“They shoot journalists, don’t they?”

So, the American military has what it calls “rules of engagement” when active in a combat zone.

Normally these “rules” are to protect the lives of non-combatants, but in the urban battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq there is sometimes very little difference.

At least according to the US military. But how far does the American war machine go to distinguish between friendlies and civilians and the so-called “enemy” – the Taleban in Afghanistan or “insurgents” in Iraq?

Really, it doesn’t go very far at all. In a recent Vanity Fair article about snipers in Afghanistan, one US soldier is quoted as calling the Afghan interpreter in his unit a “stinky”.

A Special Forces sergeant came up and said, “Hey, dude, I got some bad news. I gotta put a Stinky in your truck.” Afghans are Stinkies because they don’t wash.

We’ve all heard the term “raghead” used in relation to Iraqis. When this level of embedded racism is in play, the rules of engagement are not worth wiping your stinky on.

Whenever civilians are killed by “mistake” there are major efforts to cover it up. Details are only released when the families of the dead – you should always make sure there are no survivors – make a fuss, or the media starts nosing around.

But what happens when reporters and news workers are killed? Then the cover up goes into overdrive!

The Wikileaks site has just released some very disturbing video footage of two Reuters correspondents being gunned down in Baghdad. According to the army’s statement, the action that led to their murder was within the rules of engagement.

The attack took place on the morning of 12 July 2007 in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad. Two children were also wounded.

Reuters had been seeking access to the video – shot from one of the Apache helicopters that also gunned down the men – for more than two years.

The murdered newsworkers  were local Reuters staff; Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen. Chmagh was a 40-year-old Reuters driver and assistant; Noor-Eldeen was a 22-year-old war photographer.

Rule #1: It’s OK to shoot journalists.

In fact nearly 200 reporters and other news organisation staff have been killed in Iraq since 2003; most of them locals.

There’s a detailed analysis and discussion of this incident on the Majlis site, so I won’t rehash it here. But to summarise, it seems that the murder of the Reuters staff is in fact outside any reasonable interpretation of the rules of engagement:

There are really two separate issues connected to this incident. One is the cover-up — opening fire on the ambulance, the Pentagon’s refusal to divulge how these people were killed, or to release the video — which is simply inexcusable.

And the attack itself? If you watch the entire video, one or two of the men in the square certainly appear to be armed (though it’s hard to tell from low-resolution gunsight video). Chmagh and Noor-Eldeen presumably knew the risks of standing with armed men in a public square in Baghdad in 2007, and the pilots presumably were on edge (east Baghdad was the site of a major coalition offensive at the time).

None of the men move to engage the helicopter, though; they’re not “committing hostile acts” or “exhibiting hostile intent,” the two conditions under which U.S. forces were authorized to use lethal force in 2007.

Clearly the second condition includes a lot of wiggle room — but I’ve watched the video twice, and I’m hard-pressed to identify anything in the video that appears to be hostile intent. The Apache also made no attempt to “use graduated measures of force” — warning shots, for example — as required by the rules of engagement that were in effect in 2007.

As an aside, the Majlis site is very interesting. It is a good example of entrepreneurial journalism with a purpose. Two young graduates of Northwestern University have established the site. One is a scholar in Arabic language and Middle East politics; the second a journalism graduate.

In Arabic-speaking countries, Majlis can refer to congress, or parliament, and it can also mean a gathering, assembly or council. It’s our intent with TheMajlis.org to create a clearinghouse for unbiased Middle East news, analysis and commentary in an age when traditional journalism is shrinking and Americans are missing out on news from the region. It’s a site for people to learn about and discuss current events in the Middle East, delivered in a frank and non-partisan fashion. [Majlis - About]

Well worth keeping an eye on.

It’s also “monkey see, monkey do”: Reporters without borders is reporting that Israeli soldiers routinely fire on Palestinian journalists in the occupied territories. They also have very fluid rules of engagement.

4 Responses to “They shoot journalists, don’t they?”

  1. rob says:

    Good post…it’s interesting the US military say they can’t find their copy of the tape (to verify). An interesting point this raises is… would we even be talking about it if they weren’t journalists?

    Lots of directions to take this…the audio from the Apache seems to suggest ‘kids playing video wargames’.

    The obvious frustration at not being able to discern enemy combatants…”man who and where are the good guys?” – or “shoot ‘em all and let God sort ‘em, out”
    was evident in southeast asia and central and latin america. The CIA instructed the El Salvadoran military at the School of the Americas(who were having problems with guerillas at home hiding near the hills)’If you kill everyone between you and the guerillas, ergo, anything that moves after that – HAS to be a guerilla. So that’s when the El Salvadoran’s started using death squads (loosely based around landholder militias – which have become evident recently in Mindinao).

    While we’re still trying to work out which warlord is best in Iraq…we’ve moved this travelling ‘roadshow on democracy’ into Afghanistan, and I hope that we’re not reading stories such as this in 3 years time (but unfortunately suspect we might).

  2. [...] April 2010 video [available at EM here] shows a group of Iraqis walking in a neighbourhood where the American military was staging a large [...]

  3. rob says:

    Excellent piece by Glen Greenwald on Common Dreams pointing out the Apache video footage from Iraq is commonplace or the norm. He also posits the idea that the US media are culpable by treating this incident and the Abu Grahib torture photos as aberrations, rather than “this is what we do.”

  4. [...] anyone really expect the American Apache helicopter gunner who killed two Reuters’ staff in Baghdad to face a war crimes tribunal? Hell no; he’s never going to face justice for that [...]

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