“Picking up the wounded?”
12 April 2010
“Yeah … Come on, let us shoot!”
Holly Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Harry Lime: … Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.
That, of course, is from the Orson Welles classic, The Third Man. I thought of Welles’ portrayal of gangster Harry Lime as I watched the Wikileaks video of the 2007 Baghdad massacre.
Except, to the airborne assassins, circling a dusty suburban square from, perhaps, a kilometre or three away, the victims weren’t “dots”. Viewed in close-up, through the super-zoom optical gunsight of their murderous 30mm automatic cannon, their victims were clearly human, and obviously a spontaneous gathering. They were not behaving remotely like men bent on engaging heavily-armed US troops who had allegedly been fired on a couple of blocks away.
Remember, if you watch this gruesome footage (and you should), the crew of the Apache gunship were seeing the scene unfold in vastly better resolution and clarity than you will see it in the grungy low-resolution WikiLeaks version, compressed for the web. It would have taken all of the impatience to actually kill somebody evident in the dialogue not to notice that the men we now know to be Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, are actually carrying cameras. True, two of the other other six men are carrying Kalashnikov rifles slung on their shoulders, but nothing in their manner conveys hostile intent and this was, after all, Baghdad, 2007, where sectarian killers abounded and armed guards were an everyday feature of the streets. The two men were probably guards from the nearby mosque.
On seeing the footage, Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi novelist and former prisoner of Saddam Hussein’s regime put it this way: “In their Apache helicopter, with their sophisticated killing machinery, US soldiers seem superhuman. The Iraqis, on the ground, appear only as nameless bastards, Hajjis, sandniggers. They seem subhuman – and stripping them of their humanity makes killing them easy. As I watch the footage, anger calcifies in my heart”.
It hardens mine too. But what we are watching here isn’t the distance-induced, ten kilometre-high detachment of the Vietnam-era B52 bomber crew, it’s the up-close fantasy and the adrenaline rush of the computer game generation – a different style of dehumanisation of the enemy altogether. And we know from a contemporary account that the six men had gathered around the Reuters men to talk about mundane troubles:
“The group of civilians had gathered here because people need cooking oil and gas. They wanted to demonstrate in front of the media and show that they need things like oil, gas, water and electricity”, one witness said the next day.
Of the original eight civilians targeted, only Noor-Eldeen’s driver, Chmagh, survived the initial carnage. He is then seen gravely wounded (and, of course, unarmed) dragging himself very slowly across the ground while the watchers above mockingly beg him to “pick up a weapon” so they can have an excuse to rip him apart with explosive shells.
They get their excuse (under the ‘rules of engagement’) when a passing good samaritan driving a small battered minivan, pulls up beside Chmagh. The two small faces of the man’s children can be seen peering through the offside window. It is absolutely clear that neither of the men who emerge from the van is armed but this is the moment the airborne assassins have been waiting for.
US SOLDIER 1: Where’s that van at?
US SOLDIER 2: Right down there by the bodies.
US SOLDIER 1: OK, yeah.
US SOLDIER 2: Bushmaster, Crazy Horse. We have individuals going to the scene, looks like possibly picking up bodies and weapons.
US SOLDIER 1: Let me engage. Can I shoot?
US SOLDIER 2: Roger. Break. Crazy Horse one-eight, request permission to engage.
US SOLDIER 3: Picking up the wounded?
US SOLDIER 1: Yeah, we’re trying to get permission to engage. Come on, let us shoot!
And, of course, they get their way. They joyfully open fire on the rescuers and rake the van with gunfire.
“Well, it’s their fault bringing their kids into the battle’, says one Apache crewman when ground troops arrive and discover the only survivors are two severely wounded children in the van.
The Wikileaks stuff isn’t the first gun camera footage of callous American murder in Iraq. There was the notorious July 2004 “Oh, dude” footage of a hellfire missile taking out 40 people walking casually down a street in Fallujah, and the footage – shown to the European Parliament in 2006 – of three innocent Iraqi farmers, one a young boy, being gunned down while ploughing a field. And, of course, every week, the US-based crew of US drones loitering over Afghanistan and Pakistan rain Hellfire missiles down on innocent civilians as often as Taliban fighters.
“Picking up the wounded? ….Yeah, … Come on, let us shoot!” That looks like a war crime to me.