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Wikileaks Video Opens Up Larger Questions About War

The Wikileaks video showing a US Apache helicopter firing on civilians, including two Reuters journalists, in Iraq in 2007, has implications far beyond that particular theater and goes deeply into the nature of how America fights wars and how the American media covers them, foreign policy experts tell FDL News.

The military will publicly confirm the authenticity of this video, as they have already privately done to multiple media outlets, very soon. The unsparing footage offers insight into the nature of conflicts where the enemy is not fully defined, the combat often occurs in high-density urban population centers, and the official stories from the Pentagon often become swallowed as the truth.

“The first thing that came to my mind was Afghanistan,” said Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow on foreign policy at the Center for American Progress. “We’re about to go into a heavy population in Kandahar, so this kind of thing could be happening today or very soon there… We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Even with context supplied along with the video, you cannot offer the kind of unequivocally righteous picture that Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, himself a Pentagon embed inside the traditional media, attempted on MSNBC today. Iraq in 2007 was an extremely dangerous place, and there was apparently a firefight happening off-screen about 200 meters from the men in the video. The camera equipment held by the Reuters journalists, from a distance, were mistaken for RPGs (and those making the assessment didn’t necessarily have access to the video monitor which we see in these tapes). However, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of justification in the rules of engagement for the treatment of the wounded and those trying to pick them up:

The video raises a number of interesting questions about the treatment of casualties during an ongoing military operation. On several occasions, the Apache gunner appears to fire rounds into people after there is evidence that they are have either died or are suffering from debilitating wounds. The Rules of Engagement and the Law of Armed Combat do not permit combatants to shoot at people who are surrendering or who no longer pose a threat because of their injuries. What about the people in the van who had come to assist the struggling man on the ground? The Geneva Conventions state that protections must be afforded to people who “collect and care for the wounded, whether friend or foe.” The understanding here is that such people are clearly designated as noncombatants—by wearing a prominently displayed red cross, or red crescent, on their persons, for instance—or who are obviously civilians. A “positively identified” combatant who provides medical aid to someone amid fighting does not automatically lose his status as a combatant, and may still be legally killed.

This struck Katulis, who called the videos “disturbing,” as an almost explicit violation of the rules of engagement, adding that the judgment of those in the Apache, in particular with respect to the van that assists the wounded and the children who were shot, appeared to be poor.

However, Katulis and many other experts said, the judgment and the actions of the soldiers are in a way less critical than the overall nature of these type of COIN-centric wars. These strategies claim to be based on moving local populations into their camp by protecting civilian life and drawing distinctions between them and the insurgencies. But this is not entirely possible, and claiming such a stance really damages our credibility when the inevitable coverups and tragedies come to light.

Perhaps right on cue there is this horrifying story that not only did US Special Operations forces kill three Afghan women, they covered up the crime – even going to far as to dig bullets out of the bodies of the victims. It is yet another reminder that for all the talk of protecting civilians – and all of General McChrystal’s noble efforts to prevent civilian deaths — they are still happening, and they are still undermining our population centric goals in Afghanistan (again when you put 100,000 US troops, who are trained to kill and protect themselves, in a foreign country none of this should be even slightly surprising).

We haven’t had a debate about the nature of war, or the hair-trigger choices that service members must make, for a long time in America, and yet as this active duty US soldier says “90% of what occurs in that video has been commonplace in Iraq for the last 7 years.” The string of similar incidents are a mile long. Videos like this have the capacity to shock people into remembering the brutal nature of war, the costs involved in lives and psychological health, the trade-offs we make and whether they are justified by security concerns.

But Katulis isn’t hopeful. “I’ve become increasingly cynical about the quality of our public discourse” in matters of war and peace, he said. “We haven’t had a debate about the way we fight wars today since mid-2008, maybe.”

Furthermore, Katulis expressed a troubling concern about whether Americans can even get real information on what is happening so they can make informed judgments. He said that he reads a lot of op-ed pieces about Afghanistan or Iraq, and the byline has the reporters traveling with some military general or policymaker. “I fear people are getting a lot of information through short trips organized by the Pentagon,” he added. “Shaping of perceptions is seen as a key center of gravity” among the military. Indeed, the multiple stories of tragedy and cover-up have led to others speaking out about the nature of the coverup.

“The nature of warfare has changed. We win when we decide we win,” Katulis said, referring to Iraq’s difficulties (headlined by yet another bombing today) but the fact that US policymakers have allowed themselves to come home with a “victory” in that conflict. This information management has implications for incidents like that displayed in the Wikileaks video, but also the nature of war itself. It’s almost as impossible to know winning from losing as it is right from wrong, given the way official sources distort and massage the information we are allowed to see.

If anything, the Wikileaks video could offer some more awareness into the impossible choices made in war, and lead some to question why we’re making them. But Katulis is again not hopeful. “This will play in the media for a day or two,” he said. We’ve been so comatose on Iraq.” Asked about the risk of not having these public debates on why we fight, Katulis concluded, “I think it’s dangerous for democracy.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen