Watching Collateral Murder Online

Tracey Barnett ©April 2010

I don’t know what sickens me more, watching murder online, or knowing that since last week over 6 million other YouTube viewers joined me.   My fear is that it isn’t political conscience that’s driving eyeballs to the leaked US military video showing a dozen people mowed down on an Iraqi street—it’s infotainment.

I don’t believe millions of viewers have been suddenly reawakened to the plight of the Iraqi people. After all, what could be more riveting? Watching murder from a safe distance.  Especially when it includes shooting two Reuters employees and killing a man in a van who stopped to help, also wounding his two children.

We get to engage in armchair battle, arguing whether it’s a horrific war crime or simply the fog of war—dissecting the rules of engagement like its weekend Rugby.

Like millions of others watching the US helicopter gunship footage released last week by Wikileaks, I sat in front of my computer fighting off the sensation that I was playing a Modern Warfare 2 video game, as the audio of faceless US pilots’ celebrated their kill like bonus points.

“Come on, let us shoot,” One pilot pleaded.
“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” another remarked as the dust settled.
“Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

The truth is, I found the hovering bird’s eye technology such comfortable shorthand for death, I couldn’t attach a real person to the digital corpse.   I didn’t feel much.   As the bodies crumpled to the ground in a cluster of seconds, I hovered above it all, like the pilots, looking down at blood in black and white.

Strangely, for me it was the closing lines of a fairly tame print article that finally gave the mechanical images some human weight.

A Times Online piece describes a survivor of the original shooting trying to crawl off the street onto the pavement.  The US helicopter continues circling above him as the co-pilot waits for a new excuse to fire.  You hear the pilot on the audio taunt, “Come on buddy.  All you gotta do is pick up a weapon.”

The story closes with,  “But there is no weapon to be seen, and the father of four dies before help arrives.”

There it was—a piece of humanity. Context, in just four words. This digital corpse was “a father of four”.

As a journalist, I finally saw our most tragic error clearly:  We tell the wrong story.

What would happen if every news story about Wikileaks’ “Collateral Murder” video opened with a few words of biography of the men that lay dead?  What if we were first told about say, a brother who happened to be there to see his sibling murdered? Or heard his words as he contemplated the horror of having to walk into his family home to first tell the news?

Where is the sound of Iraqi or Afghan voices in our morning papers?

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the problem with this video is the lack of context or perspective.  He described it yesterday as “looking at war through a soda straw.” For once, I agree. Do you know why the group of Iraqis had gathered in the street that day?

The sad truth is that part of this tragedy happened because people needed to be heard.  Locals quickly gathered around when they saw the Reuters journalist arrive in their neighbourhood, according to witnesses interviewed by Independent journalists Rick Rowley and David Enders who were on the scene the day after the massacre.

A witness said, “The group of civilians had gathered here because people need cooking oil and gas.  They wanted to demonstrate in front of the media and show that they need things like oil, gas, water and electricity.  The situation here is dramatically deteriorating.  The journalists were walking around and then the Americans started shooting.”

We fly over war from a sterilized bird’s eye view because it keeps our idea of societally sanctioned murder emotionally manageable.  Because that’s easier.  Because we don’t’ want our kids to see it on television.  Because you’re eating dinner.  Because we’re such a small country our news organizations can’t afford to send us there.  Because we only know how to frame the battle, not the war.

Maybe we noticed this injustice because it was bigger than others. Maybe it was because Wikileaks just provided the ultimate cinema verite.

But there’s one thing of which I am certain. I still have a job to do.  Wikileaks putting the raw information out there is just a beginning. Without context, without our ability to frame one horrible moment of war into the anguish of a man who watched his brother die—we become just another piece of the war machine.

Wikileaks says it may soon release another 2009 US military video that shows 100 civilian deaths in Afghanistan.  Whose voice will you hear?


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