On the morning of July 12, 2007, the year of Bush’s Iraqi Surge which saw 1,000 American combat fatalities, two on-loan Apache AH-64 attack helicopters joined the First Infantry Division as part of Operation Ilaaj (Care) in south Baghdad. The goal of the six hour operation which involved 240 US infantrymen in 65 humvees and several Bradley Fighting Vehicles was to counter recent attacks on US forces by supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In announcing the operation to his Battalion, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich offered the encouraging words “it’s time to get some.”
Monday, December 26, 2011
Embedded with Battalion 2-16 that day was David Finkel, a Pulitzer prize winning Washington Post reporter, who went on to write about what became a world famous horrific experience in a July 13th Post article entitled “US Shiite Fighters Clash in Baghdad” and further expounded about the incident in his acclaimed book, “The Good Soldiers” recounting his embedded status in Iraq between January, 2007 and June, 2008.
In 2003, as the Bush Administration geared up for its pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, criticism of a lack of access for reporters during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan provided the perfect foil for adoption of new agreed-upon journalistic rules to control information from the frontlines. While providing reporters with protection, the deal required that the 800 American journalists expected to cover the war would be ‘embedded’ with a specific Army unit during combat and that they would sign a contract promising to not reveal certain ‘classified’ information that might assist the enemy. Every major US media outlet sending a journalist to cover the upcoming conflict jumped at the chance for a ringside seat with little concern that journalistic freedom might be compromised. Clearly, the Administration and Pentagon were well aware that whoever controls information may also control public opinion – and nowhere is that more true than during war.
The American media establishment did not need a Thesaurus to know what the term ‘embedded’ meant: that while their reporters would be on the front line of the battle, they were acquiescing their First Amendment rights to interact with the Iraqi population, to question the wisdom of military decisions and to equitably present both sides of the conflict – independent of any expectation of a favorable bias influenced by 24-7 bonding with American boys; some just off the farm and others away from home for the first time. With the easy capitulation of major US media outlets, the Pentagon created an effective propaganda arm, reducing war-time journalists to little more than a servile body of stenographers outfitted in 21st Century ballistic helmets and Kevlar vests.
What Finkel, whose 2006 Pulitzer was in the “Explanatory Reporting” category, had no way of knowing when his book was published in 2009 was that the on-board video from the Apache helicopter would ultimately surface as part of the Wikileaks expose in 2010.
As reported by Finkel (with co-author Joshua Partlow of the Post’s Foreign Service), the assertion that U.S. “soldiers clashed with Shiite militiamen leaving at least 11 Iraqis dead and an unknown number injured, including two children hit by shrapnel from a U.S. helicopter attack, according to American soldiers who took part in the mission” failed to acknowledge that there was no away for the Apache crew to know beforehand that the group of unarmed civilians in their gun sights were Shiite fighters or militiamen.
The Post article’s statement that “during the fighting, an Apache helicopter “fired bursts of 30mm rounds toward several people who had been directing machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. soldiers” is not supported by viewing the 38 minute video.
The Post article goes on to state that “American soldiers recovered two cameras from the site” and that ‘A camera believed to belong to the Reuters photographer lay nearby.” Reporting that “it was unclear whether the journalists had been killed by U.S. fire or by shooting from the Iraqis targeted by the Apache” and that “the cameraman gave every appearance of preparing to fire an RPG on US soldiers” are gross distortions of the facts as confirmed by a review of the video. The Post article, no doubt written within hours of the attack, fails to mention any weapons being found at the site and it was not until after two Reuters employees were identified among the victims that Pentagon officials claimed the retrieval of an AK47 and an RPG.
The video begins with the Apache crews impatiently stalking the Iraqis in their cross-hairs with disturbing radio chatter that makes any listener wonder what kind of American family produced the young man who became known as Crazy Horse 1-8. In their eagerness to ‘engage’, Crazy Horse 1-8 and his counterpart known as Hotel 2-6 mistakenly identified the Reuter’s long telephoto lens - ‘that’s a weapon,’ “yep,’ and “..two individuals with weapons’ suddenly became “we have five or six individuals with AK 47’s.” And then, certain of their target, “light’em up…firing..(delay)…come on, fire” followed by “look at those dead bastards,” “nice shooting” and “thanks.”
The Post article reported that “The helicopter also fired on a silver Toyota minivan in the area as several people approached the vehicle” yet completely missed the commission of a war crime as two unarmed civilians aiding a wounded civilian were mercilessly gunned down by the Apache crew. The radio chatter between Crazy Horse and Hotel included “just trying to find targets again” and “we got one crawling around down there but we can definitely get him…” followed by “is he picking up a weapon” and “you shoot, I’ll talk,” “come on, let’s shoot.” Minutes later, “look at that – right through the windshield – aha!” with audible snickers and then ‘…slight movement from the van – looks like kids.” Once confirmed that a two year girl and her brother had been seriously wounded, “that’s what they get for bringing children to a battle” and “that’s right.”
As if that was not enough killing for one day, the unedited version of the video shows a third attack (not mentioned in the Post article or in The Good Soldiers) minutes later when an unarmed Iraqi civilian is seen entering a building, followed by two additional civilians who may be carrying some unidentifiable object enter the same building. The Apache crew, now claiming “at least six individuals in the building with weapons,” fire three AGM-114 Hellfire missiles into the building which housed three families, killing four to six more Iraqis – and we wonder why the Arab world hates Americans.
In The Good Soldiers, Finkel notes that the Reuters photographer was not ‘embedded’ and therefore had not informed the U.S. military of his presence. Back at camp, while it was ‘concluded that everyone had acted appropriately,” Finkel asks, but “had the (Reuters) journalists? That would be for others to decide” concluding that “the good soldiers were still the Good Soldiers and the time had come for dinner.”
Immediately after the incident, the Post article quotes Major Brent Cummings, the Battalion’s Executive Officer that “the Apache crew fired because they had positive identification that the militants" had weapons and were using them against coalition and Iraqi security forces." Neither assertion is supported by the video. Cummings went on to say that "No innocent civilians were killed on our part deliberately. I don't know how the children were hurt." After the incident, Iraqi police referred to the attack as a ‘random American bombardment.”
After the death of its two employees, Reuters filed a Freedom of Information request for a copy of the video and the Pentagon’s internal investigation. They were refused and until the April, 2010 Wikileaks release, the raw footage of the Apache attacks remained ‘classified.” Reassessing the day of the Apache’s multiple attacks on Iraqi civilians raises disturbing questions about the role of a free press on crucial issues of Constitutional importance. Coverage of the Apache attack presents an ominous picture of how an ‘embedded’ journalist reports on a combat situation (with irrefutable evidence of at least one war crime) prior to any expectation that the tragedy would become an internationally reviled occurrence.
The Good Soldier’s chapter about the July 12th incident contains numerous, very specific quotes and details that could only have come from the Apache video – or from Finkel being on-board one of the Apaches (as former CIA agent Ray McGovern believes) as the 2010 Wikileaks video had not been made public by the time TGS went to press in 2009. So while Reuters was denied a copy of the video in 2007, the possibility exists that an embedded reporter was provided access to a ‘classified’ video in order to complete his manuscript.
Finkel’s responses to questions in his April, 2010 Washington Post blog immediately after Wikileak release of the video are deliberately vague when he refers to his ‘presence in the area that day’.. “without going into the details…I’ll say the best source of information was being there.” Whether Finkel was on the ground with the First Infantry that morning or in the company of Crazy Horse 1-8 as a first-hand eyewitness who audio-taped the radio chatter, Finkel’s comment that he “based the account in my book on multiple sources, all unclassified” indicates the irresistible temptation of embedded journalists to report skewed versions of the facts that benefit the military’s eternal goal of sanitizing the horror of war.
As Bradley Manning awaits a military judge’s decision on whether to set him for court-martial and Julian Assange fights extradition that will surely bring him to the United States for prosecution as a ‘terrorist’, the essential question remains: Exactly who is responsible for the Apache helicopter attack on Iraqi civilians?