On ‘Collateral Murder’ and Stephen Colbert

Much has been written in recent weeks about "Collateral Murder," the Wikileaks audio/video of a 2007 attack by U.S. soldiers on an unarmed reporter and other men (I’m not sure whether they were armed) in Iraq. However, I’m not writing this simply to repeat what others have said, but to give my own perspective because it differs in a few particulars from what others have been saying.

I have two major differences with previous commentators. First, I am slightly more sympathetic to the U.S. soldiers involved than are the harshest critics, for reasons I will soon make clear. Second, I think that my colleague at Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo, although usually on target, errs in his evaluation of Stephen Colbert’s interview of one of the key Wikileaks players.

The Wikileaks video I analyze in this piece is the full version found here. What is understandable to me is that the U.S. soldiers, by observing the men on the ground, could have easily mistaken them for people carrying weapons. For that reason, I did not hop on the bandwagon and denounce those soldiers. War is hell, and whatever else one gets out of the video, that message comes across clearly. But one important term I’ve learned from talking to the U.S. military officers I’ve taught over the years is "situation awareness." Someone who has good situational awareness can notice a situation, put disparate pieces of data together, and reach a reasonable conclusion. The U.S. soldiers in the video saw people on the ground with what might be weapons and concluded that they should shoot these people, and did so on that basis alone. What did they not take account of that they must have been aware of? Two key pieces of data: (1) that the Apache helicopter they were in, which is not exactly silent, was flying around near the people they were about to kill; and (2) that the people they were targeting were sauntering down the street in the open. (Check the video at about the 1:30 point.) If you were planning to fight well-armed soldiers in a helicopter flying above, would you just casually walk down the middle of the road knowing that you were an easy target? That’s the part that doesn’t make sense. Based on these two observations, there are two possible conclusions. The first is that the U.S. Army members involved had no common sense. And I put a very low probability on that conclusion. The second possible conclusion is that the U.S. Army people involved were just itching to fire their weapons. I think, unfortunately, that the latter conclusion is much more likely.

So, why do I say that I am slightly more sympathetic than others to the U.S. soldiers involved? For one main reason: how they talked about the children (at about the 18:00 point) when they found out that they or their colleagues had wounded two children. One of the soldiers said, "Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle." Other commentators have pointed to this as a callous statement. I don’t think so. I think it’s a statement of someone who realizes the horror and feels guilty. A truly callous person would probably not have commented; he certainly wouldn’t have felt the need to justify his actions.

My second difference with other commentators is about Stephen Colbert. Justin Raimondo wrote:

"Speaking of government apologists and errand boys, Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central had Assange on Monday night, and it was the Mother Jones piece with a snarky grin and a laugh track. Colbert dropped the comic mask, and let his true face as a loyal Obamaite shine through, reciting Pentagon lies and attacking Assange for having edited ‘Collateral Murder,’ and even for giving it that title. He then opined Assange was ’emotionally manipulating’ people – an echo of Horvath’s analysis, which denounced Wikileaks as ‘disinformation’ and ‘propaganda.’ ‘Collateral Murder’ was ‘an editorial,’ not real reporting, said Colbert, but looked a bit surprised when Assange calmly pointed out that the assertion of a nearby firefight is ‘a lie.’ ‘We have classified information’ to the contrary, Assange said, with calm assurance. You could hear a pin drop when he said that the report of ‘some gunfire’ preceded the killings by twenty minutes and miles away from the reported location."

I watched the Colbert interview with Wikileaks spokesman Julian Assange, first the broadcast version and then the uncut version. I had a very different take. First, it is often hard to tell what Colbert’s viewpoint is. He is, after all, a comedian trying to get laughs. It’s true that, at times, he turns into a hard, sometimes angry-sounding reporter in this interview. I don’t know the man and so it’s hard for me to know why. It’s just as hard for Justin to know why. Second, had Colbert been as "loyal" an "Obamaite" as Justin claims, he probably would not have interviewed Assange at all, and he certainly would have interrupted much more than he did. Also, here are some lines Colbert used that are obviously setups to make Assange look good, not bad. At 2:00:

"If we don’t know what government is doing, we can’t be sad about it. Why are you trying to make me sad? … All these terrible things happen behind closed doors and you’ve decided that I need to know about it."

Within a minute or two, upon finding out that Julian Assange has titled the film "Collateral Murder" to get "maximum political impact," Colbert does get serious and sound angry, and here is where I think Justin has his best case. Colbert says (4:50):

"How can you call that collateral murder? What branch of the service did you serve in, sir? Huh?"

But only two minutes later, Colbert says (6:45):

"But what is the purpose in letting the public know? It’s like you’re saying it’s better to know than not to know. Have you not heard ‘ignorance is bliss’?"

Being told that one’s purpose is to inform the public is one of the highest compliments a journalist can receive. It’s hard to see how Colbert was being a "government apologist."

Interestingly, Assange later states the "war is hell" view that I mentioned earlier, saying (8:50):

"Soldiers are debased in war and it’s one of the things that this video shows, that the character of these young soldiers in the air has been corrupted by the process of war. So we should have some sympathy for those soldiers who go to war but understand that that’s the inevitable outcome if you send them there; so stop sending them."

Notice that Colbert does not interrupt Assange while Assange makes this point. I’m not sure by the end of the interview what Colbert’s attitude is. What I am sure of is that, at least in this interview, he’s an "errand boy" for no one and that he did a first-rate job of interviewing.

One piece of good news is the letter two soldiers, Josh Stieber and Ethan McCord, both members of Bravo Company 2-16, the company depicted in the video, wrote to the Iraqis who were wounded or who lost loved ones in the incident. McCord self-identifies as the person who pulled the two wounded children from the van. Here’s an excerpt:

"The soldier in the video said that your husband shouldn’t have brought your children to battle, but we are acknowledging our responsibility for bringing the battle to your neighborhood, and to your family. We did unto you what we would not want done to us."

I shouldn’t leave the issue without commenting on the title of the video, "Collateral Murder." It’s a double entendre. The usual term, of course, is "collateral damage." "Collateral" is the military’s term for "unintended." But to call this "Collateral Murder" is to say that it was unintended murder. The military’s view is that it was intended, and justified, killing. So it’s a double play on words. What’s the purpose? Assange is quite explicit that his purpose is to shock, to get "maximum political impact." But I see another meaning, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was his larger intent. If a particular war is justified and, further, if a killing within that war cannot be murder as long as the killer follows the stated rules of engagement, then these killings are not murder. I think that Assange is trying to say that precisely because of the casual, indeed joyous, attitude of the killers in a war that was, to put it mildly, suspect from the outset, these killings are murder. Would I charge these soldiers with murder? No, I wouldn’t. But would I pull the U.S. military out of Iraq – and Afghanistan – and, and, and? Yes, I would. Whatever your view about these killings, let’s not lose sight of the big picture. War is hell. Even if all we care about are U.S. soldiers’ souls and not the lives of the people in the various countries that the U.S. government is occupying, let’s get those soldiers out of hell.

Copyright © 2010 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at http://econlog.econlib.org