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Director James Spione’s Oscar-nominated short documentary “Incident in New Baghdad” focuses on one of the Iraq War’s most controversial events. On July 12, 2007, two Apache helicopters opened fire on a group of people in Baghdad, killing two Reuters journalists and a number of other unarmed civilians. Nearly three years later, in April of 2010, WikiLeaks released classified footage of the incident from a gunsight camera, turning the eyes of the world toward what became known as the “Collateral Murder” video.
One of the first infantry soldiers to reach the scene on the ground, Ethan McCord, also became the only veteran willing to speak publicly about the events of that day. McCord saved two children who were caught in the fire and later became an outspoken supporter of the anti-war movement, as well as the primary subject of Spione’s documentary short. You can take a look at a clip of McCord’s description of the killings in an excerpt from the film here and, if you so choose, the actual “Collateral Murder” video here.
I must warn that this is some fairly graphic material. It is unspeakably horrible to witness the deaths of these men. In terms of the perspective we are given on the military, however, the most disturbing aspect of the footage is the sense of disconnect. The soldiers giggle intermittently as they open fire on the men, and then later on, the van attempting to pick up the wounded (a van that carried the two children). One laughs outright when he realizes he has run over a body.
Perhaps it is a detachment born of necessity. One gets the sense that the soldiers in the Apaches are getting caught up in the situation, that the sense of enmity feeds on itself. I cannot know what it is to live a soldier’s life, to fight in a war and exist under that threat death day-in and day-out, though. I accept the limited reach of my own perception, and yet I also cannot deny that the behavior is chilling.
There is humanity present as well, of course. McCord and the members of his unit who discovered the children can be seen running with them and attempting to get them to safety. Sadly, they were instructed by their commanding officers to leave the children to the Iraqi forces and the local medical care.
In terms of culpability, some of the men who were cut down in the initial fray were indeed armed. Yet as you can see in McCord's recounting of the events at the Tribeca Film Festival, he maintains that the weapons were likely taken out for show, as a demonstration for the journalists, and presented no true danger.
I’ve not been to Iraq, and cannot speak to the war there or to what happened that day. It is impossible to know what any one of us might do if we felt our lives were in imminent danger. But I have been to an area of conflict. And McCord’s description of citizens showing off weaponry for the cameras was eerily reminiscent of my experience. I remember kids showing me their guns, hoping to get on camera, hoping to be seen. We must concede that in certain times and places weapons may be visible without denoting the presence of a viable threat.
As to the “Collateral Murders,” the U.S. military claimed that the soldiers were engaged in a combat situation against hostile forces; Reuters demanded an investigation and the military ruled that the Rules of Engagement had been observed. The military refused to release the video of the incident per Reuters’s request, but someone did leak it, opening the door to one of the most heated moments (just this side of Abu Ghraib) in the Iraq war.
Sadly, McCord describes the events of that day as just one of many, citing another where he witnessed a Bradley (tank) fire on a van filled with kids, after which he saw the Iraqi police pull pieces of the slaughtered children from the decimated vehicle.
The Dissenter reports that McCord's participation on Spione’s documentary has once again stirred the hornet’s nest of controversy. The former soldier has become the subject of repeated death threats following the attention that the Oscar nod has afforded the film. The bulk of the threats are coming from the soldiers McCord served with in the 2-16 Infantry, men who feel betrayed by his rejection of the purpose and validity of their mission and, in fact, the entirety of the Iraq war.
McCord has a simultaneously stoic and proactive response to the volatile reactions of his former brothers in arms. “I did live with these guys for quite some time," he said. "I do know what they are capable of. I’m challenging their views, challenging the actions of people and what’s the first thing that’s going to happen? They’re going to get angry.”
Understanding that an ideological threat can easily translate into physical violence, McCord has purchased a handgun in order to protect his family. It’s striking and heartbreaking to track the back and forth between McCord and those he served with. It feels like such a perfect reflection of how conflicts build and thrive in the broader arena. Wars are primarily fought by nations who are hoping to gain or maintain access to resources. But the cold decisions based on economic needs are often made by those who will never truly be touched by the bloodshed and loss.
There is no one simple answer for why a solider consents to fight. But over the course of history, the heat of (many) wars, the motivations that fuel the soldiers who see them through day to day and the citizenry who accept their necessity can be found in the well of identity and the belief that whatever or whomever threatens our notion of who we believe ourselves to be must be destroyed. McCord is offering up a version of the events of July 12, 2007 that calls the legitimacy of the military’s actions into question. The response on the part of his fellow soldiers? To threaten to kill him.
Social issue documentaries can be very frightening to those they confront. They do run the risk of falling into myopic or proselytizing realms, but they also often shed light on issues that may have otherwise escaped our notice. Spione has shaken the dust off the skeletons in the closet of a war that has just recently ended, but that many at home had already forgotten existed, a war which few of us fully understand.
The director has been accused of offering a skewed and false perspective with his film. Naysayers contend that McCord’s account is limited at best and false at worst. Spione has responded to the critique by inviting the other soldiers who were present during the “Collateral Murder” incident to participate in a longer form documentary. If any of them do step forward, it will be enlightening to hear (and attempt to comprehend) their point of view about what it is they were doing there and why.
In the interim, you can look to the “Incident in New Baghdad” website for available screenings of the short.
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