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April 11, 2010

Lessons from Collateral Murder

By Josh Stieber

I was in the company shown on the ground in "Collateral Murder"... In this article I am not morally justifying what happened in "Collateral Murder," but I do want to explain that based on military training, what was done is to be expected; it indicates larger issues and from there, we can decide how to respond. If we instantly cast a judgment, I would argue that you are hurting your own cause.



If you watch "Collateral Murder" and are shocked, this is a perfectly natural reaction. How the discussion about it is framed however, makes a world of difference.

Speaking as a former soldier who was in the company on the ground in the video, who would have been in this video had I not angered my leaders and was left out of this mission, I am disappointed that this video has been used by some to cast such stronger moral indignation on the soldiers shown without looking at the deeper implications. It is easy to wash our hands of this blood; it is challenging but transformational to ask what we can do to provide alternatives.

There is strong evidence that the decisions made were not an illustration simply of demented murders rather than soldiers doing as they were trained to do; this is not a moral statement, it's an observation based on:

  1. David Finkel, a Washington Post reporter who was embedded with my unit, (again, the one shown on the ground in the video), wrote a detailed account of what took place during this mission shown on this video, almost describing it word for word in his popular book, The Good Soldiers. Despite the book's success, the outrage we are seeing came over this event only when it was seen visually and out of context rather than described in words.

  2. In 2008, over 200 veterans and eye-witnesses came together to testify about many of the troubling events they witnessed in the Winter Soldier Testimonies, using many personal accounts of stories like "Collateral Murder" and worse; the mainstream media and general public took little, if any notice.

  3. Discussion boards of predominantly military personal, are full of military members defending the actions of the soldier's decisions in this video.

    My aim in writing about this is to create a conversation where we can address some very serious issues; but the way that discussion has been framed probably will not change anything. For those who have been harsh towards the soldiers involved, if moral indignation is your goal, you will not accomplish much. Those who agree with you still will and those who don't aren't going to want to learn from your perspective.

    I personally grew up learning from most of society that war was an acceptable way to solve problems. The few anti-war voices that I heard came across as shrill and arrogant, giving me little incentive to want to learn from them. Since that time I have met many inspiring people working for peace with many important ideas, inspiring me to now devote much of my time towards peacemaking. But from the anti-war voices I heard before my military experience, I had no interest in listening to people talk about peace who seemed so arrogant and self-righteous.

    Another important thing to note is that when I left the army a year ago I spent six months walking and biking across the country to speak about how I came to be a conscientious objector, promote the critical thinking that our common culture largely lacks, and attempt to find common ground with people of all persuasions to work towards creative ways of solving problems non-violently.

    I spoke to dozens of audiences, beginning my talks by asking people to stand up if they cared about their families and friends. Then I told them that when I had asked myself the same question in high school, I was told many things would be in my best interest to do and say. I'd then tell them to repeat one of the things I was told and lead the audience in the following cadence that was sung regularly in my army experience:

    I went down to the market/where all the women shop

    I pulled out my machete/and I began to chop

    I went down to the park/where all the children play

    I pulled out my machine gun/and I began to spray

    I could get audiences of even the most extreme peace activists would typically repeat this. My goal was to show how easy it can be to say and do horrible things when pressured by a leader telling them they were doing it in the interest of those they care about and by the pressure of those around them also standing and repeating. I am not morally justifying these cadences, but I am saying that this is how the system is and this is how it slowly eats away the consciences of idealistic young people and if we want to change this system, we must first understand it.

    I am not morally justifying what happened in "Collateral Murder," but I do want to explain that based on military training, what was done is to be expected; it indicates larger issues and from there, we can decide how to respond. If we instantly cast a judgment, I would argue that you are hurting your own cause.

    That said, the context that the video doesn't describe (but again, is detailed in The Good Soldiers) is that several companies were patrolling the streets. As they were searching houses, the helicopters were assigned to protect them from above. Some people have pointed out that nobody pointed a weapon at the helicopters, hence they were unprovoked. But all other debate aside, imagine for a second that you're assigned to keep watch over a group that is busy doing something else and you see something that you think is a threat; you'll begin to fear for their safety and for the burden it would be if you failed to protect those you were assigned to watch over. Another contextual aspect of this is that the longer video even shows that weapons were recovered from those shot.

    We were heavily trained with this fear-creating mindset. One part of training was having several of my leaders ask myself and other young soldiers how we would respond if somebody were to pull a weapon out in a marketplace full of civilians. If we did not say that we would fire back, despite the civilians, we got chastised for not living up to our duties as soldiers

    And this is exactly the point; the soldiers in the helicopter were acting on everything we had been heavily drilled with from the early days of basic training. If you want to keep things like this from happening, stop screaming at soldiers who are fighting in a war that most Americans advocated to begin with and instead spend your energy exposing the training that soldiers are put through and demand political and military leaders to reexamine the system that creates the callousness displayed in this video or the huge amount of our national budget that we pay for this thriving military system. Because, again, from examples like the cadence I mention above, this callousness is both rampant and intentional.

    I personally refused a number of orders and eventually chose to go through the process of conscientious objection and was fortunate enough to have a lot of support from family and friends during that challenging process of leaving the military early. I was also fortunate enough to read books by Gandhi and Tolstoy while in Iraq. But for the many soldiers who don't have that support from those around them or haven't read books articulating peace, calling them baby-killers for acting how they were trained to is not going to make them any more likely to seek help from those claiming that war is not the answer. If you want to do something truly revolutionary, try reaching out to a soldier in compassion and show him/her that there is a better way to solve problems, real or perceived.

    And that's where this video can be helpful. It shows the huge contradiction of what our government says we are doing--spreading freedom and democracy--and how we are seeking to accomplish this. For those who want to defend the soldier's decisions in terms of self-defense, we still have to ask the serious question that even if these actions legitimately so, (I'm definitely not saying they were) are we not still creating far more enemies in the process?

    This video is, as the saying goes, "the nature of the beast." Staring only at the fangs of the beast prevent us from the much needed conversation of whether or not we should be using this beast at all. Then we need to be prepared to answer what will stand in its place.

    Shock from seeing this video is natural, but please don't miss this opportunity to use this video to talk about the much deeper implications of the nature of warfare and what it means to work for peace.

    Submitters Bio:

    Josh grew up in suburban Washington D.C. troubled by seeing the pentagon and the events on 911, decided to help protect the country by enlisting in the infantry after he graduated in 2006 from High School. He deployed to Baghdad from February 2007 to April 2008. This experience challenged a lot of assumptions that he had and eventuallly led him to apply for and qualify as a conscientious objector and was released in April of 2009. Then, from May to November of 2009 walked and biked across the United States with the message that not only is the wrong answer but we have to find what the positive answers are. He is currently waiting for responses to applications to college. His blog is contagiousloveexperiment