The Wikileaks video is normal, and that’s the problem

 In Afghanistan, Iraq

Following up on my post about the harrowing Wikileaks video of a shooting in Iraq, the debate continues about the video and its meaning in our larger debate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Many people have been outraged by what they have seen in the video, with some calling for further investigations of what they see as an aberrational incident.  Others are saying that we shouldn’t judge what soldiers do in the heat of battle. I fall in the camp that we should indeed be outraged, and partly because this incident is not abnormal but represents the daily reality of war. To reinforce this important message, Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald interviewed Josh Stieber, a conscientious objector who served in the same company as the men in the helicopter captured in the video:

GG: Now, one of the things that made this — and you know, it could just be that this is a case of a picture being a worth a thousand words, or a video being worth even more that, actually seeing it dramatized, prevents you from turning away from it in a way that words on a page may not do.

But, one of the things, I think, that made this video have such an impact for so many people, wasn’t necessarily the first part of the incident, where the Apache shot at the group that included the photographer because a lot of people felt like there was ambiguity. What happened there, in terms of whether it was justifiable or reasonable to mistake a camera for a weapon or an RPG, or whether there really was an RPG being carried by one of the individuals.

But it was really the second incident that I think caused the greatest impact where the Apache fired on what was clearly, what were clearly unarmed men, rescuing an unarmed wounded man, crawling in a pile of his own blood on the ground. And one of the things that was so striking about that, was that the military concluded that the soldiers, even in that instance, did nothing wrong, that they acted in perfect accordance with military procedure.

Is that, too, your understanding of what standard procedure and policy would call for, for shooting even on unarmed individuals in a situation like that?

JS: I mean, that’s obviously the most troubling part of the video, and yeah, I think it is very telling of the military’s position on that, that isn’t seen as any wrongdoing. And, yeah, as far as official guidelines or rules, like, our rules of engagement were constantly changing and no one really took those seriously just because of how arbitrary they were and could change from one day to the next.

And it pretty much became a quest for survival, you know, people pretty quickly lost the idealism that brought us there, and we were fighting to make it home alive. And so, yeah, I mean, there was a lot of controversy within the ranks of you know, how much is too much, but it was definitely a prevalent position to say, that even going above and beyond just responding to somebody with a weapon, but of responding to people who were potential threats even without weapons — some people would claim that was justifiable for, again, this whole of making it home alive.

And I think we should be slow to judge somebody in that situation. Obviously, I ended up feeling like I couldn’t participate in that, just because… but I feel like that is the nature of things and you put people in that situation where they are so fearful and where they are just wanting to make it out alive, and that is going to naturally lead to things like what was um, seen with the van.

It is important to understand something that should be obvious, but gets obscured in discussions of supposedly new approaches to war centered around protecting civilians and bringing stability—soldiers are trained to kill. And in order for them to do that effectively, they need to have the resistance to killing trained out of them.

“You don’t want combat soldiers to be foolish or to jump the gun, but their job is to destroy the enemy, and one way they’re able to do that is to see it as a game, so that the people don’t seem real,” said Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist and co-author of the forthcoming book “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life After Deployment.”

Military training is fundamentally an exercise in overcoming a fear of killing another human, said Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” who is a former Army Ranger.

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.”

This isn’t to completely excuse the behavior of soldiers who kill innocent civilians, but to recognize that such killings are inevitable. This is what you’re going to get when you send a bunch of trained killers, who are frightened for their lives and not well educated in the local culture, into a war. The ultimate responsibility for these tragedies lies with the people who put soldiers in these situations in the first place, and keep them there despite all evidence that doing so leads to these disasters.

Knowing that this is going to be the product of US military action, our politicians need to ask themselves: what have we gained from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is it worth the pain and devastation caused to thousands of families in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States?

This morning’s episode of Democracy Now, features a video of the family of the driver of the black van in the video, including his two injured children, describing the hardship they have faced since his death.

AHLAM ABDELHUSSAIN: [translated] We used to live in a rented house. He worked as a construction worker. We didn’t have any other income. After his death, I was left with nothing. My children were wounded. We were devastated. My father-in-law took us to live with him. Life became very difficult. My children are still suffering from their wounds. My daughter still suffers from pain in her head and her stomach. My son is still in pain after his surgery. We don’t have a pension or any other income to rely on, so my father-in-law took us to live with him.

As a stark reminder that these incidents are not in the past, we received news today that American troops fired on a passenger bus in Afghanistan, killing at least five civilians and injuring eighteen:

The deaths triggered a vitriolic anti-American demonstration, infuriated officials and appeared likely to harm public opinion on the eve of the most important offensive of the war, in which tens of thousands of American and NATO troops will try to take control of the Kandahar region, the spiritual home of the Taliban, this summer.

Hundreds of demonstrators poured into the area around a station where the damaged bus was taken on the western outskirts of Kandahar. They blocked the road with burning tires for an hour and shouted, “Death to America” and “Death to infidels” while also condemning the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, according to people in the area.

I get a sickening sense of déjà vu every time I read one of these accounts. How many times can this happen before people stop pretending that it’s an unfortunate accident that can be prevented in the future? According to the New York Times, General McChrystal “has sought to emphasize to troops how escalation of force incidents undermine Afghan support for the war.” You can emphasize that point all that you want, but that isn’t going to stop a scared 19-year-old who thinks his life is in danger from making a split-second decision to fire at innocent civilians in a bus or at a military checkpoint. This is war, plain and simple. If our government wants us to continue to support it, then they need to make the case that it’s worth it. I can’t imagine what that case would be.

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  • mary bernier

    Excellent material, to use in urging others to call their Congressperson and Senator:
    “No more money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
    Request a reply – “HOW is the politician going to vote?
    If a vague answer comes back, contact her/him again!!!

    How compassionate, not to blame the frightened, trapped soldiers –
    but the government that has forced them there –
    again – and again …

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