2010-04-09

Collateral Stupidity


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.

13 comments:

BLBeamer said...

I'm not sure the UN has created peace in the Balkans so much as claimed credit for peace imposed primarily by US military air power.

When the UN doesn't have the benefit of the US military (see Rwanda for one egregious example) their record is hardly one of a peacemaking organization.

One Salient Oversight said...

The difference is that on the Balkans the UN is "on the ground" and has been there for over 10 years. America was instrumental in stopping the war in the first place, but the UN has been responsible for winning the peace.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, you can't say that America has won the peace yet. Maybe it's time for the UN to come in?

One Salient Oversight said...

PS what happened in Rwanda (apart from the massacre, which was not the UN's fault nor was it done while the UN was involved in massive peacekeeping operations)

Ron Lankshear said...

What was the situation in 2007 re Rules of Engagement?
Was the area a Free Fire Zone?
Ground troops should have been sent to the site. They did get there after the deaths and took photos of an AK47 which I suppose is a large telephoto carrier.
ArmyReport_ExhibitO.png (PNG Image, 2001×1501 pixels) - Scaled (44%)

This photo looks more like the way you sling a telephoto over the shoulder than a weapon which I would have expected to be carried at the ready
File:ArmyReport ExhibitA.png - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I recently read an account of a Royal Navy Harrier pilot in Afghanistan and he recounted that the drone watchers wanted a wedding party shot up.

Frankly taking decisions based on such low quality images is too hard. Were the pilots using such or did they were they looking through more powerful lenses.

And shooting wounded being taken away is not good either. Is that in the Rules

Send in the marines next time

Helicopters should only be allowed to return fire. Surely warning loudspeakers could have been used. And then if no hands up etc

Will the UN fix Ethiopia?

One Salient Oversight said...

I recently read an account of a Royal Navy Harrier pilot in Afghanistan and he recounted that the drone watchers wanted a wedding party shot up.

Sadly there is incompetence out there but in this case I think the Apache pilots did the best they can.

Personally I think air power does more harm than good in these situations. The more civilians you kill, the harder it is for the people to trust foreign troops.

In some ways the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan might be better addressed if they were treated as law breaking rather than war making. By this I mean it might be best if lightly armed police (foreign and local) operated in built up areas using rules of engagement appropriate to western cities, and using investigative techniques and lawful arrests. In rural areas, troops accompany police and protect them as they seek to do their jobs.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if they simply took all the civilians out of Afghanistan and Iraq and placed them in a foreign country as exiles (well compensated but still exiles) until the "enemy" is easier to see.

BLBeamer said...

The following is from Wikipedia, some elements were confirmed to us by our friend Eric several years ago. Eric is a Rwandan refugee whose family was murdered during the massacre. Eric is half Hutu and half Tutsi.

"On January 11, 1994 Canadian Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire (United Nations Force Commander in Rwanda) notified Military Advisor to the Secretary-General, Major-General Maurice Baril of four major weapons caches and plans by the Hutus for extermination of Tutsis. The telegram from Dallaire stated that an informant who was a top level Interahamwe (Hutu) militia trainer was in charge of demonstrations carried out a few days before. The goal of the demonstrations was to provoke an RPF (Tutsi) battalion in Kigali into firing upon demonstrators and Belgian United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) troops into using force.

Under such a scenario the Interhamwe would have an excuse to engage the Belgian troops and the RPF battalion. Several Belgians were to be killed, which would guarantee a withdrawal of the Belgian contingent, which was the backbone of the peacekeeping mission. The Tutsis would then be eliminated. According to the informant, 1,700 Interhamwe militiamen were trained in Governmental Forces camps and he was ordered to register all the Kigali Tutsis. Dallaire made immediate plans for UNAMIR troops to seize the arms caches and advised UN Headquarters of his intentions, believing these actions lay within his mission's mandate. The following day headquarters stated in another cable that the outlined actions went beyond the mandate granted to UNAMIR under Security Council Resolution 872. Instead, President Habyarimana was to be informed of possible Arusha Accords violations and the discovered concerns and report back on measures taken. The January 11 telegram later played an important role in discussion about what information was available to the United Nations prior to the genocide. On February 21 extremists assassinated the Minister of Public Works, and UNAMIR failed to gain approval to investigate the murder.

On April 6, 1994 the RTLM accused the Belgian peacekeepers of having shot down – or helping to shoot down – the president's plane. This broadcast has been linked to the killing of ten Belgian UN troops by soldiers of the Rwandan army.

The situation proved too "risky" for the United Nations to attempt to help. The RPF successfully brought the country under their sway, although their efforts towards a conclusion to the conflict were delayed after the UN-mandated French-led force, under Operation Turquoise, established and maintained a "safe zone" for Hutu refugees to flee to in the southwest. Eventually, after the UN Mandate of the French mission was at an end, millions of refugees left Rwanda, mainly headed to Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of Congo)...

The UN's mandate forbids intervening in the internal politics of any country unless the crime of genocide is being committed. France has been accused of aiding the Hutu regime to flee by creating what is known as Operation Turquoise. Canada, Ghana, and the Netherlands provided consistent support for the UN mission under the command of Roméo Dallaire although it was left without an appropriate mandate for the capacity to intervene from the U.N. Security Council. Despite emphatic demands from UNAMIR's commanders in Rwanda before and throughout the genocide, its requests for authorization to end it were refused and its intervention-capacity was even reduced."

This is your idea of "massive peacekeeping operations"?

BLBeamer said...

The difference is that on the Balkans the UN is "on the ground" and has been there for over 10 years.
Isn't the US also still on the ground in the Balkans?

In Iraq and Afghanistan, you can't say that America has won the peace yet. Maybe it's time for the UN to come in?
What do you have against Iraqis and Afghans that you would want to see so many more of them killed or turned into refugees? The UN seems incapable both of killing bad guys and protecting civilians.

One Salient Oversight said...

The main difference between the hundreds of thousands killed in Rwanda in 1994 and the hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 is the following:

The US killed people, the UN didn't stop Rwandans from killing each other.

The UN did not have many troops on the ground in Rwanda in 1994 - certainly not enough to prevent widespread genocide. The UN was certainly slow in responding to the crisis, partly because of US influence.

For the situation to have been better handled would've required a large force of UN troops ready and willing to enter another country at a moment's notice, not to mention some level of executive power wielded by the Secretary-General of the UN.

So unless the UN gets more power to act in the world, the UN will never be ready to act on a problem immediately. The Rwandan Genocide was a result of the world hamstringing the UN's ability to act quickly.

By contrast preventable deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003 were directly caused by US involvement - either caused by US military forces or caused by insurgents striking back at US forces.

The difference between the UN and the US here is startling, not to mention the fact that the Iraq war did not receive a UN imprimatur.

The UN did not cause the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The US did cause the invasion and conquest of Iraq and Afghanistan.

One Salient Oversight said...

KFOR contains a minority of US troops.

BLBeamer said...

You seem to be missing my point. I'm not defending a US role. I am condemning the corruption, fecklessness, and just plain uselessness of the UN.

The UN didn't stop the ethnic war in the Balkans. The US Air Force gets primary responsibility for that.

I opposed sending the US military into the Balkans, but I have to admit they were able to stop Slobo, Karadzic and their murderous cohorts.

One Salient Oversight said...

I have far more trust in the processes of the United Nations and its actual existence than I do in the US, who I can trust will look after its own interests well.

But I also live in a country that proudly sends troops out to help UN peacekeeping and which doesn't have a culture of fear and loathing towards internationalism.

BLBeamer said...

I admire the stated principles of the UN, which I presume is what you actually trust.

I do not admire in the least that those principles are routinely violated by UN officials and bureaucrats at the expense of innocent civilians.

You have every right to be proud of Australia's contributions. I'm not sure why you feel it elevates Australia to state that the US has a "fear and loathing of internationalism". But I guess you're entitled since Sydney is the home of the UN...oops, my mistake.

One Salient Oversight said...

BTW I think you may have misunderstood my original support of the UN when it comes to peacekeeping.

In the case of Yugoslavia, the US did a very good thing in providing the bulk of the military strength to stop the war. Europe should be ashamed of themselves for not a) Preventing the crisis from occurring in the first place, and b) Being unable/unwilling to provide the military force to stop the war after it began.

My pov is that the UN and the US can have two different roles. The US is very good at destroying the military threat of any nation. The UN is very good at going into these nations after the war has ended and growing / developing the nation via "nation building".

In the case of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has been involved in both the initial war and in nation building. The US spectacularly achieved the military defeat of both these nations, but has been spectacularly ineffective in nation building.

So I would argue very strongly that it is in the interests of the US, Iraq and Afghanistan for US forces to leave and be replaced by a nation building UN taskforce manned by non-US and non-British (and likely non-Australian) troops and staff.

So my argument is that the UN should do what it is good at doing (proof: Yugoslavia after the Balkans wars ended) and for the US to stop what it has historically been less able to do (proof: Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti).