By Douglas Haddow
Guardian | April 7, 2010
Collateral Murder forces us to confront the deplorable unreality of US aggression and the grim fate of those caught in its scope
Monday Wikileaks, a Sweden based non-profit website that publishes leaked documents pertaining to government and corporate misconduct, released a classified US military video from 2007 that shows an Apache helicopter attacking and killing a group of Iraqi civilians. The incident rose to prominence because two of those who died were Reuters personnel – photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver Saeed Chmagh. The video, entitled Collateral Murder, is already being heralded by some as the most important revelation since Abu Ghraib, and challenges not only the effectiveness of the US military's rules of engagement policy, but also the integrity of the mainstream media's coverage of similar incidents.
Like many of the millions who have viewed, re-viewed and analysed the video, it instantly reminded me of a videogame, specifically the game that currently sits inside my Wii – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. If you're unfamiliar, or prefer not to spend your spare time sniping imaginary terrorists, Modern Warfare offers a very simple and entertaining first-person narrative: as a member of the marines or the SAS, your job is to kill everything that moves.
One of the most alarming aspects of Collateral Murder is that it demonstrates how similar the logic of the Apache pilots is to that of the average gamer. The video allows us to examine the entire process of how a rationale for attack is reached. We see exactly what the Apache pilots saw, the black-and-white gun-cam footage underscored by their darkly cynical colour-commentary of the ensuing carnage. As the helicopter approaches the men, we hear a pilot say: "See all those people standing down there?" The camera zooms in on the group and we see Saeed with a camera bag slung on his right shoulder. "That's a weapon," a pilot says. "Fucking prick," comes the reply.
And with that, a few unarmed, relaxed civilians hanging around a courtyard are transformed into a contingent of dangerous insurgents that must be destroyed. Within seconds the pilots have described the situation to their superiors, received approval to engage and are gunning down the crowd. After the smoke clears from the initial attack, we see a wounded Saeed attempting to crawl to safety, the pilots vocalising their desire that he pick up a weapon, even though there is clearly no weaponry anywhere near his person. A van then pulls up and some men arrive to help Saeed. The pilots request permission to re-engage, quickly becoming impatient as they wait for approval. "Come on let us shoot!" a pilot says. Permission is granted, and they fire on the van, killing Saeed along with the good samaritans. And it is soon revealed that rather than armed insurgents, there were actually two children sitting inside the mini-van, both of whom have sustained serious injuries.
Of course, our ability to deconstruct the footage down to the second allows for a level of hindsight not afforded to the pilots, and so the video doesn't necessarily condemn, in criminal terms, those directly responsible for the deaths, but rather US engagement protocol as a whole.
The video has already provoked a huge amount of praise and criticism within the American media. Many commentators are calling for an official investigation while others are defending the actions of the pilots and pleading for context. One of the most bizarre apologias has come from Gawker, a Manhattan media-gossip blog, who went out of their way to lament the civilian deaths in detail, only to go on defend the actions of the pilots under the premise that "innocent civilians get killed in wars".
Regardless of how many pundits attempt to frame this tragedy within the vagaries of a "war is hell" narrative, Collateral Murder will prove to be a landmark event in the reportage of the Iraq war, as it forces the viewer, in the most visceral way possible, to simultaneously confront both the deplorable unreality of American aggression and the grim fate of those caught within its scope.
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