Bravo Company 2-16, the company I was deployed with to New Baghdad felt isolated from the fanfare that other soldiers experienced in Iraq. While major celebrities visited the safer bases, FOB Rustimiyah was lucky to get the third-string of the Buffalo Bills’ cheerleading squad.
Several years later, and 2-16 has more fanfare than we ever wanted. An online whistleblower site released a video yesterday of a mission that 2-16 was a part of, titled COLLATERAL MURDER. Yes, I am a conscientious objector and yes, I had pissed some of my leaders off a few days earlier and was not trusted on missions for a few weeks so was left back at the base while this event took place, but I do a have a few words to say about it. http://wikileaks.org/
This video is aimed at sensationalizing a scene that, militarily speaking, is somewhat understandable; and with the gain of righteous indignation that many have seemed to embrace after watching this video, we lose a much more complex, honest conversation.
To attempt to put this fragile conversation into an analogy, my best description is that this video implies that what happened here was like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre-sick, unwarranted killing. This video is a horror, but I would argue that it is closer to the Saw movies…
The high number of soldiers that I deployed with, including my friends whose voices and images are in this chilling video wanted to improve the lives of their friends, families, and their own futures. The rep. from Wikileaks in the interview above says that it’s just about killing as many people as possible. Sadly, there are too many soldiers I knew who took pride in the number of lives they had taken or disrespected the bodies of the enemy died in battle, but I don’t believe any of us started this way…
In the SAW movies, characters suddenly find themselves in horrible situations, feeling they have no option but to perpetrate awful acts. The photo from one of the movies above is a character who wakes up to find this machine he’s trapped in, and, if I remember correctly, the key to unlock the machine is stuck in the stomache of a person lying next to him and he most rip open that person’s stomache to retrive the keys and make it out alive.
I urge you to be slow to judge those who are trapped in these machines and ask yourself if you did or didn’t do anything to create this trap. We faced threats every single day and naturally, a defensiveness that at times can cross into paranoia will emerge.
In the video, I can certainly understand why the helicopter gunner thought he was seeing weapons and, in the full 40-min video, it even has on record soldiers finding a live rpg round. If you call this a heartless murder, I think that you’re being overly self-righteous. If you question the very nature of the machines that we trap ourselves in and our goals for doing so, then we can learn something from this video.
Honestly, I was surprised when I saw this video and how sensationalized it was; of all the memories that have led to me change my mind about war, having my friends tell me what they saw on this July day isn’t even on the list.
I will grant that the shooting of the van is far less militarily justifiable than the initial killings. But again going back to the Saw example, in the frantic scramble for survival (though this scramble definitely can be overplayed), fear and vengeance cloud our vision.
As the military officer points to in the interview, in the heat of such moments, we don’t think of the effects these actions will have on those children or the local community; we just want to make it out alive. Just as I hope we can all avoid blindly judging the soldiers in this video, I would hope that we can take the same understanding to “the other side.” Both sides surely have more than enough reasons to compel them to do what they do. I had multiple conversations with soldiers in Iraq telling me that they would become insurgents if they were in the Iraqi’s shoes.
Like the machine in Saw, we strap deadly machines on idealistic men and women who fight in war. Judging their actions is easy, but to truly find solutions, we need to understand what happens when we’re strapped in these machines. That is where Collateral Murder fails; we need to see the humanity in all, no matter how tight the machines might be holding a person.
And speaking of machines, I think this video also proves that with such dominating technology that is shown here, if war were only a question of superior firepower, then the seven plus years that this has been going on, much of that theory remains unanswered.
And that is why I embarked on another path to solve problems than through war; not because I thought I was surrounded by cold-hearted murderers, but because the system that we were a part of forced away our humanity; and though it is natural to want to exchange a slap for a slap, it seems to only justify each side’s hatred of eachother.
The Good Soldiers is a book written about the 2-16th Infantry and it describes the event in Collateral Murder and it’s aftermath…
“…an EFP had killed his friend… (his) memorial service had been on July 7, and now, 5 days later, as M saw all of the bodies scattered around, blown open, insides exposed, so gruesome, so grotesque, he felt–as he would later explain–”happy. It was weird. I was just really very happy. I remember feeling so happy. When I heard there’s thirteen Killed In Action, I was just so happy, because C had just died, and it felt like, you know, we got ‘em”
“…But the one on top was still alive, and as M locked eyes with him, the man raised his hands and rubbed his two forefingers together, which M had learned was what Iraqis did when they wanted to signal the word for friends.
“So M looked at the man and rubbed his two forefingers together too.
“And then dropped his left hand and extended the middle finger of his right hand.
And then said to the other solder, “C’s probably just sitting up there drinking a beer thinking ‘Hah! That’s all I needed’” -The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, Ch 5
And as one side hardens their hearts more and more in the name of their lost friends, I have no reason to doubt that the other does exactly the same. If people mourn fallen soldiers here, imagine how much more grief there would be if the person fallen was a child, or somebody who had nothing to do with perpetrating the violence. Because I have felt grief and sadness in my own heart, both in war and with the rush of emotions following 9/11, I can put myself in the shoes of the community of New Baghdad who had protested our prescence to begin with, seeing how creating Freedom, Peace, and Democracy through actions like the one shown in this video seem an extremely odd recipe… to say the least.
And even if somehow this contradictory recipe cooks up the desired product, I can’t help but recoil at rewatching the van being shot, the celebration of death in the gunner’s conversation, or reading the words of a fellow soldier as quoted in The Good Soldiers without thinking of the religion that I went to Iraq in the name of and being haunted by the words of the man it’s named after: “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” -Matt 16:26
And at the end of the day, when the internet videos are watched, when our guns rest beside our beds, when we judge those who we don’t try to understand (American or Iraqi), I hope we also remember to ask, “is anything worth more than my soul?”
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