Foreign and Defense Policy

Not ‘Collateral Murder’ but Tragedy of Mistaken Identity

The New York Times reports today on its front page about a leaked video of American troops firing on civilians in Iraq in 2007. The video, posted by “whistleblower website” WikiLeaks, is titled “Collateral Murder” and has become an Internet sensation, drawing millions of hits on YouTube. It shows an Apache helicopter crew firing on individuals who turned out to be innocent civilians, including a Reuters news photographer and a good Samaritan in a van who stopped to try and help the wounded. Two children in the van were wounded in the attack.

Left-wing blogs have jumped on the video as proof of the callous brutality of American troops. The Huffington Post ran a story describing how “crew members can be heard celebrating their kills. ‘Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,’ says one crewman after multiple rounds of 30mm cannon fire left nearly a dozen bodies littering the street. A crewman begs for permission to open fire on the van and its occupants, even though it has done nothing but stop to help the wounded: ‘Come on, let us shoot!’ Two crewmen share a laugh when a Bradley fighting vehicle runs over one of the corpses. And after soldiers on the ground find two small children shot and bleeding in the van, one crewman can be heard saying: ‘Well, it’s their fault bringing their kids to a battle.’”

These words sounds horrific with the 20/20 hindsight of knowing that the targets were not insurgents, but civilians and journalists. But watching the video, it is clear the troops did not know they were firing on civilians. They thought they were attacking terrorists and insurgents who kill innocent civilians on a daily basis. As even the Times points out, the “attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and … one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.” As the video unfolds, the troops mistake a telephoto lens for a weapon and repeatedly say things such as: “That’s a weapon,” “Have individuals with weapons,” “Yup, he’s got a weapon too,” “Have five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage,” “He’s got an RPG,” “We’ve got a guy with an RPG,” “Have eyes on an individual with an RPG getting ready to fire,” and “we had a guy shooting and now he’s behind the building.” As the video unfolds, it’s clear the troops believe they have come across heavily armed enemy fighters.

In other words, what unfolds is not “collateral murder” but a tragedy of mistaken identity.

The Huffington Post reports that “unveiling the video at the National Press Club on Monday morning, [WikiLeaks editor Julian] Assange said the helicopter crew approached its job as if it were a video game, not something involving human lives. ‘Their desire was simply to kill,’ he said. ‘Their desire was to get high scores on that computer game.’” That is unfair. Their desire was not to kill innocent people; their desire was protect the American and Iraqi people from a murderous enemy. The video is heart-wrenching to watch, but I suspect that those most horrified after they learned the truth were the troops aboard that Apache helicopter who discovered they had accidentally killed innocent civilians. The incident deserves investigation, and it appears that the military was not fully forthcoming about what took place. If so, disciplinary action may be warranted. But using this tragedy to question the humanity of American troops, or to suggest they have a callous disregard for human life—as WikiLeaks and the HuffingtonPost do—is simply wrong.

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