In media res

Two short essays that address the public circulation of supposedly secret information.  The first, “Collateral Murder and the After-Life of Activist Imagery”, is by Christian Christensen, and concerns the video clip released by Wikileaks as Collateral Murder in April 2010.  I’ve discussed this edited video of a US Apache helicopter attack in New Baghdad in 2007 before, together with the two documentary films that it provoked, and it forms part of my ‘Militarized Vision’ project (you can find links to the clip and to subsequent commentary in that original post).

CHRISTENSEN Collateral Murder

Christian doesn’t explore the content of the video so much as its inscription and re-inscription within public debates, part of the mediatization of later modern war.  He does make a sharp point about the status of the imagery:

One could argue that the repeated use of this imagery (and corresponding audio) has created an entirely new genre of military reporting. It is a genre with specific, often disturbing conventions: the grainy images of those on the ground, the flat, bland coloring, the “narration” of the aircraft operators which swings between the clinical and the cynical, the silence of those under surveillance or attack, the sound of the weaponry as it is discharged, and, importantly, the “overtness” of the technology, by which I mean the way in which the screen is filled with evidence of the technology being used in the form of the cross-hairs in the middle and data visible at the top and the bottom of the screen…

The Collateral Murder video not only shatters the mythology of humane warfare and benevolent US power, but also causes us to question the notion of neutral technology at the service of human development: a theme which has regained a central space in public debate in recent years.

But he also thinks there is another, no less sharp point to be made about the very act of reporting:

Within this context, the killing of two Reuters employees by the US military was particularly poignant. At the most basic level, this was the symbolic killing of Journalism (with a capital “J”) by a military unaccustomed to critical coverage or investigation at home. The killings, of course, then went unreported until Manning leaked the material and WikiLeaks published it: itself an act of journalism. With Collateral Murder, there is a layering and re-layering of meaning, and, for me, journalism lies at the heart of the clip. These are humans first, of course, and most of those killed or wounded in the attack were not journalists. But, in addition to the tragedy of human death, there is also the tragedy of what is symbolically destroyed: Transparency. Democracy. Knowledge. Critical thinking. And it took an act of journalism to bring these tragedies to light, an act of which has now itself been subjected to the full force of the state via the imprisonment of Manning, and the threat of criminal charges being brought against Assange in the US.

Incidentally, the essay is the text of Christian’s presentation to the ‘Image Operationsconference held at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI) in Berlin earlier this month; the program is here.

Image Operations

The second essay is Adam Morris‘s wide-ranging review of ‘The geopolitics of the Snowden Files‘ at the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Its immediate provocation is the publication of the Obama administration’s self-serving ‘NSA Report’:

The-NSA-Report-243x366The NSA Report — commissioned by the White House in August, published on its website in December, and now available in print via Princeton University Press— was authored by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. As suggested by its official title, “Liberty and Security in a Changing World,” the Report was intended to advise President Obama on how to reform the data collection practices of the Intelligence Community (IC), in particular the NSA. Its authors include such veterans of the US security sector as Richard A. Clarke, Michael J. Morrell, and Peter Swire. This insiders’ perspective, in theory, is balanced by the addition to the group of constitutional lawyers Geoffrey R. Stone and Cass Sunstein. The unofficial purpose of the Report, however, was the Obama administration’s attempt to put a lid on the NSA scandal by pretending to be interested in reform. As Luke Harding points out in The Snowden Files, the Review Group was working out of the offices of the Director of National Intelligence, currently occupied by the felonious General James Clapper, w _ho knowingly lied in Congressional testimony about the bulk collection of Americans’ communication data.

The essay provides a fine, critical reading of the Report –

‘The anodyne language of these and other recommendations signals the imperial agenda out of which they are born: The NSA Report is obsessed with framing the debate over surveillance around the neopositivist vocabulary of “risk management,” but we know from history that political liberty will always suffer when a dominant regime deems a nation, its leadership or its population a “national security threat”…’

– but it also spirals off into a vigorous mapping of the context in which the NSA set about its covert operations and Edward Snowden‘s principled decision to go public (Adam also provides a commentary on Luke Harding‘s The Snowden Files: for another review, see Daniel Soar at the London Review of Books here).  And here too, of course, investigative journalism is a vital, enabling and even empowering practice.

‘Un-Manning’

I don’t imagine that anyone who has seen it will ever forget the cockpit video of US Apache attack helicopters mowing down two Reuters journalists and ten other civilians in Baghdad in July 2007.  It was part of the cache that the principled and courageous Bradley Manning gave to Wikileaks, which released the full, unedited clip as Collateral Murder in 2010, and earlier this month Manning’s lawyers opened their defence with a showing of the same video.

The transcript of the video is here, and a redacted copy of the US Army’s investigation report (with annotated video stills) is here.

The incident has been the subject of two short documentary films, linked by a common figure, Ethan McCord, a US soldier who arrived at the scene minutes after the shooting began (more here).

The first is Shuchen Tan‘s Permission to engage, which won the Prix Europa for the best European TV investigation in 2012.  Here’s the trailer:

And here is the full (brilliant) film:

The second is James Spione‘s  Incident in New Baghdad, which won the prize for the best documentary short at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 and for best picture and best documentary short at the Fargo Film Festival in 2012.

Incident in New Baghdad

This is how Spione introduces his film:

Psychologists call it “psychic numbing.” Tell someone that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the Iraq conflict, or that thousands of U.S. veterans of our Mideast wars suffer from crippling PTSD, and their eyes will likely glaze over. Most people simply cannot comprehend the meaning of such vast numbers, nor are they likely to show any particular concern. Conversely, however, the tale of a single tragic incident can create great empathy in the same person–and greater understanding of the wider effects of war.

On April 5th, 2010, the controversial website WikiLeaks released a grainy black-and-white video that stunned the world. Recorded from the gunsight camera of an U.S. Army attack
helicopter during one of the most chaotic and deadly periods of the Iraq War, the footage depicts the violent deaths of two Iraqi journalists, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh,
along with at least eight other mostly unarmed individuals on the streets of Baghdad in July 2007. Minutes later on the video, when the driver of a passing van attempts to come to the aid of the mortally wounded Chmagh, a second helicopter attack occurs that destroys the van and kills several more people, wounding two small children in the process…

My short film INCIDENT IN NEW BAGHDAD examines what happened that day from the first-hand perspective of an American infantryman whose life was profoundly changed by his experiences on the scene. U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord bore witness to the devastating carnage, found and rescued the two children caught in the crossfire, and soon turned against the war that he had enthusiastically joined only months before. Denied psychological treatment in Iraq for his PTSD, McCord returned home, struggling for years with anger, confusion, and guilt over the war. When Wikileaks released the video of the incident, McCord was finally spurred into action, and began traveling the country, speaking out for the rights of PTSD sufferers and against the American wars in the Middle East.

However, there is so much more to the story, and I am now developing a more in-depth, feature-length examination of this incident that will include the perspectives of many more people involved in this incident: the infantry on the ground; the families of both Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh; the children, whose father was killed in front of them in the van, as well as their mother; and if possible, the 1-8 Cavalry Airborne gunner who pulled the trigger. My hope is that, by hearing from all of the first-hand participants of this tragic event, we may come to better understand the profoundly damaging consequences that ripple out through the lives of survivors over many years from just one so-called “engagement” in a war. And when we learn from all involved that this incident was not an aberration, but a commonplace occurrence over the course of many years, perhaps then we will start to understand those mind-numbing statistics, and feel the true moral scale of the damage, the wounds, the folly of a war of choice that never needed to happen.

I rehearse all this now for two reasons other than the shadow of sentencing that now hangs over Manning (though that is reason enough) .

First, the video at the dark heart of this incident – and these films – was not captured by a Predator or Reaper thousands of feet in the air and fed back to pilots, screeners and commanders thousands of miles away in the continental United States: this was close-in and immediate, and this raises important questions about scopic regimes and military violence that spiral far beyond the usual (and I think narrowly framed) debate over drones.

Approximate Target

Second, Incident in New Baghdad was part-financed by Carol Grayson, who became one of the film’s executive producers.  She is clearly a remarkable woman in all sorts of ways, not least because she has spent much (I suspect most) of her time since then working on a new documentary film project, The Approximate Target that charts ‘the human cost of remote control killing, the dangers of covert government policy and unaccountability in modern warfare.’  It’s been a long, difficult and continuing journey with seemingly no end of obstacles and obstructions: you can read more on her blog here.

BJCiq-vCMAAgpWe-1From what I’ve been able to discover – which is not as much as I’d like – the focus of the The Approximate Target appears to be on CIA-directed strikes in Waziristan.  But Carol’s most recent posting (today) includes a letter from a Yemeni civilian to President Obama and Yemen’s President Hamadi on the eve of their meeting at the White House.  The letter was released today by Reprieve.  In it, Faisal bin Ali Jabera,  young engineer who lost two of his relatives in a drone strike on Hadhramout last summer, writes:

Our family are not your enemy. In fact, the people you killed had strongly and publicly opposed al-Qa’ida. Salem was an imam. The Friday before his death, he gave a guest sermon in the Khashamir mosque denouncing al-Qa’ida’s hateful ideology. It was not the first of these sermons, but regrettably, it was his last…

Our town was no battlefield. We had no warning – our local police were never asked to make any arrest. My young cousin Waleed was a policeman, before the strike cut short his life…

Your silence in the face of these injustices only makes matters worse. If the strike was a mistake, the family – like all wrongly bereaved families of this secret air war – deserve a formal apology. To this day I wish no vengeance against the United States or Yemeni governments. But not everyone in Yemen feels the same. Every dead innocent swells the ranks of those you are fighting.