Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How easy it is to kill

Wikileaks, a website I had never heard of before, released an actual military video of the killing of at least 8 people by a helicopter crew in Iraq in 2007. You can hear the crew members request permission to fire on the individuals they spot walking in the street, some of whom are carrying objects that the crew identifies as Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers, and AK47s. This permission is very quickly granted, even though the individual authorizing the action has nothing but the word of the crew that the people spotted need to be killed. The crew immediately begins firing, eventually killing (it seems) all 8 people. Later, a van drives up and tries to remove some of the bodies in a stretcher. The helicopter gun crew again gets permission to fire, and pretty much blows up the van.

The only problem is, the original individuals were not "militants" but a well-known war photographer and his crew. The RPGs and AK47s were in fact just cameras, and the van that drove up was a passing "good samaritan" with his friends and his two young children. A lot of innocent people died in the encounter.

The point of this, it seems to me, is not that accidents happen during the "fog of war." What is telling is the certainty with which the crew identifies the individuals as combatants and the quickness with which they pronounce the death sentence. All this from hundreds, maybe thousands of feet up in the air. Never a moment's hesitation or questioning or second thoughts. We wonder about jihadists who are so confident that they are right that they are willing to kill many in the name of their cause, and are certain that earthly and heavenly rewards await them. It seems quite clear that the helicopter crew also felt the same assurance that their cause was so just and clear as to preclude any sort of introspection or caution. Is this what military training is all about?

The story gets even worse when the military higher-ups, who must have realized the tragic mistake within hours, first stonewalled, then white-washed the incident. Even after the Reuters news agency sued to get information about the death of its correspondant, the military refused to release the video. Only after the wiki site posted a copy for all to see did the brass and their newsbenders relent and acknowledge the clip as authentic.

Whether one is a pacifist or not -- and I acknowledge that I am pleased when I hear about actual terrorists getting iced -- it's best to remember that the line between humane and inhumane action is much fuzzier than we would hope it to be. And this is not an issue of politics or right versus left...

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