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Bullets vs books: Greg Mortenson and the un-infowars

April 10th, 2010

US helicopter shooting of civilians shocks the world

Current wars in microcosm: a plague of fatal ignorance

How Greg Mortenson promotes peace better

OK boys let's see, anyone down there carrying a camera?The YouTube sensation of the past few days is the depressingly stark video record from 2007 of how easily US gunmen in helicopters can shoot unarmed Iraqis in flowing white robes, gathering in the street below in evidently friendly and relaxed fashion without a clue that they might be fired upon by the poorly trained soldiers sitting in the clattering machines overhead, who have imagined that a photojournalist’s camera lens is the barrel of an AK-47. The politically and morally labeled Collateral Murder – Wikileaks – Iraq has scored over 6 million hits now (April 17 update). It is not for the weak of stomach.

While the commenters (the Times stories have unusually articulate threads) quarrel over how culpable the US gunners are in their attitude that these were armed insurgents assembling to fight them, it seems very clear that they were under informed, to say the least, and taking lethal action partly because their imaginations filled in the gaps.

Here we have a tragic display of how dangerous it is to hand massive firepower to US soldiers of limited background and education (no fault of theirs, of course) without rigorous training in the modern problem of using an army in what is essentially a police action ie fighting rebels embedded in a civilian population in a foreign country, where there is no quick way to distinguish insurgents from innocent residents of the urban battlefield, in this case Baghdad, unless they actively use their weapons. Too often in the absence of good information the imagination rules:

“Let me engage,” the gunner demands, “can I shoot?”

A ground controller asks: “Picking up the wounded?” Seconds later the gunner asks again: “Come on, let us shoot.”

Permission is granted and a dust cloud envelopes a van and several Iraqis picking up bodies from a Baghdad square. Only afterwards do the crew of the American helicopter gunship realize that two children, now gravely wounded, are in the van. “Well,” one says, “it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle.”

The sequence comes half way through 17 minutes of harrowing gun camera footage, authenticated by unnamed US military officials, in which the co-pilot of the Apache has already mistaken a Reuters photographer for an insurgent brandishing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

In this case even given the noise that helicopters make overhead may be less than one imagines (though one informed blogger, Anthony Martinez, says “Up close helicopters are loud, the same isn’t necessarily true when they’re flying above you. You’d be surprised how quiet they can be in flight.”) there seems little doubt that the Iraqis must have known they were there and just assumed they would not be attacked, since they knew of no reason why they should be. As far as they were concerned they were acting peaceably out in the open and they were without weapons. Their behavior indicates no wariness at all.

As one commenter puts it:

DYORPEEPS Just to clear up for the idiots here.
There were NO weapons. At 3:40 you see a camera tripod. The other 2 have cameras, even Stevie Wonder can see those are not weapons.. They claimed they had AK47s. When did you see an AK47 that looked like a camera?
These guys wanted to kill and they were just making up anything they liked.
If you had an RPG, would you be standing? about casually in full view of a helicopter in a gang of 12 or so guys?

Gauging exactly what happened needs more than one viewing of this horror story (and as the Times story today reports WikiLeaks has a longer, 38 minute rather than 17 minute version at collateralmurder.com, which critics say makes clearer that clashes were ongoing in the neighborhood and that “one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade”), but it does seem that the sight of one man carrying a long lens camera or tripod in an apparently peaceful social assembly was far too easily transfigured into a gang of insurgents with multiple AK47s, and that the young US gunners were trigger happy, to say the least, apparently intent on acting out a video game in their heads rather than responsibly trying to hold back until they could be sure that what they guessed at was properly confirmed.

P4147705Particularly disgraceful is the followup after the shooting of the main group when a van enters the picture and the driver and his friend try to pick up a wounded man. No weapons are indicated and indeed it turned out later that the two children inside were being taken to school, but the gunners let fly a barrage of heavy ammunition which reduces it to an immobile smoking wreck. All the men were killed and the two children badly wounded (their scars, big as those after a heart transplant, were displayed in an interview on Democracy Now with the widow of the driver (video), conducted by Amy Goodman (also see Amy Goodman Conversation at Commonwealth Club (video):

(Comment): The wikileaks thing has two parts, the first part is debatable (they were not able to distinguish between civilians and combatants one way or another).

The second part is not, the man was identified as wounded, the vehicle as picking up dead and wounded. You can’t spin that to not be a war-crime. Denying medical attention to the children compounded it.

This was not a war-zone, this was a city, which under the rules of war America was obligated to secure from criminals. Using a helicopter unable to pick out children in a van constitutes a failure to make provision for identifying civilians and as such constituted a further possible war-crime.

Now this long clip is going to be viewed around the world and at the current rate may be seen by as many as 10 million people in the next month. The propaganda penalty could be greater than Abu Ghraib, since it offers such a long and convincing look at what collateral damage can really mean.

The 21 Century group think wars

And what is the key problem here? Surely it is the willingness to kill without sufficient information, in a striking parable of the fundamental problem in American actions in the Middle East for the last two decades. American policy and strategy in the Middle East in war and in diplomacy has suffered above all from lack of good information, from the inability to determine whether Saddam Hussein in fact had WMDs to our present inability to gauge Iran’s nuclear progress and intentions. Not to mention the inability to exploit good information when it does come in.

White House officials said later that no one had offered to resign at the meeting. However, it could prove harder to avoid either sackings or resignations when the outcome of a review into the intelligence handling is published later this week.

Former and serving officers are scathing about the way the operation in Afghanistan has been run and see it is part of an institutional weakness in the CIA and other intelligence-gathering agencies.

They said that the biggest US crisis in intelligence-gathering since 9/11 had been brought about mainly because no single agency is in charge, with a dozen agencies fighting for their own turf.

One of the most damning assessments came from a serving officer, Major General Michael Flynn, deputy head of military intelligence in Afghanistan. In a lengthy report published on Monday evening for a Washington thinktank, he and colleagues said the vast apparatus in Afghanistan was only marginally relevant. Analysts in Washington were so starved of information that “many say their jobs feel more like fortune-telling than detective work”, the report says.

Stepping back, one might see this tragic incident as one more example of how we have moved far into the new 21 Century Internet driven era of information/disinformation war, where physical battlefields are more and more irrelevant as they become more and more resistant to victory by force, given the inability to distinguish, defeat or root out the enemy. It is not just that the Army doesn’t serve well as a police force, though clearly it doesn’t adapt that well, with similar incidents (Civilians Killed as U.S. Troops Fire on Afghan Bus) causing havoc in Afghanistan now, leading even the Economist to wonder (When accidents stop seeming like accidents) if the nine year war there has amounted to any more than a “meaningless exercise of misguided violence”.

But how is it that good men go so far astray, so that hillybillies and homeboys from the backwoods and ghettos of America use civilians for target practice, having typed them as armed hostiles? Given the experience of this blog investigating the paradigm battlefields of science, where good and intelligent men and women seem to become hypnotized by their common ideology into losing all their professional skepticism and critical faculties, one obvious possibility is that they suffer from the social psychology of organized crowds and become unable to entertain any idea which conflicts with the shared assumptions.

Collateral alienation

Thus in the armed struggles now being played out where the US is actively seeking to change the political reality of faraway places by force, it seems that the individual soldier is behaving as if under this kind of hypnotic influence. Whether it is their fault is of course the great, Nuremberg question: Do the individual members of a modern social organization or ‘system’ – a group united by common ideology, in whatever form, from army to bureaucracy to corporation to scientific field – bear total personal responsibility for their actions, or are they excused because they are under the influence of – permeated by – group think, induced by authority and social psychology, and may be completely unaware of how their minds have been compromised?

One thing is certain, the new era is one where one cloud of group think confronts another – battles are over tribal and mental boundaries now, not geographical ones. Instead of the great global melting pot we all hoped for with the fall of the Wall, we had the ingredients separating out all over instead. The trend continues without slowing. The Middle East confronts America and Israel, and fanatics imbued by radical distortions of Islam confront the US as the standard bearer of global capitalism, just as the Sunnis confront the Shiites, the Kurds confront the Iraqis, the Israelis confront the Palestinians and the Arabs at large, the Hutu killed their Tutsi brothers, etc etc.

Ideological mind games are now the important battlefield, a field of combat where too much ground has been lost over recent decades by a US political culture that still seems too often baffled by and at odds with the cultures it is trying to win over. Now the Internet is rocket boosting this trend by giving a global propaganda platform to every group on earth even as it transforms the world into one living room (For Web’s New Wave, Sharing Details Is the Point).

But there are brilliant exceptions to US failure in the case of individuals who adopt a non military approach, and try to bridge cultures rather than take them over.

Mortenson shows the way

Greg Mortenson is winning with education, not explosivesOne shining example of the latter is Greg Mortenson and his Stones into Schools program, which is winning over Afghans wholesale in a way which the billions spent on Army operations never will. As Mortenson (follow him on Twitter) told Bill Moyers recently, he was captured by the local Taliban who seemed likely to cut his head off, he thought, but after he asked for a Koran to learn about their ideology, and they found out about his work building hundreds of schools, they released him with a $100 contribution to his local project.

His work has not been without difficulty. In 1996, he survived an eight day armed kidnapping by the Taliban in Pakistan’ Northwest Frontier Province tribal areas, escaped a 2003 firefight with feuding Afghan warlords by hiding for eight hours under putrid animal hides in a truck going to a leather-tanning factory. He has overcome fatwehs from enraged Islamic mullahs, endured CIA investigations, and also received threats from fellow Americans after 9/11, for helping Muslim children with education.

Mortenson is a living hero to rural communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he has gained the trust of Islamic leaders, military commanders, government officials and tribal chiefs from his tireless effort to champion education, especially for girls.

He is one of few foreigners who has worked extensively for sixteen years (over 72 months in the field) in rural villages where few foreigners go.

TV newscaster, Tom Brokaw, calls Mortenson, “one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, who is really changing the world”.

Congresswoman Mary Bono (Rep – Cali.) says, “I’ve learned more from Greg Mortenson about the causes of terrorism than I did during all our briefings on Capitol Hill. He is a true hero, whose courage, and compassion exemplify the true ideals of the American spirit.”

Losing the information race

If winning the hearts and minds of the Middle East is the great objective, one wonders again how much progress will be made given the enduring cultural chasm and the ease with which the US has been vilified by Arab leaders and clerics, and the seeming inability of the US to curb collateral damage, some of it caused by insurgents, of course:

(Washington Post) But Abdul Ghani, an Afghan man who told The Washington Post in a telephone interview that he was the driver of the bus, said the soldiers “didn’t give me any kind of signal. . . . They just opened fire. No signal at all.”

(Reuters) The United Nations says new guidelines issued by the commander of NATO and U.S. forces last year have helped reduce the number of civilian casualties, but such incidents still cause deep anger among Afghans the foreign troops are meant to protect. While the United Nations says foreign and Afghan troops killed 25 percent fewer civilians last year than in 2008, civilian deaths rose overall, because the number killed by insurgents rose 40 percent.

More than 2,400 civilians were killed in 2009, making it the deadliest year of a war now more than eight years old. There are some 130,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, set to rise to 150,000 by the year’s end.

Likewise, where Al Qaeda is at work only good intelligence will prevent another 9/11 or worse, yet the record so far with the latest shoe bombing scares is not reassuring.

With the military taking up almost half of the budget’s discretionary spending and the US spending as much on force of arms as the rest of the world combined, the US achievement in recent military and foreign policy looks more and more like the creation of a vast headless monster which roams the globe blindly demolishing the lives of millions while its brain remains on the shelf.

Finally, however, we have a thoughtful President – someone who can talk, think and listen at the same time, as Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has put it (transcript and video), – who should know how to put this right, and is trying to do so (Analysts Say U.S. Intelligence System Overloaded, Out Of Date):

In a recent piece for “The Washington Post,” Hoffman (Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a member of the government’s National Security Preparedness Group) argued that after 9/11, Al-Qaeda’s leadership adopted a new strategy against the United States, which he calls a “death by a thousand cuts” approach.

He says it involves overwhelming the country’s intelligence-gathering system with meaningless data to confuse it; striking U.S. allies (like Spain and Britain) for supporting the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; recruiting “lone operatives” from countries without U.S. visa restrictions; and expanding their operations into failed and lawless states, like Yemen, where the previously little-known group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based.

Hoffman argues that the systemic failure of intelligence analysis and airport security that occurred in the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas was, at its core, “a failure to recognize Al-Qaeda’s new strategy.”

He says the redundancy that was built into the system after 9/11 to act as a safety net that would catch mistakes “isn’t enough, and it really boils down to a changing mind-set, as well, that sees Al-Qaeda as it is: this very dynamic, very evolutionary adversary, and that mandates that we prepare not just for yesterday’s threat but we need a system that’s more anticipatory and that’s better at preempting, as well.”

Following last week’s security review, President Obama ordered several immediate changes implemented throughout the intelligence community.

Deja vu

The parallel with the science infowars in HIV/AIDS, global warming, particle physics and other battlefields in science where theory is disputed, information is spun for the public, and entrenched power represses free speech, will not be lost on readers of this blog. The unhappy converts to the current spurious paradigm which persuades the ignorant to accept HIV as the cause of AIDS are not very different from the foolish and imagination driven soldiers in their helicopters overhead, when they victimize innocents with their medical bullets against the wrong threat.

Might does not make right

The anachronistic US determination to exert influence through military might in unwinnable situations has been hard to understand since Vietnam. Military might cannot win a propaganda war. Military might cannot win a guerrilla war. Military might cannot win against terrorism and suicide bombers.

Military might is certainly not the right weapon to police an international criminal conspiracy, which is all that Al Queda is, as the thoughtful Andrew Bacevich, the great skeptic on Iraq and Afghanistan, whose latest book is The Permanent War, tells Bill Moyers in his latest interview:

We don’t learn from history….There is this inexplicable belief that the use of military force in some Godforsaken country on the other side of the planet will not only yield some purposeful result but will produce significant benefits for the United States. We’re now in the ninth year of this war, the longest in American history, with no end in sight… a war utterly devoid of strategic purpose….if we could wave a magic wand tomorrow and achieve all of the purposes General McChrystal would like us to achieve, would the jihadist threat be sustantially reduced as a consequence? Is jihadism centered or headquartered in Afghanistan? …you only have to think about it for three seconds…it is an international movement.. it could come from Brooklyn. ..the notion that because the 9/11 was concocted in this country, as it was, somehow it will guarantee there won’t be another 9.11 is absurd.. the notion that we can prevent another 9/11 by invading and occupying and transforming other countries is absurd… Al Queda is not Nazi Germany…Al Queda is the equivalent of an international criminal conspiracy, a Mafia that draws its energy or legitimacy from a distorted understanding of a particular religious tradition..and the proper response is a police effort…ruthless and sustained to identify the thugs, root out the networks and destroy it …an effort which will never fully succeed in eliminating the threat, just as the NYPD isn’t able to fully eliminate criminality in New York City. (Full transcript is at this page at Moyers Journal

).

The uselessness and tragedy of thinking otherwise has never been better encapsulated than in this outrage video.

So who really deserves the Nobel Peace prize?

Perhaps US policymakers should ask Greg Mortenson’s advice. On the basis of his record to date it is not too much to say that it should have been Mortenson who got the Nobel Peace Prize, not Obama.

“By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, Mortenson combines his unique background with his intimate knowledge of the third-world to promote peace with books, not bombs, and successfully bring education and hope to remote communities in central Asia.

Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.

In 1993 Mortenson was descending from his failed attempt to reach the peak of K2. Exhausted and disoriented, he wandered away from his group into the most desolate reaches of northern Pakistan. Alone, without food, water or shelter, he stumbled into an impoverished Pakistani village where he was nursed back to health.

While recovering he observed the village’s 84 children sitting outdoors, scratching their lessons in the dirt with sticks. The village was so poor that it could not afford the $1-a-day salary to hire a teacher. When he left the village, he promised that he would return to build them a school. From that rash, heartfelt promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time.

Greg Mortenson bringing books not bombsIn an early effort to raise money he wrote letters to 580 celebrities, businessmen, and other prominent Americans. His only reply was a $100 check from NBC’s Tom Brokaw. Selling everything he owned, he still only raised $2,400. But his efforts changed when a group of elementary school children in River Falls, Wisconsin, donated $623.40 in pennies, and who inspired adults to begin to take action. The 283 foot Braldu Bridge was completed in 1995 and the Korphe School was completed in 1996. Since then, he’s established 78 schools. In pursuit of his goal, Mortenson has survived an armed kidnapping, fatwas issued by enraged mullahs, repeated death threats, and wrenching separations from his wife and children. Yet his success speaks for itself.”

Mortenson is the author of Three Cups of Tea, his autobiography, of which the above is part of a review, and last year of his Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here’s part of the review in the Washington Post bv Jay Matthews:

…. few new books are as well-timed as “Stones Into Schools.” Mortenson is the author of the most popular recent account of a part of the world at the center of American foreign policy. His views will influence how voters react to President Obama’s efforts in Afghanistan. However distasteful he finds the word “terrorism,” Mortenson makes no secret of his disgust with the Taliban. The heroes of this book are 14 riders, loaded with AK-47s, their horses “short legged and shaggy and iridescent with sweat,” who came across the Irshad Pass to Pakistan in 1999 and begged Mortensen to build a school in their remote part of Afghanistan. The school was built, and at the end of that struggle the author saw their triumph as a path to peace for all. “They had raised a beacon of hope that called out not only to the Kirghiz themselves, but also to every village and town in Afghanistan where children yearn for education, and where fathers and mothers dream of building a school whose doors will open not only to their sons but also to their daughters,” Mortenson writes, “including — and perhaps especially — those places that are surrounded by a ring of men with Kalashnikovs who help to sustain the grotesque lie that flinging battery acid into the face of a girl who longs to study arithmetic is somehow in keeping with the teachings of the Koran.” After some initial reluctance, he embraces the U.S. military as part of the effort to bring education to children so unimaginably far from civilization. Soldiers provide personal donations and transportation of materials for some of his projects. But Mortenson puts most of his faith in the Afghans themselves, particularly those who persuaded him to build more schools. He says they can crush the Taliban and overcome the country’s old cultural biases against educating girls. Mortenson may be unrealistic, but the past decade of his life has been one improbability after another. It is unfair to expect him to lose hope now. He wants the United States to stay and help his friends save their country. He’s on a roll, and he doesn’t see why he can’t carry everyone with him.

We’re with you, Greg.

UPDATE: Were the American gunners to blame? Further discussion

The AtWar blog at the Times has excerpts from military blogs which evaluate the video and whether the gunners were justified in panting to open fire.

Here’s an excerpt from Anthony Martinez’s post at A Look Inside. Martinez is an experienced viewer of aerial footage and says he would not have recommended firing, even though he observes two weapons as well as the camera lens:

I have spent quite a lot of time (a conservative estimate would be around 4500 hours) viewing aerial footage of Iraq (note: this time was not in viewing TADS video, but footage from Raven, Shadow, and Predator feeds)…

Between 3:13 and 3:30 it is quite clear to me, as both a former infantry sergeant and a photographer, that the two men central to the gun-camera’s frame are carrying photographic equipment. This much is noted by WikiLeaks, and misidentified by the crew of Crazyhorse 18. At 3:39, the men central to the frame are armed, the one on the far left with some AK variant, and the one in the center with an RPG. The RPG is crystal clear even in the downsized, very low-resolution, video between 3:40 and 3:45 when the man carrying it turns counter-clockwise and then back to the direction of the Apache. This all goes by without any mention whatsoever from WikiLeaks, and that is unacceptable.

At 4:08 to 4:18 another misidentification is made by Crazyhorse 18, where what appears to clearly be a man with a telephoto lens (edit to add: one of the Canon EF 70-200mm offerings) on an SLR is identified as wielding an RPG. The actual case is not threatening at all, though the misidentified case presents a major perceived threat to the aircraft and any coalition forces in the direction of its orientation. This moment is when the decision to engage is made, in error.

(note: It has to be taken into consideration that there is no way that the Crazyhorse crew had the knowledge, as everyone who has viewed this had, that the man on the corner of that wall was a photographer. The actions of shouldering an RPG (bringing a long cylindrical object in line with one’s face) and framing a photo with a long telephoto lens quite probably look identical to an aircrew in those conditions.)

I have made the call to engage targets from the sky several times, and know (especially during the surge) that such calls are not taken lightly. Had I been personally involved with this mission, and had access to real-time footage, I would have recommended against granting permission. Any of the officers with whom I served are well aware that I would continue voicing that recommendation until ordered to do otherwise. A few of them threatened me with action under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for doing so. Better officers than they, fortunately, were always ready to go to bat for me and keep that from happening. That said, if either of the clearly visible weapons been oriented towards aircraft, vehicles, troops, or civilians I would have cleared Crazyhorse 18 hot in a heartbeat and defended my actions to the battle staff if needed….

The point at which I cannot support the actions of Crazyhorse 18, at all, comes when the van arrives somewhere around 9:45 and is engaged. Unless someone had jumped out with an RPG ready to fire on the aircraft, there was no threat warranting a hail of 30mm from above. Might it have been prudent to follow the vehicle (perhaps with a UAV), or at least put out a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for the vehicle? Absolutely without question. Was this portion of the engagement even remotely understandable, to me? No, it was not.

All in all, the engagement clearly went bad. I would have objected when I was a private first-class pulling triple duty as an RTO, driver, and vehicle gunner. I would have objected when I was a sergeant working well above my pay-grade as the Brigade Battle NCO. My assessment is based on my experiences in that very theater of operations. I did not see a threat that warranted an engagement at any point. I did, however, see the elements indicating such a threat could develop at any moment.

Read the whole post and the informed comments there and the extraordinarily well expressed and fluent comments at the Times AtWar blog for a rounded out picture, but our own assessment of trigger happy, poorly trained US gunners acting on insufficient information remains. Be that as it may, the whole episode now stands as yet another example of how using an army to fight insurgents can create gigantic propaganda failures now that digital recording and the Web ensures that sooner or later we will have bad behavior leaks of enormous impact.

Esperanza says:
April 7, 2010 at 7:21 am
What a surprise. The US military kills reporters and covers it up!

I mean, what is there to say in defense of the obvious content of this footage? The people on the radio got hyped up after they saw the rifles and RPG and even more so when they saw the photographer crouching behind the wall and stupidly thought it was a man with an RPG. That was clearly a camera lens sticking out at 4:10 onward.

What needs to happen when events like this transpire is not a cover up, but a holding to account. Anyone involved with the mis-identification and subsequent murder of these people should have been relieved of their duties and discharged. It’s that simple. We cannot afford to have incompetent persons at the controls of such lethal measures with absolutely no accountability.

It’s clear that an Arab’s life and an Arab’s rights are not worth as much to the Pentagon as those of the homicidal incompetents heard on this video (they are the real “fuckin’ pricks”).

Of course we know this already – recall Abu Ghraib and the cover-up and the shelling of all those reporters in the Palestine Hotel and the cover-up, etc, etc, etc. So great, this blogger explains that WikiLeaks didn’t point out the weapons in the hands of some with whom the reporters were seen. So what? Does that alter the fact that these reporters were murdered? No.

“Keep shootin’” and wonder why we continue to be the #1 target for Muslim terrorists.

UPDATE 2: Psychologists explain Iraq airstrike Video: Stress of combat

New York Times finds psychologists to explain/excuse hillybilly target practice on defenseless civilians:

Experts Cite Conditioning and Heat of Combat to Explain Iraq Airstrike Video

Combat training “is the only technique that will reliably influence the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human being” to take another life, the colonel writes. “Conditioning in flight simulators enables pilots to respond reflexively to emergency situations even when frightened.”

The men in the Apache helicopter in the video flew into an area that was being contested, during a broader conflict in which a number of helicopters had been shot down.

Several other factors are on display during the 38-minute video, said psychologists in and out of the military. (A shortened 17-minute version of the video has been viewed about three million times on YouTube.)

Soldiers and Marines are taught to observe rules of engagement, and throughout the video those in the helicopter call base for permission to shoot. But at a more primal level, fighters in a war zone must think of themselves as predators first — not bait. That frame of mind affects not only how a person thinks, but what he sees and hears, especially in the presence of imminent danger, or the perception of a threat.

Among the 448 Comments so far:

Greg Mortenson with attentive listeners:  Give this man the Nobel Peace prize

C. Peter Herman
Toronto
April 7th, 2010
9:10 pm
The fact that these pilots are primed to see anyone as a potential threat is all the more reason why they should be trained to compensate for this bias. Police are trained to disambiguate threats, whereas soldiers,it seems, are trained to shoot first and count on getting exonerated by their superiors later.
Recommended by 158 Readers

Michael L.
New York
April 7th, 2010
9:10 pm
As a photographer and as someone who has combat photographers as friends, the mistaking of a camera for a weapon is disturbing enough, but this rationalization is appalling. No where in the video do the helicopter crew express concern that they are under attack. In fact they are so far away that the people on the ground seem completely unaware of them and even once the gunfire starts, they seem to have no idea where it is coming from. Tragic mistakes are made by cops and combat soldiers, but if technology is going to allow US soldiers to kill from such a distance, tighter rules of engagement are needed. And shooting up a minivan full of kids because it stopped to help injured people is not tight.
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D Carter
Western NC
April 7th, 2010
9:39 pm
Anyone who watches the video while listening to the chatter of the pilots and gunners and then comes up with this kind of pseudo-scientific “psychological”/situational apologia is seriously lacking in any sense of ethical grounding. As other respondents have pointed out, the Apache crew members were clearly in no danger–the only adrenalin flowing was not fear, but the excitement of the kill.

Does “distancing” justify hoping that a dying man will pick up a gun so that he can be blown to bits with a 30 mm cannon? And forget about the children. Does the fear inherit in combat justify these crews pleading with their controller (and lying in the process) in order to be able to slaughter a wounded combatant and the two men who are trying to take him away to be treated?

And for those respondents who refer to “split second decisions,” look closely at the timeline. These men had ample time to assess the situation from a safe distance and then make their decisions.

Equally depressing is the fact that this video was reviewed at the time by military authorities who insisted that these action were justified by the rules of engagement. One can only assume that they regarded this kind of trigger-happy and reckless behavior standard operating procedure.

War is brutal, but–however tenuous–there are still rules that we can try and follow if for no other reason than that this kind of callous brutality–sanctioned by superior officers who should know better–will inevitably blow back on us abroad and at home.
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R. Vega
Dallas, Texas
April 7th, 2010
9:42 pm
I agree we cannot simply condemn the soldiers for their callous remarks under the stress of combat. We can, however, condemn the system that led to that and many other instances of senseless deaths of civilians. We must also keep in mind that this was not your typical battlefield. Real people actually live in those neighborhoods. That helicopter was not under threat, in fact, the people on the ground seemed oblivious to its existence, and they did not even have an idea where the attack was coming from. They were gunned down even after being incapacitated and posing no real threat. Despite all the psychological mambo-jumbo, that is inexcusable. It may have looked like a video game, but that was no video game. A real leader, had there been one in that helicopter, would have known the difference. Commanders and their subordinates must have known that they could not go around indiscriminately shooting at anyone they thought could be threat. Instead of finding excuses, our leaders should be asking the hard questions, particularly as they pertain to the rules of engagement. Otherwise we are just providing more recruitment tools for the terrorism of years to come.
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Michael A. Hoffman
Idaho
April 7th, 2010
9:26 pm
The New York Times furnishes a sophisticated psychological rationale for gunning down human beings from the air. Every possible excuse and alibi is offered to justify the carnage and dehumanization. The Times and the psychologists and academics its quotes omit one factor, however: the victims were not afraid of the helicopter gunship, they sauntered casually down the street. They obviously believed they were doing nothing wrong and had a considerable amount of faith in the decency of the US military. Moreover, your high falutin’ explainers failed to explain one aspect of the pilot’s depraved indifference to human life: when the pilot begged the wounded, crawling man to find a weapon and pick it up so the pilot could shoot him again. Ah yes, but that’s okay, he just a “soldier who is doing his job” –which is — to “destroy the enemy.” And what made these people enemies? Being Arab? I thought we settled all this at Nuremberg? Or perhaps Nuremberg does not apply to the USA? I’m going to file this article of yours under the heading, “Prima Facie Evidence of the War Fever that has Gripped the New York Times.” God help us all.
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On the other side:

Robert Levine
Malvern, PA
April 7th, 2010
10:05 pm
This was no massacre. This was a combat situation. Armed insurgents in that area were killing Iraqi and American personnel. The reason the ground forces were in the area and prepared to show up in combat vehicles was because they had already been operating there against hostile forces. The smug presumptions of people responding here who have an obvious bias against anything the U.S. military is involved in is beyond stupid and dishonorable. As for the pilots, they did see side arms and these bad actors were armed because they are part of a continuing insurgency. We should never have initiated this second Iraq war, and the Bush administration prosecuted it with an incompetence that puts Katrina in a good light by comparison. The use of torture by amateur security consultants brought in from the outside was also stupid, ineffective, and ultimately damaging to the interests of the U.S, but make no mistake, the people we’re shooting at in Iraq want to see us dead, and they felt that way all over the Middle East before 9/11. When and wherever we send them in harm’s way, these brave American kids are defending the very jerks writing uninformed opinions on this page.
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B. Bailey
Colorado Springs, CO
April 8th, 2010
12:34 pm
My initial reaction to this article was one of relief and gratitude. Gratitude that the NYT had the courage to speak on behalf of the war fighters who have been placed at ground zero in the war. After reading the comments here, the article seems only to have stirred the hornets’ nest. This has been a blood thirsty comment thread.

As an “old” Marine and the father of an active duty Marine infantryman who was deployed to Iraq and will soon return to Afghanistan, I’m angered and frustrated at the ignorant, myopic and narrow-minded pre-formed opinions regarding the men and women prosecuting our country’s war.

Wrongly targeted: In July 2007, on the streets of Baghdad, American helicopter troops gunned down men they too quickly identified as insurgents. The attack left 12 people dead, including Namir Noor-Eldeen, a 22-year-old Reuters photographer, right, and Mr. Saeed Chmagh, 40, left, a driver and assistant for the news agency, pictured in 2006.Here in Colorado Springs, we live with the war is a daily fact of life. Our familys and neighbors deploy. Our nightly news regularly parts the curtain of relative peace to reveal the memorials for the latest casualties (Ft. Carson’s 4th ID, 10th Special Forces Group and others have lost almost 300) from Iraq and Afghanistan. They also regularly give account of the psychological devastation wrought on young men and women pressed to kill (suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, spousal abuse, etc.). PTSD walks our streets. We know these people in their “real” lives back here in the U.S. and they are little different than any of you. They have families, they have hobbies, they have political opinions, and they also have morals and ethics. How dare you take a “snapshot,” a brief video clip viewed in isolation and lacking any real context other than what has been conjured by those rushing to judgement and condemn these men and women.

What no one here seems interested in is the fact that, when we enter the story and the WikiLeak posted video begins, this is an engagement already well underway with an unexplained backstory, these pilots had responded to a call for assistance from a ground patrol (the units variously identified by call signs “Hotel26”, “Hotel22” and “Bushmaster26” in the video) that had already been engaged by insurgents. The pilots seek clearance from “Hotel26” to fire on the group they were surveilling so as not to inadvertently kill friendly troops. Hotel26 gives the Apaches the go ahead telling them that “We have no personnel east of our position.” The ground forces indicate where they last saw the insurgent, “Uh negative, uh, he was, uh, right in front of the Brad (Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle and presumably call sign “Bushmaster26″).” Once the Apaches fire, you can hear “Bushmaster26” saying, “We need to move, time now!” follow shortly by, “26, this is 26, we are mobile (on the move).” We later hear the ground element ask the pilots, “Can you walk us onto that location (the scene where the Apaches engaged the men on the street), over (give us directions)?” There is obvious tension on the ground.

Granted, the chatter between the pilots sounds sanguinary today, but in 2007, the height of the war in Iraq (More U.S. casualties, 961, than any other year according to iCasualties.org), this 37 minute clip was a heartbeat in an ongoing bloody battle where a lot of U.S. ground troops were dying in ambushes just like this one. Context, people…

Neither helicoptor pilots nor soldiers on the ground are patrolling Iraq and/or Afghanistan looking for opportunities to kill and most would rather take a bullet, and many have, rather than risk hitting innocent civilians. You have no idea the day-to-day restraint these men and women demonstrate nor at what cost. When you and/or your comrades are in very real danger and you are constrained or unable to react, it tears at your psychological fabric. Killing an innocent, regardless of circumstances, shreds it. Just ask a vet. And, comparing soldiers under fire (whether the pilots felt directly threatened or were responding to calls for assistance from those on the ground who were) to police in the city is a convenient but utimately false simile. Viewed in context, the behavior of the men under surveillance by the Apache crews, peering around corners, presumably in the direction of the ground patrol, while wielding an RPG and AKs immediately following an ambush, is suspicious at best. The pilots’ responsed by characterizing them as hostiles on an existing and active urban battlefield. In that context, their actions and language, while discomforting to the average person sitting in the comfort of their home or their local coffee shop, are ultimately better understood…unless you’re predisposed to see war criminals anywhere there’s an American uniform and then there’s no understanding…

Ironically, one of the places you’ll hear chatter very similar to that of the pilots in the video is in a hospital…ask an ER Tech or ICU nurse or doctor. Gallows humor in these environments is a defense mechanism just as the “video game” analogy used in the article is for the pilots. Unfortunately, the infantryman can’t disassociate quite as easily as he can often see the white in the other man’s eyes.

“War is Hell!” W.T. Sherman
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For 2 Grieving Families, Video Reveals Grim Truth (see pic in the HIDE/SHOW discussion section above left).

Ahlam Abdelhussain, the widow of Saleh Mutashar who was killed when the gunship opened fire on a van, asks, "Why was he shot with his children in the car? They did nothing wrong. He was helping a journalist. What was his crime? For Mr. Noor-Eldeen’s family, the video seemed to bring closure for an event that had left many questions unanswered.

“God has answered my prayer in revealing this tape to the world,” said the photographer’s father, who taught his son how to take pictures. “I would have sold my house and all that I own in order to show this tape to the world.”

Families of Victims of 2007 US Helicopter Killing React to Leaked Video – Democracy Now segment featuring the team from Iceland interviewing the family:

Journalists from the investigative team in Iceland that released the now-infamous US military video on WikiLeaks traveled to Baghdad recently to meet with the family members of some of the twelve people killed in the 2007 attack. Ahlam Abdelhussain, the widow of Saleh Mutashar who was killed when the gunship opened fire on a van, asks, “Why was he shot with his children in the car? They did nothing wrong. He was helping a journalist. What was his crime? What was the crime of our children who are left with no father and no support?”

UPDATES

Oops! Obama dropped the ball on intelligence says Daily Beast column

Obama’s Dangerous Spy Game by John Lehman (May 25)

With the coming of the Obama Administration and its view that everything Bush did should be reversed, there was hope the president would make a new start with the DNI, and perhaps even read our 9/11 report. Those hopes were dashed when he put his pal Leon Panetta at CIA and then reversed attempts by Negroponte’s successor, John McConnell—and Blair—to exercise some of the powers over the CIA, FBI, and Department of Defense that we had intended for the office.

While three successive DNIs have striven hard and accomplished some useful things, the intelligence community is now even more bloated and just as dysfunctional as it was before 9/11. The solution does not lie in yet another reorganization by a fourth powerless DNI. There will be no improvement until we have a president who gets it. Until then, the burden of keeping Americans safe from terrorism must rest outside the federal government, with individual centers of intelligence excellence like Ray Kelly’s NYPD Counterterrorism Office.

John Lehman was Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan Administration and a member of the 9/11 Commission.

Personal testimony (Videos):

From Media Sanctuary

Innocence Lost: Ethan McCord recounts aftermath of Iraqi civilian massacre | UNPC 7/24/2010 (video)

The Rules of Engagement in Iraq Are a Joke: Elaine Brower & Ethan McCord | UNPC 7/24/2010 (video)


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