Crimes of war and the need for justice

10 Apr

It is essentially common knowledge that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the United States. Iraq possessed no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and had no connection to al-Qaeda or 9/11, thus, discrediting the Bush administration’s justifications for war. Since the invasion was not authorized by the United Nations Security Council nor waged in self-defense against an imminent threat, the invasion of Iraq was an unlawful use of force (see Art. 39 and 51 of the Charter of the United Nations). In other words, the war in Iraq was a crime against peace and a war of aggression. The Nuremberg Principles (Art. 6) define “crime against peace” as “namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing”. The Judgment of the Nuremberg Tribunal famously stated that “to initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Upon waging war with another country, the consequences of that initial act of aggression are various forms of human suffering. This includes, but is not limited to, torture, rape, mass murder, and the intentional or unintentional killing of civilians. This has evil has manifested in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just recently, the WikiLeaks website released a video of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 opening fire on a group of a dozen men that included two journalists who worked for Reuters. The military believed that some of the men were carrying weapons and claimed that they were “clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force”. However, the men believed to be carrying weapons were the journalists carrying their cameras. With them were two men carrying AK-47s. It is important to keep in mind, though, that this is Baghdad in 2007, during the height of the civil war. At the time, it was legal for households to own an AK-47 and many neighborhoods had their own protection forces. Ivan Eland, a defense analyst, pointed out to Al-Jazeera:

“‘I don’t think anybody tried to purposely kill anybody here but I think in this type of warfare it’s not like in a conventional battle, you’re not really sure who is in the insurgency and who is not … and the real problem is in identifying the players and what they are doing in the war,'” he said.

Still, he said ‘there should have been some concern that this was not a hostile group because they saw this helicopter going around and around and didn’t seem to be fearful of it’.

‘Insurgents would have either fled or used the rocket-propelled grenade launcher right off their backs,’ he said.”

You can view the entire video clip right here [I should warn you that this footage is quite graphic]:

Al-Jazeera also interviewed Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks about the video.

Nabil Nour al-Deen, brother of the 22-year-old Reuters photographer killed in the shooting, issued a very (understandably) angry statement after he watched the video.

In an Al-Jazeera exclusive, Omar al-Saleh interviews the two children who were injured in the attack. Their scars, both physical and mental, still remain.

This story has been making its way through various media outlets. For example, the Dylan Ratigan Show on MSNBC picked up on it and a quite good segment. In addition, Democracy Now had a segment on the story, interviewing both Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald (who also wrote two pieces on this story, here and here).

What is apparent in the video that the men were not engaged in any hostile action against the U.S. military. Nor were these men insurgents or combatants. Instead, these men were civilians and the U.S. military had no right to fire upon them. The Fourth Geneva Convention (Art. 3) prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds” against civilians. As for the men carrying weapons (which fulfills one of the requirements for lawful combatancy), it is the responsibility of the military to distinguish between combatants and civilians. Combatants may be killed but civilians must not be harmed. However, the U.S. military’s use of airpower is a negligent action on their part since such a tactic is not useful in distinguishing between combatants and civilians. This video shows that the U.S. military did not live up to this responsibility. Instead, it appears that the soldiers were eager to kill and wanted an excuse to do so. Even worse was that two children were wounded after the Apache helicopter fired upon a van that was taking away the dead bodies. Showing a total disregard for human life, one of the soldiers said, “Well, it’s their fault bringing their kids to a battle.” What occurred here is nothing more than a war crime.

As Glenn Glennwald correctly points out, this incident is not an aberration. Nor has it only occurred in Iraq. Innocent civilians (including women) have died in the war in Afghanistan and in past and present wars. What is an aberration, though, is that this video was released. Americans are trained to believe that U.S. troops are only killing “terrorists” and “insurgents” in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this video pokes a damning hole in this line of propaganda. Killing of civilians in war, intentional or unintentional, is, unfortunately, quite normal. As an active duty U.S. soldier points out to Andrew Sullivan:

“90% of what occurs in that video has been commonplace in Iraq for the last 7 years, and the 10% that differs is entirely based on the fact that two of the gentlemen killed were journalists.

War is a disgusting, horrible thing.  As cliche as that excuse has become, for people to look at the natural heartbreaking nature of it and say that they’re somehow anomalous just shows how far people who have not experienced war have to go to understanding it.”

Soldiers are taught and trained to kill anyone who is perceived to be The Enemy (in this case, even when they’re unarmed and crawling on the ground). This is not to say that soldiers are inherently bad human beings. But, as human beings, they are highly influenced by their surroundings. If you train any young, well-intentioned soldier to kill “the enemy” and place them in a dangerous war zone where they are constantly fearing for their lives, incidents such as these will not be unusual. The fog of war dehumanizes soldiers to the point where they can kill anyone, including civilians, with little remorse, especially if they believe they’re doing the right thing. This is why war is so bad – it leads to atrocities and immense human suffering on all sides. Thus, the high government officials who implemented these war policies must be held accountable for creating the conditions that have allowed such crimes to be perpetuated systematically.


UPDATE (4/13/2010): Democracy Now! has some good segments that are worth checking out. The first shows the reaction of witnesses one day after the shooting, along with an interview with an unembedded journalist. The second segment shows the reaction of the victims’ families to the shooting. The third segment is an interview with Josh Stieber, a former member of Bravo Company 2-16, the company involved in the shooting. He left the military as a conscientious objector and is now a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. His interview is worth watching because he puts things in context and raises critically important questions the system that perpetuates this sort of violent and callous behavior. Here’s a good excerpt from his interview:

“When I first saw it, I was, you know, kind of shocked that I recognized exactly what it was. And then, as I watched it a second time and then started to read about some of the reactions from it, I guess I was also surprised a little bit by kind of the nature of the conversations, because, you know, again, not to morally justify what happened—and, you know, as a conscientious objector, obviously I disagreed with our tactics—but I think the statements that have been put out by the military and by Secretary Gates yesterday have reaffirmed that what happened was by no means unusual.

So I guess the nature of the conversation, I think, is the really important thing to focus on here, in that, you know, the easy thing and maybe the natural thing to do would be to instantly judge or criticize the soldiers in this video, and again, not to justify what they did, but militarily speaking, they did exactly what they were trained to do. So I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that if we are shocked by this video—which, again, it is a very shocking video—if we’re shocked by this video, then we need to be asking questions of the larger system, because, again, this is how these soldiers were trained to act.

UPDATE (4/21/2010): I recommend watching this Al-Jazeera segment about the video. It’s an in-depth analysis of the video with perspectives from the WikiLeaks editor and U.S. military analyst as events in the video unfold.

On a related note, two soldiers from Bravo Company 2-16 (the company involved in the shooting) wrote an open letter of apology to the Iraqis who were injured or lost loved ones in the attack and throughout the war. You can sign the letter by going to


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