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.

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Today

Today, as very few of you will I’m sure be aware (hey, I wasn’t until a few minutes ago) is World Mental Health Day. I have touched on my own personal experiences of mental health problems before, having spent the last few years suffering from depression, but I feel today is a suitably appropriate time to bring it up again, because this is an issue that, in the modern world, cannot be talked about enough.

Y’see, conservative estimates claim at least 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, be it a relatively temporary one such as post-natal depression or a lifelong battle with the likes of manic depressive disorder or schizophrenia. Mental health is also in the top five biggest killers in the developed world, through a mixture of suicide, drug usage, self-harming or self-negligence, and as such there is next to zero chance that you will go through your life without somebody you know very closely suffering or even dying as a result of what’s going on in their upstairs. If mental health disorders were a disease in the traditional sense, this would be labelled a red alert, emergency level pandemic.

However, despite the prevalence and danger associated with mental health, the majority of sufferers do so in silence. Some have argued that the two correlate due to the mindset of sufferers, but this claim does not change the fact 9 out of 10 people suffering from a mental health problem say that they feel a degree of social stigma and discrimination against their disability (and yes that description is appropriate; a damaged mind is surely just as debilitating, if not more so, than a damaged body), and this prevents them from coming out to their friends about their suffering.

The reason for this is an all too human one; we humans rely heavily, perhaps more so than any other species, on our sense of sight to formulate our mental picture of the world around us, from the obviously there to the unsaid subtext. We are, therefore, easily able to identify with and relate to physical injuries and obvious behaviours that suggest something is ‘broken’ with another’s body and general being, and that they are injured or disabled is clear to us. However, a mental problem is confined to the unseen recesses of our brain, hiding away from the physical world and making it hard for us to identify with as a problem. We may see people acting down a lot, hanging their head and giving other hints through their body language that something’s up, but everybody looks that way from time to time and it is generally considered a regrettable but normal part of being human. If we see someone acting like that every day, our sympathy for what we perceive as a short-term issue may often turn into annoyance that people aren’t resolving it, creating a sense that they are in the wrong for being so unhappy the whole time and not taking a positive outlook on life.

Then we must also consider the fact that mental health problems tend to place a lot of emphasis on the self, rather than one’s surroundings. With a physical disability, such as a broken leg, the source of our problems, and our worry, is centred on the physical world around us; how can I get up that flight of stairs, will I be able to keep up with everyone, what if I slip or get knocked over, and so on. However, when one suffers from depression, anxiety or whatever, the source of our worry is generally to do with our own personal failings or problems, and less on the world around us. We might continually beat ourselves up over the most microscopic of failings and tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, or be filled by an overbearing, unidentifiable sense of dread that we can only identify as emanating from within ourselves. Thus, when suffering from mental issues we tend to focus our attention inwards, creating a barrier between our suffering and the outside world and making it hard to break through the wall and let others know of our suffering.

All this creates an environment surrounding mental health that it is a subject not to be broached in general conversation, that it just doesn’t get talked about; not so much because it is a taboo of any kind but more due to a sense that it will not fit into the real world that well. This is even a problem in the environment of counselling  specifically designed to try and address such issues, as people are naturally reluctant to let it out or even to ‘give in’ and admit there is something wrong. Many people who take a break from counselling, me included, confident that we’ve come a long way towards solving our various issues, are for this reason resistive to the idea of going back if things take a turn for the worse again.

And it’s not as simple as making people go to counselling either, because quite frequently that’s not the answer. For some people, they go to the wrong place and find their counsellor is not good at relating to and helping them; others may need medication or some such rather than words to get them through the worst times, and for others counselling just plain doesn’t work. But this does not detract from the fact that no mental health condition in no person, however serious, is so bad as to be untreatable, and the best treatment I’ve ever found for my depression has been those moments when people are just nice to me, and make me feel like I belong.

This then, is the two-part message of today, of World Mental Health Day, and of every day and every person across the world; if you have a mental health problem, talk. Get it out there, let people know. Tell your friends, tell your family, find a therapist and tell them, but break the walls of your own mental imprisonment and let the message out. This is not something that should be forever bottled up inside us.

And for the rest of you, those of us who do not suffer or are not at the moment, your task is perhaps even more important; be there. Be prepared to hear that someone has a mental health problem, be ready to offer them support, a shoulder to lean on, but most importantly, just be a nice human being. Share a little love wherever and to whoever you can, and help to make the world a better place for every silent sufferer out there.

Well, last week’s solution didn’t work…

As I did last weekend, I am feeling like a sad, depressed, lonely bugger for no identifiable reason. Last week this lead to the disjointed and distinctly odd post on the subject of death, murder and assorted weird things, and as a method of letting out emotion it failed truly spectacularly. So today, I thought I might as well instead talk about depression.
I am not, incidentally, going to talk about this in a strict medical sense- I am neither qualified nor able to do so. But just-being-bloody-depressed-and-unhappy-half-the-time is something I have had to cope with for a large proportion of my life, and it is not something I have found to be well understood or, especially, appreciated.
Depression can arise from a wide variety of causes. For some people it’s  getting too philosophical and deciding there is no actual point to life, for others it’s an alternative to anger with the way their life is working out, and for some it’s just loneliness and boredom. The latter is actually an especially interesting scenario- people are generally only depressed when their mind is not occupied. A case in point is Robbie Williams, who for years suffered terribly with offstage depression whilst onstage having the time of his life. One thing, however, crops up when the matter is given thought- depression does not happen to anyone. Some people will never have a reason to, some will always be surrounded by friends, some will spend their entire lives kept too busy to really get depressed, but many simply don’t have the personality for it. Depressives tend to be people who think a lot- they may not necessarily be intelligent, but they will almost certainly be introverted to an extent and self-reflect a lot. The trouble is, bouncing ideas off yourself is not the same as bouncing them off friends, and it is unhealthy for a normal human brain.
The big problem with this is that the kind of people who get depressed are, therefore, those least likely to seek help. If you are an introverted person, you may have an unimpressive social life, perhaps be bad in the company of others or had some embarrassing rejections, and you are often unlikely to feel that opening up is going to help you. Plus… there is something delightfully selfish in wallowing in your own misery. It feels good. While everyone passes by and doesn’t help you, you feel better than them, which for a depressive is often a rare and satisfying feeling (Many depressives have major self-esteem issues; the irony is that these are often completely unfounded, and often caused by obsessive perfectionism or overambitiousness). The natural instinct of a depressive is to revert to their lifelong tactic and turn in on themselves, and it can take a seriously analytical and critical mind to realise that this is what is causing all the mental damage. Some people will never get out of this cycle, and will go to their grave with the same depressed tendencies that have dogged them all their lives, never telling a soul. These people are few- after an extended period of time, only the strongest-willed of depressives will not have thought of suicide, and it’s an option far too many have taken. Herein lies the issue- depressives hide from the rest of the world to prevent it from helping them, but often refuse to help themselves.
I must interrupt the flow here- if anyone who ever ends up reading this suffers from depression, make a beeline for your nearest counsellor. This can feel incredibly defeatist, like you’re giving up on yourself, but some things cannot be handled on your own. Counselling does not mean you are some psycho with mental issues, and counsellors are not psychoanalysts or quacks. Think of a counsellor as a professional friend- someone who you can talk about stuff to with no fear that it’s going to get spread, and who knows the best way to help you. If you really can’t persuade yourself that you should be getting counselling, or just want another tactic, throw yourself into your social life. Focus on a group of mates you’re sure you can trust (disloyal friends are killers to your self-esteem (and possibly wallet), as well as being amoral scum), and focus all of your efforts into enjoyment. Buy the first round, have an extra beer or two, be as wild as your inhibitions will let you. It may not work, but it’s worth a try, and if you manage to get yourself a stable social circle then the fight is as good as won.
However, there is one almost sure-fire way to help a depressive, and that is to break  their idea that introspection is a good tactic- to show them that the world is, actually, a good place full of good people. This not uncommonly happens by accident- the stressed-out worker with entering a spiral of depression receiving a rise and getting back on top of his rent. Many new parents may find coping with a new baby incredibly hard, and start getting depressed after the third night in a row that their little bundle of joy has woken up at 1am screaming their eyes out, and for them the release may come when such episodes stop becoming a nightly occurrence- circumstance too can be a saviour. But for many circumstances may not simply fall their way again, and this is where other people come in. I can speak from experience when I say that nothing cheers up a depressive more than somebody coming up to ask them what’s wrong, and persisting past the initial mumbled ‘Nothing’ or ‘I’m fine’ (although be warned anyone who tries this- make sure you know when to back off, because people who happened to just be staring vacantly that day may not take kindly to you asking deep questions about their mental fragility).  Somebody who genuinely wants to hear your problems and help you out is manna from heaven for a depressive, and there is also something deeply satisfying about knowing you’ve helped somebody else out. Depressives can sometimes be hard people to like- some have a tendency to be clingy while others demonstrate that there is clearly a reason they were out of the social loop. But if treated properly and pointed in the right direction, they are generally as nice enough people as the rest of us.
A little while ago, I heard a story about a schoolboy that I thought I could leave you with. He missed the bus home after school and, since he didn’t live too far away, decided to walk home. On the way back he met a guy in his year who was walking the same way- he didn’t know him well, only really as a face and name (I believe he was new to the school), but he seemed like an OK guy. They got talking, in the way schoolboys do, and spent most of the way back talking about football. It was a Friday, and as they parted the first boy asked his new mate if he wanted to come for a kickabout in the park over the weekend- he’d already arranged it with a few of his mates, and thought they could use an extra player to make up the numbers. The guy agreed, they parted, and met the next day at the football.
About a year later, the two having become pretty close friends, they got to talking about the day they first met. The second boy said that, for all the time he had been going to that school, that was the first time he’d had anyone to talk to on the way home. He also said that in his schoolbag that day had been a length of rope and, for but a missed bus and a few friendly words, he would have hung himself that evening.