Amongst the various issues raised by the release of the previously-suppressed video of US soldiers massacring civilians in Baghdad who weren’t doing anything was the attitudes revealed by their comments as they killed, and after they killed. They laughed. They joked. They demonstrated utter contempt for those they had just, or were about to, disintegrate through their sights. It was apparent that they did not see these people as human beings whose lives had value, but as an unknown element that could prove a threat and therefore could, erring on the side of caution for Coalition soldiers but on the complete opposite side of caution for Iraqi civilians who might be in the area, be destroyed with no concern.
The argument is that this sort of callous indifference to human life is a vital way of dealing with what soldiers are asked to do.
“You don’t want combat soldiers to be foolish or to jump the gun, but their job is to destroy the enemy, and one way they’re able to do that is to see it as a game, so that the people don’t seem real,” says Moore.
It’s laugh or go mad.
But, look – is their job “to destroy the enemy”? Regardless of the consequences? Remember, these people are there representing our governments – representing us. Shouldn’t their job be “to defeat the enemy, whilst avoiding killing if reasonably possible”? Particularly when we’re not talking about a war between armies, but urban pacification? Collateral damage is, in many cases, probably unavoidable. In this case, it is clear from watching the video that it wasn’t – whether or not earlier in the video the camera looks like an RPG, it is absolutely certain that when the helicopter gunner has the group in his sights, before he mows them down, they are not doing anything. Why, if Iraqi lives were valued at all, could the helicopter not have continued to keep them under observation, 30mm cannon trained on them, ready to fire if one of them hefted an RPG to his soldier to fire at them or raised an AK47 to shoot at ground troops or adopted a hostile stance, and covered them until the soldiers arrived to check through binoculars whether they were a threat or not?
The real reason this killing happened is that the military calculation for Iraqi lives vs Coalition lives was (and is) completely off kilter. Fifteen innocent Iraqi lives? Happy to make them pay that if it potentially saves one Coalition soldier.
Anyway, back to the issue of the attitude they displayed: grim humour doesn’t bother me. What bothers me about the soldiers’ conduct in the video is the deadly connection between the contempt for Iraqi life they express in their words, and the contempt for Iraqi life they demonstrate in their actions. This isn’t consequence-free joking: it’s making light of an atrocity so they don’t have to feel bad about it.
But soldiers shouldn’t be committing atrocities. They should be avoiding committing atrocities. That doesn’t mean there won’t be innocent deaths – war is difficult. War is messy. (One reason we should only enter into it if the alternative is clearly even worse.) But if soldiers act carefully, professionally, taking all reasonable steps to avoid killing innocent people, and then innocent people die anyway, then surely they can avoid madness by the very sensible rationalisation that they did all they could? That what they’re asked to do is a necessary evil?
(That of course requires that it be “necessary”, part of the problem with sending them to Iraq in the first place.)
Because these fifteen people dying WAS avoidable. There were alternatives. Whilst I place most of the blame for this incident in the hands of the command that authorised the attack on sketchy information, and on the rules of engagement they implemented that simply make this sort of thing inevitable because their attitude is one of Iraqi lives being next to worthless, not worth taking the time to try to save – I still think the gunner did the wrong thing. He could see they weren’t doing anything when he opened up. He’d been trained to open up regardless, because they were just Iraqis and who knows, they might threaten a Coalition soldier at some point, but following orders hasn’t been an excuse for almost sixty years.
He should feel guilty. And so should we, for putting him in that position.