The Pentagon is reeling after two lethal episodes uncovered by diligent journalism show trigger-happy U.S. Army helicopter pilots and U.S. Special Forces slaughtering civilians, then seeking to cover up their crimes.
The World Wide Web was transfixed Monday when Wikileaks put up on YouTube a 38-minute video, along with a 17-minute edited version, taken from a U.S. Army Apache helicopter, one of two firing on a group of Iraqis in Baghdad at a street corner in July 2007. Twelve civilians died, including a Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and a Reuters driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40.
At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Wikileaks said it had got the footage from whistle-blowers in the military and had been able to break the encryption code. The Pentagon has confirmed the video is genuine.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has finally admitted that Special Forces troops killed two pregnant Afghan women and a girl in a February 2010, raid, in which two Afghan government officials were also killed. Brilliant reporting by Jerome Starkey of The Times of London has blown apart the U.S. military's cover-up story that the women were killed by knife wounds administered several hours before the raid.
It now appears that the knife wounds may have been inflicted by the Special Forces troops retrieving their bullets from the dead or dying women's bodies. Starkey's story last Sunday in The Times reported that "Afghan investigators also determined that American forces not only killed the women but had also 'dug bullets out of their victims' bodies in the bloody aftermath" and then "washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened."
The 17-minute video recording the U.S. military's massacre from the air in Baghdad is utterly damning. The visual and audio record reveal the two Apache helicopter pilots and the U.S. Army intelligence personnel monitoring the real-time footage falling over themselves to make the snap judgment that the civilians roughly a thousand feet below are armed insurgents and that one of them, peeking round a corner, was carrying an RPG -- that is, a rocket-propelled antitank grenade launcher.
The dialogue is particularly chilling, revealing gleeful pilots gloating over the effect of their initial machine-gun salvoes. "Look at those dead bastards," one pilot says. "Nice," answers the other. Then, as a wounded man painfully writhes toward the curb, the pilots eagerly wait for an excuse to finish him off. "All you gotta do is pick up a weapon," one pilot says yearningly.
Then suddenly, a civilian van, seeing the carnage, pulls up. A man jumps out and starts dragging the wounded man around to load him in. The pilots implore the intelligence monitors to give them the go-ahead to strafe the van, about which they have made the instant, fatally erroneous judgment that this is an insurgent rescue squad. A few moments later, the intelligence monitors, with zero visual evidence underpinning their judgment, give the go-ahead.
Another salvo finishes off the wounded man and his would-be rescuer, kills other civilians in the van and wounds two children in the front seat.
U.S. ground troops arrive on the scene, report the presence of wounded children. "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle," one pilot tells the other. There are further sniggers as a U.S. armored vehicle rolls up. "I think they just drove over a body," one of the pilots cackles.
One disgraceful exchange discloses a brutal order to the U.S. ground troops not to take the wounded children to the nearest military hospital, thus condemning them to the long waits and understaffed, under-equipped Baghdad civilian hospitals. It clearly shows the culpability of the next command echelon, which is just as great as that of the pilots.
In the wake of the lethal onslaught, the U.S. military denied that any error had taken place, its version of events faithfully cited by The New York Times under the headline "2 Iraqi Journalists Killed as U.S. Forces Clash With Militias": "According to the (U.S. military's) statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine (sic) insurgents were killed."
The footage made public by Wikileaks makes it clear this was fiction, from start to finish.
Defense analyst Pierre Sprey, who led the design teams for the F-16 and A-10 and who spent many years in the Pentagon, stresses two particularly damning features of the footage. The first is the claim that Noor-Eldeen's telephoto lens could be mistaken for an RPG. "A big telephoto for a 35mm camera is under a foot and half at most. An RPG, unloaded, is 3 feet long, and loaded, 4 foot long. These guys were breathing hard to kill someone."
Sprey's second point is that an Apache helicopter makes a very loud "whomp, whomp" noise. " Twelve guys are unconcerned, with loud helicopters right overhead. Imagine if they were planning an assault on American troops. They'd be crouched down and skulking along walls, spread out. They would not be walking casually down the middle of the street, totally ignoring the helicopters."
A retired U.S. Marine was even blunter in an e-mail exchange:
"Not a good show at all. The group on the ground were banishing nothing that 'looked' or appeared as weapons, especially the voiced 'RPG' which is so obvious when loaded. And then again -- they were told in advance by intelligence (I am sure by the tone in the flight) that these people were bad guys. The Apache crews were just stupid and the intelligence clowns pointing them and egging them on are guilty of murder -- 'you are clear to engage.'"
In the aftermath, the U.S. military claimed that some AK-47s and a grenade launcher had been found at the scene. Sprey comments that, in the course of the subsequent cover-up, the weapons may well have been planted, LAPD style. According to Reuters, their men had been working on a story about weightlifting when they heard about a military raid in the neighborhood, and decided to drive there to check it out. Local witnesses say there was no firefight anywhere near where they were gunned down by the Apaches.
Reuters, which by that time had already had four employees killed in Iraq by the U.S. military (ultimately, to date, at least seven), demanded an investigation, which the Army says it undertook but found no breach of its Rules of Engagement by the pilots or U.S. Army intelligence.
Leave the last word to a retired U.S. Army man, answering the e-mail from the retired U.S. Marine quoted above:
"The damage this incident and its video evidence will do is immense ... it will irrefutably confirm for many that large chunk of anti-American propaganda which insists the American flyers are just playing computer shoot-em-up games using real flesh and blood as a proxy for the digital figures they usually slaughter only in the arcades.
"How much is simulator training responsible for the disconnection from reality demonstrated in this incident? The crew was detached from reality ... How (is) the Army ... producing crews that, having the potential for such incompetence, cannot detect it among themselves. If anyone in that crew had paused and asked if the action being taken was correct, surely it would have been aborted ... The Army has to find out why."
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com.