Robert Capa, whose combat photography brought alive the wars of the mid–20th century, used to say famously, fatalistically, fatally, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." He was killed in 1954 on the guerrilla battlegrounds of Indochina.
I've spent much of the last three decades covering wars, and I've known a lot of journalists who lived by that rule and died because of it. So it was impossible not to think of them as I watched the just-released July 2007 video of two Reuters newsmen being cut to pieces in the stifling dust of Baghdad's streets by 30mm cannon fire from an American Apache helicopter high overhead.
The footage, shot from the chopper's gun camera, shows 22-year-old photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and 40-year-old news assistant and driver Saeed Chmagh being killed along with 10 other unidentified men. Reuters has been trying since the incident to get a copy of the footage from the Pentagon. Finally, without authorization, somebody handed the video over to an organization called WikiLeaks, a sort of clearing-house for whistleblowers, which posted it Monday on a site called www.collateralmurder.com.
Anyone who looks at it must be horrified, but any of us who have covered combat cannot be surprised. That is why Reuters editor in chief David Schlesinger was so measured in his comment on the footage: "There is no better evidence of the dangers each and every journalist in a war zone faces at any time," he said. These newsmen knew what they were getting into; it's the public watching the video now that has been caught unawares.
The 39 minutes and 14 seconds of video are making headlines now, three years later, because Americans are so unaccustomed to seeing the quotidian horrors of war. Washington Post reporter David Finkel wrote about the incident in great detail last year in his book The Good Soldiers and refers to the gun-camera video almost frame by frame. But seeing it is something else.
Most combat footage released by the Pentagon shows buildings blowing up, not people blown to pieces. American newspapers, magazines, and Web sites are reluctant to publish pictures taken on the ground by news photographers who put themselves in harm's way, especially if they show what the bloody harvest in the killing fields really looks like. They're deemed in bad taste. And believe me, to see such things leaves a very bad taste indeed, making you hate war and despise those politicians who talk about "cakewalks" and "collateral damage."
That same day, July 12, 2007, President George W. Bush was telling a press conference in Washington, "Our top priority is to help the Iraqis protect their population," which to some extent was true. But if you saw the slaughter on the streets of Baghdad, those words would seem very damned ugly and ironic, which may be one reason the video was kept classified so long.
Questions have also been raised about the legality of the Apache attack. But to condemn the crew for "collateral murder," as the video's title does, is misleading. This is what combat is like: a slaughterhouse in which a lot of mistakes are made and a lot of people die needlessly. What the full-length video offers, in fact, is a rare first-hand look at this lethal fog of war.
The Reuters men knew the risks they were taking. They were where they were that morning because they had heard it was a hot zone. The incident took place at the height of the "surge," during the American fight to retake control of Baghdad, and if President Bush sounded defensive that day it was because U.S. casualties were at an all-time high that summer. The U.S. Army's 2-16 Infantry Battalion swarmed into the El-Amin district in force after being attacked there several times: on the ground were 240 American soldiers, 65 Humvees, and several Bradley Fighting Vehicles; overhead were two Apaches.
As the video begins, one of the choppers spots a van on the move and, focusing in, the crewmen in one of the Apaches see about 20 people in the street. A couple of the pedestrians look like they are carrying weapons—these are the two guys from Reuters, with cameras slung over their shoulders. The Apache crew do not know there are newsmen in the area, and they are sure what they see must be guns. You can hear the voice of one crewman getting worked up as he gets ready for action, putting his sights squarely on Noor-Eldeen. "F--king prick," he says. But he doesn't shoot.
Now, two minutes into the video, the camera swings back to other men there in the street. One clearly has an AK-47 assault rifle, another is carrying what looks like—and in my judgment almost certainly is—a Soviet-style rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or RPG. These men have never subsequently been identified, but under the circumstances it is a fair guess they were insurgents. That does not mean the Reuters men were in league with them. Reporters and photographers often move back and forth across the lines in urban combat, and in doing that a lot of us are killed. But it's the only way to get any real independent perspective about what's going on.
The Apache reports "five to six individuals with AK-47s" and asks for "permission to engage." As the chopper circles , it loses sight of the two men who truly were armed when they disappear behind a building, but it sees Noor-Eldeen crouching behind the corner of the same building aiming his long lens down the street. The Apache crew think the camera is an RPG, which can bring down a helicopter. Their voices are excited now. "I'm gonna fire!" says one, but there's no clear shot. The chopper continues to circle. You can hear the adrenaline in the American voices on the radio. "Light 'em all up," says one, when they get what looks like a clear shot. "Come on, fire!" says another. The man visible earlier with the AK and the one with the actual RPG are nowhere to be seen.
The Apache fires on the photographers and the people they are talking to. Noor-Eldeen scrambles over a pile of garbage and is blown to bits by the 30mm cannon. Chmagh runs down the street, the Apache overshoots and misses, and the shooter laughs nervously, retargeting, bringing Chmagh down. As the camera surveys the carnage, the American voices congratulate each other. "Good shootin'." But Chmagh's not dead yet. He's struggling to move forward on the sidewalk. He's in the Apache's sights. "Come on, buddy," says one member of the crew, like a gunslinger challenging his opponent to draw. "All you got to do is pick up a weapon," says the other member of the crew. But there is no weapon.
A van arrives and men emerge from it to try to take Chmagh away. The Apache crew is anxious to start shooting again, requests permission to engage again, gets it and opens up on the van, aiming to kill Chmagh for good this time, and anyone who's with him. For a moment, as the dust clears, there is calm.
The U.S. ground forces arrive a few minutes later. One of them who had lost his buddy earlier in the week would tell The Washington Post's Finkel that as he looked at the bodies of the men strewn around the site, he felt "just so happy … it felt like, you know, we got 'em." But the troops quickly discovered two wounded children in the van. One, a little girl, had been shot in the belly. The other, a little boy, was at first hidden under the body of his father.
The shooters in the Apache were shocked at the news, but they quickly rationalized what happened. "Well it's their fault for bringing their kids to a battle," says one voice. "That's right," says another. Still, you can hear the anguish in the voices of the soldiers on the ground as they run with the limp little bodies in their arms and put them in a Bradley, thinking they will be evacuated to an American facility. Then the order comes down not to do that—to wait and hand them over to Iraqi forces if and when they arrive at the scene, so they can be taken to an Iraqi hospital. We do not know from any official sources what happened to the children after that.
The video continues as the choppers spot more men on the street, and they clearly have weapons. The men go into what looks like an abandoned building, and the Apaches launch three Hellfire missiles into it. Other, unarmed men standing outside the building simply disappear in the massive explosions. "Sweet," says one of the voices on the radio.
I've gone into such detail here because details are what count if you want to understand war, and those are what journalists risk their lives to get. From Tripoli to Belgrade and Baghdad, I've been on the receiving end of American bombs in military operations most of the world soon forgot. I've lost friends and acquaintances in Central America, Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, from cameraman Ian Mates in El Salvador in 1981 to The Sunday Mirror's Rupert Hamer in Afghanistan this year. Others, like the London Sunday Times's Marie Colvin in Sri Lanka or ABC's Bob Woodruff and CBS's Kimberly Dozier in Iraq, have suffered terrible wounds. Why? We are after the details that you can only get by being there where the war is happening: details about uncertainty and fear, adrenaline and carnage, dead soldiers, dead civilians, and dying babies—the kind of details you only see when you are, in Capa's words, "close enough." Those are what protect us from what the French call "the logic of war," the delusions of grandeur that precede a conflict, when costs are not calculated and benefits are fabricated—the logic that got us into Iraq in the first place.
But no, we should not blame the soldiers who killed the men from Reuters, nor the men themselves for being where they were. Sadly, bravely, insanely, they were all just doing their jobs.