apparently mostly innocent civilians by the crew of a US army Apache helicopter gunship.

This particular video tells the story of this events through the words of Ethan McCord, a soldier in the army who was on the ground at the time of the incident. But he begins with some mention of the tactics employed by the army during his time in Iraq, so my analysis will begin there. McCord talks of how, whenever an IED went off, soldiers in his battalion were ordered to ‘kill every mother****er on the street’, issuing 360 degree rotational fire to slaughter every person, civilians and insurgents alike, unfortunate enough to be in the area at the time and how, even though this often went against the morals of the soldiers concerned, a failure to comply with that order would result in the NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers, aka high-ranking soldiers) in your platoon ‘make[ing] your life hell’. The death toll and slaughter this practice must have caused could hardly be imagined, but McCord does his best to describe it; he talks of ‘the destruction of the Iraqi people’, of normal, innocent people being massacred just for being in the wrong place in the wrong time. McCord also talks about ‘Ranger Dominance’ operations, in which a couple of companies walked unprotected through New Baghdad (a district of the larger city of Baghdad) to perform counter-insurgency tasks. An example he gives are ‘Knock-in searches’ (I think that’s the phrase he uses), in which soldiers knock on doors/break in in order to search for potentially insurgency-related material.

The reason for these missions, for this behaviour, and for the seemingly nonsensical, murderous missions these soldiers were asked to perform comes, basically, down to the type of war being fought. Once Saddam Hussein had been removed from power, many in the US government and army thought the war would be over before very long; just cleaning up a few pockets of resistance. However, what they didn’t count on was that a mixture of their continued presence in the country, their bad behaviour and the sheer dedication of certain diehard Hussein loyalists, and before very long coalition forces found themselves combating an insurgency operation. Insurgencies aren’t like ‘traditional’ warfare; there are no fronts, no battle lines, no easily identifiable cases of ‘good guys here, bad guys over there’. Those kinds of wars are easy to fight, and there’s no way that the military juggernaut of the US army is ever going to run into trouble fighting one in the foreseeable future.

Insurgencies are a different kettle of fish altogether, for two key (and closely related) reasons. The first is that the battle is not fought over land or resources, but over hearts and minds- an insurgency is won when the people think you are the good guys and the other lot are the bad guys, simply because there is no way to ‘restore stability’ to a country whilst a few million people are busy throwing things at your soldiers. The second is that insurgents are not to be found in a clearly defined and controlled area, but hiding all over the place; in safe houses, bunkers, cellars, sewers and even in otherwise innocuous houses and flats. This means that to crush an insurgency does not depend on how many soldiers you have versus the bad guys, but how many soldiers you have per head of population; the more civilians there are, the more places there are the hide, and the more people you need to smoke them out.

Conventional wisdom apparently has it that you need roughly one soldier per ten civilians in order to successfully crush an insurgency operation within a reasonable time frame, or at all if the other side are properly organised, and if that sounds like a ridiculous ratio then now you know why it took so long for the US to pull out of Iraq. I have heard it said that in the key areas of Iraq, coalition forces peaked at one soldier per hundred civilians, which simply is not enough to cover all the required areas fully. This left them with two options; ether concentrate only on highly select areas, and let the insurgents run riot everywhere else (and most likely sneak in behind their backs when they try to move on somewhere else) or to spread themselves thin and try to cover as much ground as possible with minimal numbers and control. In the video, we see consequences of the second approach being used, with US forces attempting to rely on their air support to provide some semblance of intelligence and control over an area whilst soldiers are spread thin and vulnerable, often totally unprotected from mortar attack, snipers and IEDs. This basically means that soldiers cannot rely on extensive support, or backup, or good intel, or to perform missions in a safe, secure environment, and their only way of identifying militant activity is, basically, to walk right into it, either intentionally (hence the Knock-in Searches) or simply by accident. In the former case, it is generally simple enough to apprehend those responsible, but successfully discovering an insurgent via a deliberate search is highly unlikely. It is for this reason that the army don’t take no for an answer in these types of searches, and will often turn a house upside down in an effort to maximise their chance of finding something. In the latter case, identifying and apprehending an individual troublemaker is no easy task, so the army clearly decided (in their infinite wisdom) that the only way to have a chance of  getting the insurgent is to just annihilate everyone and everything in the immediate vicinity.

That’s the reasoning used by the US forces in this situation, and it’s fair to say that in this regard they were rather stuck between a rock and a hard place. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that these tactics are, in the context of an insurgency operation, completely stupid and bull-headed. Remember, an insurgency operation aims, as military officials constantly tell us, to win hearts and minds, to get the civilian population on your side; that’s half the reason you’re not permitting your soldiers to show ‘cowardice’. But, at the same time and in direct contrast to the ‘hearts and minds principle’, this particular battalion commander has chosen to get his soldiers battering down doors and shooting civilians at the first sign of trouble. Unfortunately, this is what happens when wars are badly managed and there are not enough men on the ground to do the job; stupid things becomes sanctioned as ideas because they seem like the only way forward. The results are shown quiter plainly in McCord’s testimony: soldiers of the 1st infantry ‘the toast of the army’, men who ‘pride themselves on being tougher than anyone else’, are getting genuinely scared of going out on missions, fear welling up in their eyes as they wander unprotected through dangerous streets praying they don’t come across any IEDs or snipers.

And that’s just the tactics; next time, I will get on to the meat of the video. The incident that Wikileaks put on show for the world to see…