- April 5th, 2010
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Critical note: I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a helicopter pilot. Thousands of you viewers have come here via click-through on a widely disseminated, and poorly researched, article found here.
Warning: The video content contained within this post is likely to greatly disturb those who have not seen these things many times before. People die. It is real. War, as they say, is hell. Updates below.
To start things off, I will come right out and say I support WikiLeaks in their endeavors to bring about transparency in government. The government promises to do such things and fails time and time again. That said, I have several problems with their presentation of “Collateral Murder,” the video immediately below this paragraph. These errors do nothing to lend to the credibility of this organization, and if there is any desire to promote anything but transparency and truth I will cease any inkling of support immediately.
Critical Update: In the time since I wrote this post, it has become abundantly clear that WikiLeaks is undeserving of my support. They continue, time and time again, to editorialize information and then present it as hard fact. My analysis remains, but my support for the organization does not. Their stated charter is noble; the methods they use are not.
For those unaware of my background, I have spent quite a lot of time (a conservative estimate would be around 4500 hours) viewing aerial footage of Iraq (note: this time was not in viewing TADS video, but footage from Raven, Shadow, and Predator feeds). I am certain my voice can be heard on several transmissions with several different Crazyhorse aircraft, as I have called them to assist troops on the ground more times in my 26-months in Iraq than I could even attempt to guess. I need no reassurances to determine the presence of an RPG7 or an AK-variant rifle, especially not from a craft flying as low as Apache (even after the video has been reduced in dimensions to a point at which it is nearly useless).
Several commenters on Twitter and YouTube have expressed a great deal of anger towards the United States and members of its military. Many of them, unsurprisingly, have wished death on us all. Part of the problem, which is far more complex than I have the time or desire to fully discuss, lies in the presentation of above video.
What could have been the case is identified for the viewer quite readily. What certainly is true, in several key moments, is not. When presenting source media as the core of your argument, it is grossly irresponsible to fail to make known variables not shown within that media. If you are going to take the time to highlight certain things in said media, you should make certain all key elements are brought to the attention of your viewer.
WikiLeaks failed to do these things in this video, happily highlighting the positions and movements of the slain reporter and photographer while ignoring those of their company. It is also, until their arrival on scene, never clear where exactly the ground forces are in reference to Crazyhorse 18 and flight. I can make a pretty good guess, given my background. I would guess the same cannot be said by the vast majority of WikiLeaks’ target audience.
Between 3:13 and 3:30 it is quite clear to me, as both a former infantry sergeant and a photographer, that the two men central to the gun-camera’s frame are carrying photographic equipment. This much is noted by WikiLeaks, and misidentified by the crew of Crazyhorse 18. At 3:39, the men central to the frame are armed, the one on the far left with some AK variant, and the one in the center with an RPG. The RPG is crystal clear even in the downsized, very low-resolution, video between 3:40 and 3:45 when the man carrying it turns counter-clockwise and then back to the direction of the Apache. This all goes by without any mention whatsoever from WikiLeaks, and that is unacceptable.
At 4:08 to 4:18 another misidentification is made by Crazyhorse 18, where what appears to clearly be a man with a telephoto lens (edit to add: one of the Canon EF 70-200mm offerings) on an SLR is identified as wielding an RPG. The actual case is not threatening at all, though the misidentified case presents a major perceived threat to the aircraft and any coalition forces in the direction of its orientation. This moment is when the decision to engage is made, in error.
(note: It has to be taken into consideration that there is no way that the Crazyhorse crew had the knowledge, as everyone who has viewed this had, that the man on the corner of that wall was a photographer. The actions of shouldering an RPG (bringing a long cylindrical object in line with one’s face) and framing a photo with a long telephoto lens quite probably look identical to an aircrew in those conditions.)
I have made the call to engage targets from the sky several times, and know (especially during the surge) that such calls are not taken lightly. Had I been personally involved with this mission, and had access to real-time footage, I would have recommended against granting permission. Any of the officers with whom I served are well aware that I would continue voicing that recommendation until ordered to do otherwise. A few of them threatened me with action under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for doing so. Better officers than they, fortunately, were always ready to go to bat for me and keep that from happening. That said, if either of the clearly visible weapons been oriented towards aircraft, vehicles, troops, or civilians I would have cleared Crazyhorse 18 hot in a heartbeat and defended my actions to the battle staff if needed.
(note: The above is based on the number of times footage from a UAV under my unit’s control produced visual evidence that showed a lesser threat level than that reported as possible by either attack aviation or troops on the ground. Such footage may not have been available during this incident, and as such if the camera was thought to be an RPG the engagement of the personnel was well within any ROE I have ever seen. By making the call, I mean that I have quite literally been the voice heard over the radio clearing an engagement. It is important to note that while I was a position to influence the decision, the actual decision was not mine to make – that falls to the officer-in-charge, not the non-commissioned officer-in-charge.)
The point at which I cannot support the actions of Crazyhorse 18, at all, comes when the van arrives somewhere around 9:45 and is engaged. Unless someone had jumped out with an RPG ready to fire on the aircraft, there was no threat warranting a hail of 30mm from above. Might it have been prudent to follow the vehicle (perhaps with a UAV), or at least put out a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for the vehicle? Absolutely without question. Was this portion of the engagement even remotely understandable, to me? No, it was not.
All in all, the engagement clearly went bad. I would have objected when I was a private first-class pulling triple duty as an RTO, driver, and vehicle gunner. I would have objected when I was a sergeant working well above my pay-grade as the Brigade Battle NCO. My assessment is based on my experiences in that very theater of operations. I did not see a threat that warranted an engagement at any point. I did, however, see the elements indicating such a threat could develop at any moment. (note: As I did, in fact, already know several things about the situation when I viewed this footage I cannot say with any certainty that had I viewed the exact same footage at the time of the incident that I would not have concluded the camera was an RPG as well.) People can make their judgements however they wish, but what is clearly visible is not the entire picture. I’ll also say that I’ve seen Crazyhorse elements do some pretty drastic maneuvers to protect troops and civilians alike. Those pilots have saved the lives of my friends many times, and a bad shoot is not going to ruin them as far as I’m concerned.
Update: I have seen several mentions of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle running over a body off in the rubble. This is highlighted at some point in the video. Crazyhorse 18 misidentifies a Canon zoom lens as an RPG7, but WikiLeaks has managed to identify a HMMWV as a BFV. I’m not even sure how that’s possible. The transcript also has the ground commander calling on the BFV crew to “drop rap” – there should be an ‘m’ between the ‘a’ and the ‘p’ – ramp is what it should read.
WikiLeaks claims to seek to shed the light on the truth, yet continues to allow such gross errors in reporting stand unchanged. There are many veterans with thousands of hours experience in both analyzing aerial video and understanding the often-garbled radio transmissions between units. It is not unreasonable to think any number of us would be willing to make sure everything is identified correctly, and all jargon is translated appropriately, before things go to the presses. Promoting truth with gross errors is just as shameful as an unnecessary engagement.
Technical issues have prompted the temporary disabling of comments on this post. As soon as I fix the problem, I will turn them back on. The exchange of dialogue is important, and will be restored as soon as possible. Comments are back up, seems my theme did not know what to do with that many comments. Comments are down again. If anything is unclear, I’m sure there’s an explanation somewhere in my responses to various comments.