On July 12, 2007, a pair of American AH-64 Apache helicopters designated Hotel Two-Six and Crazy Horse One-Eight opened fire on a group of civilians in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Among the group that was fired on was a Reuters news photographer Namir Noor-Eldeeb. A video would surface on the website known as WikiLeaks titled “Collateral Murder” and it can be seen that most of those fired on were killed instantly.
One person, though seriously wounded, tried to crawl his way to safety. When a delivery truck arrived and when two occupants got out to try and assist the wounded man, the American helicopter opened fire again, but not only the would-be rescuers were killed. It later came out that two children still in the truck were struck and seriously wounded.
The attack was initiated after the first helicopter crew saw what they believed to be a group of military-aged individuals carrying weapons. When they believed the identification was confirmed, they opened fire, and the event took its course.
Below contains both a transcription of the GI’s radio conversation as well as an analysis of the events as they unfold. The radio conversation is quite revealing into the professional lens a soldier is forced to view the world through.
00:27 Okay we got a target fifteen coming at you. It’s a guy with a weapon.
00:39 There’s a…
00:42 There’s about, ah, four or five…
00:44 Bushmaster Six [Ground Control] copy One-Six
00:48 … this location and there’s more that keep walking by and one of them has a weapon.
00:52 Roger received target fifteen.
00:57 See all those people standing down there.
01:06 Stay firm. And open the courtyard.
01:09 Yeah roger. I just estimate that there’s about twenty of them.
01:13 That’s one, yeah
01:15 Oh yeah.
01:18 I don’t know if that’s a…
01:19 Hey Bushmaster element [Ground Forces Controller], copy on the One-Six.
01:21 That’s a weapon.
01:23 Hotel Two-Six; Crazy Horse One-Eight.
01:29 Copy on the One-Six, Bushmaster Six-Romeo. Roger.
01:32 Fucking prick.
01:33 Hotel Two-Six this is Crazy Horse One-Eight. Have individuals with weapons.
01:41 Yup, he’s got a weapon too.
01:43 Hotel Two-Six; Crazy Horse One-Eight. Have five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage.
01:51 Roger that. Uh, we have no personnel east of our position. So, uh, you are free to engage. Over.
02:00 All right, we’ll be engaging.
02:02 Roger, go ahead.
02:03 I’m gonna… I can’t get them now because they’re behind that building
02:09 Um, hey Bushmaster element
02:10 Hey he’s got an RPG!?
02:11 Alright, we got a guy with an RPG.
02:13 I’m gonna fire.
02:15 No hold on. Let’s come around. Behind buildings right now from our point of view…. Okay, we’re gonna come around.
02:19 Hotel Two-Six; have eyes on individual with RPG. Getting ready to fire. We won’t…
02:23 Yeah, we had a guy shoot - and now he’s behind the building.
02:26 God damn it!
The lethal fate of those on the ground begins at the very moment when a helicopter crew member believes he spotted a weapon. From that point on, the group that the helicopter crew watches from far away via video monitors, becomes a target, and the intention to seek and destroy said target is preprogrammed. It only took a few seconds for other crew members to believe they’d identified further weapons.
Almost instantly, what is believed to be a single-armed individual turns into an entire armed group. Equally as fast, the weapon becomes an AK-47 and then an RPG. When the first helicopter receives permission to engage the group, they move out from view behind a building. From the soldiers point of view, the most important thing is regaining contact with the enemy and one of those deemed as having a weapon is perceived as firing a shot. Because the targets move behind the building, the desire to quickly engage and destroy the target became overwhelming.
Any doubt or questions are rendered moot. The soldiers have defined the situation, and that definition calls for a set procedure. Group thinking and mutual confirmation of what is perceived replaced the factual situation with an imagined one.
Viewers watching the video don’t see what the soldiers see. The viewer doesn’t bear the burden of having to make decisions. The content of the video may unfold before his eyes but has nothing to do with him. To the U.S helicopter crews as well as troops on the ground, anyone on the street could be an insurgent. Every suspicion those on the street raise, for whatever reasons, carries a fatal tendency to be confirmed by further indicators.
When a group of people perceived to be a threat disappears from view, soldiers perceive extreme danger. From that point on everything is directed at combating and destroying the target.
02:43 You’re clear.
02:44 All right firing.
02:47 Let me know when you got them.
02:49 Let’s shoot.
02:50 Light ‘em all up.
02:52 Come on, fire!
02:57 keep shoot, keep shoot.
02:59 Keep shoot.
03:02 Keep shoot.
03:05 Hotel… Bushmaster Two-Six, Bushmaster Two-Six, we need to move, time now!
03:10 All right, we just engaged all eight individuals…
03:23 All right, hahaha, I hit ‘em.
In the blink of an eye, eight people died and one was seriously wounded. The definition of the situation was confirmed by the attack itself. A combat scenario exists whereas before, it was only imaginary.
Upon illegally being made available to the public, the video caused sensation as it depicted American GI’s who were in no real danger killing defenceless civilians from the air.
Though upon closer examination, nothing special or spectacular happened. Everything that happened in the video happens within the frame of reference “war” and is an inevitable reality. The video is a perfect demonstration of how consequences are very real when a situation is defined as real. The pilots in the video have a task and they are trying their best to carry it out. To do this, they must view the world through a professional lens. Part of this involves viewing everyone on the ground as a potential enemy.
Part of viewing the world professionally is exchanging impressions with colleagues and the tendency is high that one observation or opinion will quickly be confirmed by another. As such, a weapon becomes an AK-47 which quickly becomes multiple AK's and an RPG. One can call this type of phenomenon a "dynamic of violence," an example of "path dependency" or "groupthink." In practice, all these elements combined with lethal consequences for eleven people in the span of a few minutes. Most would imagine the event would be over, but it is now time for the helicopter crews to inspect their work.
04:31 Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards.
04:47 Good shoot.
04:48 Thank you!
What can appear as sheer sinicism to outsiders and the media is actually nothing further than a professional acknowledgment of a job well done. From the aircrew's perspective, they have destroyed completely legitimate targets before they could harm friendly forces, the best possible outcome.
In many wars, the other side's casualties are almost always referred to as combatants, terrorists, partisans, and insurgents. We can recall the rules used by Americans in Vietnam that "If it's dead and Vietnamese, it's Viet-Cong," as well as how soldiers of the Wehrmacht killed women and children after accusing them of being partisans. The violence that follows a definition confirms the definition's accuracy. In this way, the violent act confirms that one has acted properly.
The video clearly shows how violence can transform a murky situation in which men are unsure of what to do, into something crystal clear. When the hostiles are destroyed, order has returned. Once the procedure is set in motion, all other details will be seen in light of the original definition. The delivery truck is identified as a hostile vehicle and by extension, the would-be rescuers are immediately viewed as further terrorists. Even the fact the vehicle contained children who had been badly wounded by the American gunfire, is made to confirm the situation.
17:04 Roger, we need, we need a uh to evac this child. Ah, she's got uh, she's got a gunshot wound to the belly.
17:10 I can't do anything here. She needs to get evaced.
17:46 Well it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle...
17:48 That's right.
Here we can see how enormous the power of definition is. In this case, even the child casualties aren't considered collateral damage, let alone evidence of a terrible mistake. The wounded child is just one more piece of evidence to the helicopter crews of how perfidious and evil the "terrorists" are since they seemingly don't hesitate to bring their children into combat.