For those of you who might have missed it, there is a lot of discussion about this video published on Wikileaks, apparently acquired from a “whistleblower.” The video is gun camera footage from Apache attack helicopters involved in the killing of two Reuters news employees, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmag, in summer 2007.
The Army carried out an investigation into the civilian casualties that resulted from the events of July 12, 2007, and the final AR 15-6 report with, supporting documentation, some of it redacted, is up at the Central Command web site.
I agree with Bill Roggio that there is missing footage as no gunships would be cleared hot to shoot anybody carrying a weapon while just cruising around eastern Baghdad. With all of the many different militia hanging out in the city, good and bad, the often out of uniform Iraqi police, thousands of various security guards and just the average citizen carrying around AKs, half that city would have been mowed down.
From reading the CENTCOM documents, the Apaches, from Bravo Company, 1-227th Aviation Regiment, were supporting a large cordon and search operation and were responding to a troops in contact when they opened fire on the group of Iraqis that included the Reuters reporters. The trouble begins when the pilots saw the cameraman peer around the corner and mistook the camera lens for an RPG.
Photos recovered from the Reuters photographer’s camera show that he was snapping shots of a Humvee down the street 100 meters away. The time stamp on the photos show that they were the last ones he took before the Apaches opened fire, according to the reports.
Once that mistake was made the pilots operated as if the Iraqis were insurgents hell bent on attacking friendly ground troops. One pilot said in his testimony he saw insurgents engage the ground unit and thought he saw a flash from an RPG. That’s not apparent from a careful viewing of the video. Ground troops had reported taking small arms fire during the operations and report seeing RPGs among the bodies. The report includes photos from the scene but its difficult to make out an RPG.
There was apparently an extremely permissive ROE in effect during the operation because the statement from one of the Apache pilots says that after the attack that can be seen on the gun camera footage, the pilots spotted an individual(s) carrying an AK-47 enter a 3-story building. The pilots asked for and received clearance to fire and blasted the building with three Hellfire missiles, one in each floor, destroying the building. The statement says between 8 and 11 bodies were subsequently removed from the building.
The pilots also had reports from the ground troops that a vehicle, they weren’t sure what kind, was dropping off and picking up fighters in the area. They assumed the van was that vehicle. An unidentified Lt. Col. Who conducted the 15-6 investigation, possibly from JAG, asks the pilot why he shot the van when there were no weapons visible:
LTC: Did you see anything in the van?
Pilot: I couldn’t see inside the van, but they ran around right after I had seen them extract weapons and individuals.
LTC: As you saw on the tape, they didn’t have any weapons. So, what drove you then? What threat made you want to engage the van?
Pilot: Well the friendlies were 300 meters away and from the initial report that a black car, sedan had been coming in and dropping off insurgents, taking them out, moving them to different locations. That was my whole thought process.
From reading the pilots statements, they believed the ground element was being shot at by both AKs and RPGs. They say that ground troops did find RPGs among the bodies. This is an interesting bit from the interviews when one of the pilots reflects on what happened:
LTC: Did you think your knowledge of ROE and the law of armed conflict adequately prepared you for this engagement?
Pilot: You know, I know we go through ROE a lot, and you’ll be like oh okay, I’m tired of talking about the ROE. I think the heat of the moment is always the one thing that sometimes you might not have control over or you have to actively stop yourself and be like wait, think through it again, you know, and I talked with some of the other guys after the engagement. The situation changes after you’ve done the first engagement or whatever, the situation is totally different. I never thought of it that way. I would have to go through those steps again. Now, what was five minutes ago was not the same.
The Wikileaks report is mistaken in saying that the children wounded in the van were not evacuated to an American hospital. The report says both wounded children were taken to the trauma center at FOB Loyalty, and later transferred to an Iraqi hospital.
The part of the video I had trouble with is the dialogue between the Apache pilots, which almost sounds like a caricature it’s so callous. I spent a lot of time around troops in Baghdad in 2005-06 and never heard anything even akin to that. Soldiers wanted to do soldier stuff and kill the enemy, but there was a basic level of respect for human life and the power of the weapons they carried. Trust me, there was a lot of gallows humor and grim photo collections of piles of dead from the civil war, but there wasn’t the absurd blood lust that’s so apparent in the pilot’s conversation.
Perhaps it was because the ground troops saw the grisly aftermath of death and the second order effects on families up close and personal that they had a different outlook than the pilots that buzzed the city in glass enclosed cockpits. Or perhaps they spent so much time in the homes of the Iraqi people that they saw them as fellow human beings.
After watching that video, I thought of something the late retired general Wayne Downing once told me. We were standing talking on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport in early April, days after American troops had seized Baghdad. He asked me what I thought of the whole troop’s performance and the invasion. I told him it was impressive, but that I saw a lot of civilians get killed. “The military is a blunt instrument,” he told me, “the American people need to know that when they decide to use it.”