I'm one of the millions of people on the internet who downloaded and watched the "Collateral Murder" video, showing an airstrike on a group of Iraqi men in Baghdad on July 12th 2007. From the point of view of the pilots, we see a group of suspicious men seemingly armed with assaults rifles and at least one rocket propelled grenade (RPG) take up position on a corner from which they could ambush a potential American convoy. The group, is watched by a number of AH-64 Apache Gunship helicopters, and the video was taken through the gun camera of these helicopters. Not only do you hear (and also read, thanks to the subtitles) the alarmed chatter between the pilots, but communications with ground forces and the sound of the 30mm cannons firing at the group.
Unfortunately it appears as though the group were not insurgents at all. Two members of the group were Reuters news reporters, one of whom was using a telephoto lens which made it look like he was carrying an RPG. As the video continues and the group is killed by the cannon fire, one of the Reuters reporters manages to escape up the road before collapsing on the sidewalk. A van then pulls up and moves the injured man inside it. Fearful that the insurgents were rescuing their own, the helicopters fire also upon the van, destroying it and killing the reporter and the two men who placed him into the van. Unfortunately it appears as though the men in the van were trying to help the injured man and were not insurgents at all. Moreover, the video shows images of two children inside the van who were seriously injured by the attack - the children were rushed to hospital by the US troops who eventually arrived at the scene.
Naturally anti-war proponents have used this video as an example of the heartless killers in the US armed forces who supposedly enjoy mowing down civilians and children (when informed that a child was injured one of the pilots openly placed the blame on the van drivers for taking children into a war zone). So how do I, as an opponent of America's invasion and conquest and occupation of Iraq, think?
The first thing I want to say is that the pilots are not to blame in any way. Given the stresses involved in making snap decisions inside a cockpit thousands of metres away from targets, the pilots acted in the only way they knew how. That the men were not insurgents could not be determined, and that two men were reporters could not be determined either. In hindsight it was easy to spot the telephoto lens of one of the reporters but you could quite easily mistake it for an RPG in the heat of the moment. The children were not clearly visible in the van either. In short, the pilots believed that they were engaging the enemy. This was a terrible mistake, of course, but there was no way of them knowing that it was a mistake. Moreover, the comment by one of the pilots criticising the men in the van for taking children into a warzone should be taken at face value only and not as an example of American callousness - after all, if the men in the van were the enemy, then why would they bring children along? No, the pilots did nothing wrong that I could see. Their deed was terrible but they only did what they were trained and ordered to do. Without any clear indication that the people involved were civilians (which the video does not show) the pilots needed to treat the people as insurgents.
The second thing I want to say is that this incident shows the limits of using military force in an urban environment. The war machines of the US military are designed for conventional warfare. The AH-64 Apache gunship helicopter is designed to knock out armoured vehicles on a battlefield - its 30mm cannon can reduce tanks to wrecks so you can imagine what effect this cannon would have upon the human targets shown in the video (which is thankfully black and white). The US military is NOT designed, however, to effectively police a foreign city full of insurgents engaging in a guerilla war against the Americans and the American backed Iraqi forces. While there is no doubt that the sheer volume of firepower directed by American forces can completely destroy any group of enemy (as proven by this video), there will always be the danger of collateral damage - namely the deaths of civilians (as proven, again, by this video). What we see in this tragic video is an example of the sheer stupidity of American battlefield doctrine when applied to an urban environment full of civilians. In such an environment the margin for error is just non-existent. The pilots had to weigh up the chance that they were firing on civilians against the chance that they were firing on insurgents - had they chosen not to act then there would be the real possibility of American troops being killed by these people. Faced with the prospect of either possibly killing civilians or taking a course of action that would result in the deaths of American troops, the pilots made the only choice that made sense. So while I do not blame the pilots in any way for their action, I do blame the system and the generals who placed them into this intolerable situation.
The last thing I want to say is that this incident proves beyond doubt that a different strategy is required. It is fortunate that levels of violence have dissipated considerably since the 2003 invasion (and 2007, when this incident occurred), but there are lessons to be learned. The amount of Iraqis who have died since "Mission Accomplished" is criminal, and reflects very poorly upon the morality and upon the competence of those responsible for planning the war and its aftermath. Rebuilding Iraq and improving the social conditions of Iraqis should be far more important than setting up a puppet democracy or simply maintaining the status quo. I have never had faith in America's ability for nation building and I think that the only real solution is for US forces to withdraw and be replaced by the forces of neutral nations under the aegis of the United Nations. The UN has successfully created peace in the Balkans to the point where most Balkan nations are now seriously contemplating joining the European Union (Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo). I say let the UN take over Iraq - and Afghanistan as well - and move US troops back to America.