The Long War: A murderous action by U.S. forces -- caught on tape

In the longer piece on Peace Action West that this is cut from, Rebecca Griffin argues that we must face the "truly horrifying" costs of the American military adventure in Afghanistan.
by Rebecca Griffin

The US military admitted earlier this week that US special operations forces killed five innocent civilians in Gardez, including two pregnant women. The two women leave behind sixteen motherless children. While the military has denied any kind of cover-up of the raid, there were signs of evidence tampering at the scene:
And in what would be a scandalous turn to the investigation, The Times of London reported Sunday night 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.”

A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, Zemary Bashary, said that he did not have any information about the Afghan investigation, which he said remained unfinished.

In an interview, a NATO official said the Afghan-led investigation team alerted American and NATO commanders that the inquiry had found signs of evidence tampering. A briefing was given by investigators to General McChrystal and other military officials in late March.

“There was evidence of tampering at the scene, walls being washed, bullets dug out of holes in the wall,” the NATO official said, adding that investigators “couldn’t find bullets from the wounds in the body.”
Civilian casualties have been a continued source of outrage in Afghanistan, and General McChrystal has received praise for his attempts to lower the number of civilian casualties. While the intent is admirable, it is unrealistic in practice. McChrystal recently commented on their inability to decrease the number of shootings of innocent people at military checkpoints with the startling admission that, “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”

Following this tragic story comes the release of a video of US soldiers in a helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq as though they were in a video game. The soldiers killed over a dozen people in the suburb of New Baghdad, including two journalists working for Reuters. (Warning: the video is disturbing and contains some explicit language.)

Wikileaks received the video and supporting documents from military whistleblowers and the Pentagon has confirmed that the video is authentic. It paints a disturbing picture of soldiers shooting into a group of mostly unarmed civilians, and at times laughing about it, with authorization from their superiors. When a van arrives to pick up the wounded and dead, they open fire, wounding two children. One of the pilots can be heard saying, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

Julian Assange of Wikileaks made an important point about the nature of the video on Democracy Now this morning:
What’s important to remember is that every step that the Apache takes in opening fire is authorized. It does pause before shooting. It explains the situation, sometimes exaggerating a little to its commanders, and gets authorized permission.

These are not bad apples. This is standard practice. You can hear it from the tones of the voices of the pilots that this is in fact another day at the office. These pilots have evidently and gunners have evidently become so corrupted, morally corrupted, by the war that they are looking for excuses to kill. That is why you hear this segment, “Come on, buddy! Just pick up a weapon,” when Saeed, one of the Reuters employees, is crawling on the curb. They don’t want him for intelligence value to understand the situation. The man is clearly of no threat whatsoever. He’s prostate on the ground. Everyone else has been killed. They just want an excuse to kill. And it’s some kind of—appears to me to be some kind of video game mentality where they just want to get a high score, get their kill count up. And later on you’ll hear them proudly proclaiming how they killed twelve to fifteen people.
The Pentagon has stated that an investigation was already held into the incident and no one is being charged with wrongdoing.

There have been a lot of euphemisms and opaque language used in the debate about the merits of the current strategy in Afghanistan. Many proponents of the war build support around benign-sounding efforts like “population-centric counterinsurgency strategy.” They portray this effort as a more friendly form of war, with the vision of the US troops sweeping into Marja, scaring the bad guys out of town, dropping in a new government and bringing peace and stability to the people. These two incidents are surely just two of many in the hellacious reality of war. Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal makes an important point about civilian casualties:
Perhaps right on cue there is this horrifying story that not only did US Special Operations forces kill three Afghan women, they covered up the crime – even going to far as to dig bullets out of the bodies of the victims. It is yet another reminder that for all the talk of protecting civilians – and all of General McChrystal’s noble efforts to prevent civilian deaths — they are still happening, and they are still undermining our population centric goals in Afghanistan (again when you put 100,000 US troops, who are trained to kill and protect themselves, in a foreign country none of this should be even slightly surprising).

And as much as I hate to write it, this is likely only going to continue – and we wonder why we can’t convince local Afghans to side with us?
That’s not to even mention the nearly more than 1,000 US and ISAF soldiers who have died. That trend will only continue with the impending increase in troop levels. The first three months of 2010 already saw double the American casualties of the same period in 2009. Thousands of soldiers have been wounded, and their stories are seldom told to the American public.

When we debate this war, let’s be real about what we are debating. Let’s not debate a sanitized version of military efforts in Afghanistan. Those who think that the war in Afghanistan is essential to our security must weigh our gains against the dirty, messy reality of US and Afghan casualties, not an unrealistic vision of soldiers sitting safely in rooms piloting unmanned drones and Afghans embracing the military presence despite the occasional accidental air strike.

"Light 'em all up."

In the years since the "incident," as Reuters has tried to uncover what happened, U.S. military authorities have stonewalled, whitewashing the horrific actions of our gunners as within the rules of engagement. Watch the video: if these fighters are acting within officially sanctioned parameters, then the rules need to be changed. You can't win the hearts and minds of people by murdering them.

In the video, there are two separate attacks on civilians on the ground: at the first, the gunships fire on an unthreatening group whose main offense seems to be that they are men of fighting age; then they unload on a van of people attempting to tend to the wounded and dying from the first attack. The pilots and gunners sound both bloodthirsty and oddly detached, like teenage boys yelling "Kill! Kill! Kill!" in a video arcade.

Although from the air, the helicopter crews couldn't have known that children were in the cab of the Good Samaritans' van -- "Oh yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield! Haha," American reliance on massive preemptive force makes the killing of civilians certain -- premeditated -- and therefore criminal. Firing on a van of medical workers doesn't spawn political martyrs, it makes real ones. If soldiers who commit acts like these are not held accountable, more such tragedies will be impossible to avoid. Of course, if we weren't there at all, such tragedies would be impossible to occur.

The Afghan war itself is counter-productive and stupid as policy and needs to be brought swiftly to a conclusion. In any war, it is a certainty that some innocent people will be harmed. But Obama's expansion of this war -- essentially an intervention in a civil war -- is especially tragic, because the certainty of the outcome -- the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from the country -- and the willingness of the other side to negotiate create the conditions for a swift settlement.

The Obama administration, which claims to prefer diplomacy to force, could use the threat of immediate withdrawal to make Karzai negotiate a deal with the Taliban (an outcome made all the easier now that the Afghan president has threatened to join the Taliban as his way of punishing the Americans for criticizing his gangsterish regime). The sooner an agreement is reached the more the Taliban will be deterred from expanding its influence beyond its sanctuaries in the south and east, the more U.S. gains in the recent fighting can be consolidated, and the more reduced will be the opportunities for corruption and fraud in the areas controlled from Kabul.

Even assuming that the entry into Afghanistan was unavoidable in the aftermath of 9/11, there is little question that the project has soured and cannot be won militarily. Comparisons to the Vietnam war are inexact, but there is one eerie echo from that conflict: we appear to be destroying Afghanistan in the effort to save it. Dialogue and serious compromise are far more likely to produce a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan than blasting villagers from helicopters and pilotless drones.

Obama will not be able to go into the next presidential campaign without progress toward peace in the region, which means that there will be a sit-down with the Taliban sooner or later. Sooner is infinitely preferable. If the corrupt, inept Karzai is an obstruction to peace, he can easily be bargained away as part of the final deal (someone should slip Karzai a copy of the biography of Vietnam's President Diem -- it's possible he takes American rhetoric seriously; it's probably better for all concerned if he finds out now with whom he's in bed).

A negotiated settlement soon would not only save American and Afghan lives, but would avoid a precipitate withdrawal just before 2012 that would embarrass the American president and leave Afghanistan in ruins. Surely we'd rather spend our billions rebuilding the country than destroying it. Better to negotiate a compromise that takes into account the aspirations of both sides in the conflict (by which I mean Kabul and the Taliban) for the future of the country than to continue a policy that is to the advantage of no one. One thing all sides can probably agree on: Afghanistan's future must not, will not, can not include occupation by American troops.

The rest of the story: Debate war as it is, not as you want it to be by Rebecca Griffin (Peace Action West Groundswell Blog 2010-04-06)

Transcript of the audio from the WikiLeaks video

Like Abu Graib, defenders of American militarism will claim the actions on this video are aberrant. But graphic combat porn is pretty easy to find:
Special Forces Firefight with Insurgents in Iraq (night time); Night Attack on Al Qaeda; Mosul Firefight as music video; Iraq - AH-64 Apache; Asaeb Ahul Haqq RPG attack; etc. ad infinitum.

“This Is How These Soldiers Were Trained to Act”–Veteran of Military Unit Involved in 2007 Baghdad Helicopter Shooting Says Incident Is Part of Much Larger Problem (Democracy Now 2010-04-12).
Veterans of Wikileaks video write "Letter of Reconciliation" to Iraqis Injured in Attack (Civilian-Soldier Alliance): Josh Stieber and Ethan McCord, members of Bravo Company 2-16, are making a stand against the war and are rallying supporters. Go to to read the letter they are sending to the Iraqis who survived the Apache attack
Actions: Donate to Peace Action West. Help provide information and support to those in the military on ways of standing up for their beliefs through work being done with the GI Rights Hotline. If you are a veteran or service-member, see Iraq Veterans Against the War or Courage to Resist's websites to get involved in anti-war work. Support and spread the word about the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, embracing those within the military or veteran communities who want to talk about their experiences and work towards other options. Question the training that our government and our tax money puts our impressionable young people through: if we object to this video, we need to look at what training led to it. Check out books like On Killing and pressure political and military leaders to reconsider the psychological methods that teach soldiers to dehumanize. Look at what we teach our children, work towards starting peace studies programs in your schools. Question where our tax money is really going and why so much is spent on warfare. Inform yourself on the deeper priorities of our society by watching for example, The Story of Stuff and ask yourself if your lifestyle is contributing to those mistaken priorities.

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