Video from Iraq war has lessons US should heed

Posted: Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Kansas City Star:

The public outrage over the leaked U.S. military video of a tragic mistake that littered a Baghdad street with civilian dead, including two journalists, comes from the cold language, the laughter of the soldiers working the guns.

But the real horror from the 2007 incident should come from the policy that led to that moment. It's clear in the video those in the helicopter arrived with a mind-set, amid a highly dangerous insurgency, that Iraqis were enemies. They did not come to this conclusion on their own. In fact, it reflects both U.S. policy and the incredible difficulty of successfully even defining, much less carrying out, a mission such as the one this nation faced in Iraq, and now faces in Afghanistan.

Given the attitude these men had when their helicopters arrived on the scene, in fact, the outcome was inevitable. Beyond mourning American involvement in a truly horrible moment, beyond what has to be a shared and deep regret for those who died and their families, lessons must be drawn from this video. They must be applied in Afghanistan, and beyond (if the United States is to continue nation-building).

The language in the video, particularly the cold-blooded moment when one soldier fixes his crosshairs on a wounded Iraqi, who turns out to be a Reuters news service employee on assignment, and utters: "All you gotta do is pick up a weapon" to justify his kill shot is shocking, but it's also the language of war. It's clear from the taped conversation, the back-and-forth between the gunners and their commanders, that they were sent into this situation with the knowledge that their survival is at risk, and that when they start shooting, they are fighting the good fight.

This goes against the nature of nation-building, or peacekeeping missions. Civilian casualties have to be avoided at all costs in such situations or we risk increasing the resentment of the United States that already exists in much of the world. To build a nation, we have to retain focus on the fact that this is not our turf, and that firefights have to be avoided, not initiated.

As we increase the number and intensity of missions in Afghanistan, this is an essential lesson. It's a terrifying, dangerous job that we've sent our military to do in Afghanistan. We owe them rules of engagement that will help avoid the backlash we're seeing as a result of language and actions depicted on the leaked video.



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