- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
According to the New York Times, that viral video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attacking a group of people in a Baghdad suburb — an attack that killed two Reuters reporters — has now been viewed at least two million times on YouTube. I was one of those two million viewers, and it’s pretty horrifying, especially when you know as you watch that the targets were in fact innocent victims.
But you should watch it anyway, if you want to understand why many Iraqis now want us out of their country and why the United States is less popular than its citizens and leaders think it ought to be. For me, the most remarkable thing about the video is the business-as-usual dialogue between the pilots and crew of the Apache and the ground controllers that are guiding their actions. Although they clearly perceive this as a combat situation — and there were insurgents operating in their vicinity — nothing in their exchange suggests that the situation is unusual or that they were in imminent danger themselves. The tone is calm, with occasional moments of frustration at not having a clear shot and elation after the targets are hit.
It is the "banality of combat." The crew followed normal procedures, obtained authorization to shoot before firing, maneuvered to get a clean line of fire, and then unleashed a devastating fusillade. (If you’re unfamiliar with the firepower of modern weaponry, the video is graphic and revealing). The self-congratulatory banter and occasional laughter following the attack — after the violent death of fellow human beings — is downright chilling.
This tells me that this incident wasn’t unusual, which is of course why no disciplinary action was taken against the personnel involved. What is different in this case is that two Reuters journalists got killed, and eventually a video got leaked and put on the internet. And if this particular episode is just one among many, there must be plenty of Iraqis who lost relatives to American firepower or at least had reason to fear and resent it. Not too hard to figure out why pressing for a rapid U.S. withdrawal now wins votes there.
Notice that I am not suggesting that the personnel involved failed to observe the proper "rules of engagement," or did not genuinely think that the individuals they were attacking were in fact armed. Rather, what bothers me is that they were clearly trying to operate within the rules, and still made a tragic error. It reminds us that this sort of mistake is inevitable in this sort of war, especially when we rely on overwhelming firepower to wage it. When we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect.
One last point: one of the fundamental problems for a country with an interventionist foreign policy is that it frequently does things that others don’t like and sometimes resist. If U.S. citizens do not know what their own government is doing, however, they won’t understand exactly where that hostility is coming from. Instead of recognizing it as a reaction to their own policies, they will tend to assume that foreign opposition is irrational, a reflection of deep ideological antipathies, or based on some sort of weird hostility to our "values." Believing ourselves to be blameless, and motivated only by noble aims, we will misread the sources of anti-Americanism and overlook opportunities to reduce it by adjusting our own behavior.
It is therefore vital for American citizens to know about the various things that are being done in the name of our national security. We need to know about drone strikes, targeted assassinations, civilians killed by mistake, support for corrupt or vicious warlords, "covert" actions against foreign regimes, etc., as well as similar activities undertaken by allies with whom we are closely identified. Whether those various policies are still justifiable and/or effective is a separate issue (i.e., the benefits may be worth the price of greater hostility, though I am personally skeptical) but at least we won’t be surprised when those who have experienced the sharp end of American power are angry at us, and we won’t be as likely to misinterpret it.
And that means that organizations like Wikileaks are performing a public service, by exposing incidents and activities that the government would rather you didn’t know about. The administration and the Pentagon are very good at telling us about the positive things that they do (and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of them), but an intelligent republic needs independent, tough-minded journalists (and bloggers) to tell us the rest. Because it is more difficult for entrenched interests to control or manipulate, the Internet and the blogosphere is a major asset in the fight for greater public awareness. For more on this latter point, I find Glenn Greenwald convincing.