07 April 2010


Tipped off by the release of classified documents and video from Wikileaks (a.k.a. The Sunshine Press, a nonprofit organization funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the public), the mass media have siezed upon the killing of innocent civilians by two US Army AH-64 Apache helicopters in Bagdad, Iraq, on July 12, 2007. A short version and the full version of the video may be viewed at CollateralMurcer.com, a Wikileaks special projects website.

The incident raised several significant questions. Why has the US Army kept this massacre hidden from public srutiny for nearly three years, and only after its unauthorized release, labeled it as "collateral damage" (translation: coverup)? Its own video clearly shows that the helicopters were not under attack or even threat of attack -- the pilots, commanders and gunners blantantly violated the rules of engagement by taking a group of non-military, non-militia civilians under fire. It happened that among the twelve people killed on the ground were two journalists from the Reuters news service, carrying cameras, not guns. (click on images to enlarge)

In both civilian and military affairs, whistleblowers play a key role in keeping those in power honest. Witness Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, exposing the secret expansion of carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks. Such is their value to the public good that whistleblower laws now protect those who expose corporate fraud and corruption from retaliation by their former bosses.

In the current instance, why did it take a whistleblower organization like Wikileaks to bring what truly amounts to premeditated murder by military personnel (approved by their commanders) to public attention? The obvious urge toward self-preservation by those involved aside, in my mind there is a more powerful, less obvious undercurrent -- absent or inadequate training and preparation of ALL military personnel regarding the psychological stresses of war, and the temptation to regard any human being in view as the enemy. The chopper crews in the 2007 incident, like most air and ground forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, were (and continue to be) under intense stress after days of coming under fire from the ground. Fear and frustration naturally build until (in the absence of training and firm leadership) those feelings boil over into unrestrained violence. These killings are nothing more or less than a miniature version of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Only this time there was no Hugh Thompson to intervene and stop the carnage.

Our military, like our police, are called upon to risk their lives to protect not only citizens, but also the best values inherent in a democracy. With proper training in the psychology of conflict, they are mentally prepared to deal with taunting, threats or actual attack with restraint, resorting to force only as a last resort. In my eyes, that training is sorely lacking among the military forces deployed in the Middle East. Only the personal decency of most troops has prevented more such incidents of collateral murder.

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