‘Collateral Murder’ at eye level
On a morning in April 2010, Ethan McCord came home from dropping his children off at school. He sat down on his couch with a cup of coffee and turned on the television to see a grainy, black-and-white image of a soldier running across a street in Iraq with a child in his arms.
He recognized that soldier. It was him.
WikiLeaks had just released a classified video of a U.S. Apache helicopter indiscriminately killing Iraqis in July 2007. Called “Collateral Murder,” the video was published on the WikiLeaks website on April 5, 2010 and quickly made headlines around the world.
Two Reuters employees, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, were killed in the attack, along with nine others. Two children were also wounded.
The U.S. military said it was engaging insurgents who fired upon them with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
“There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad, according to The New York Times.
But what is seen from the air looks very different on the ground.
“I was not even close to prepared for the carnage that I was about to walk onto,” said McCord at the United National Peace Conference held in July 2010 in Albany, New York.
McCord, an Army specialist, was a member of the platoon that first arrived on the scene.
“I saw what appeared to be three men on a corner. It was an extreme shock to my system,” he said. “They didn’t look human.”
“And then there was the smell,” he added. “The smell was unlike anything I have ever smelt before: a mixture of urine, feces, blood, smoke and something else indescribable.”
In 2009, roughly two years after the Apache helicopter incident, McCord was released from the military after his spine was shattered by a roadside bomb. He was also diagnosed with PTSD and chronic brain injury.
He had become vocal about his opposition to the war, but it was the release of “Collateral Murder” that spawned his crusade.
Speaking to an audience at Revolution Books in Hollywood on June 9, McCord described his reaction to seeing the leaked classified video in which he was featured.
“It was a huge slap to the face because you have all these talking heads on TV saying, ‘Oh, this is the way it happened’ and ‘They were absolutely right in engaging those individuals,’” he said. “And I was upset because none of them were there, none of them saw what happened and yet they were – a general who has been retired for 15 years – talking about how the war in Iraq is and tactics and procedures.”
Since then, McCord has been presenting a different narrative to “Collateral Murder,” one that gives a unique view of the event. It is something he does with extreme candidness.
While speaking at Revolution Books, a projector played a loop of photographs of those shot and killed by the Apache gunship that day. It is an unedited view of war the public rarely, if ever, sees.
“This is what a 30 mm round does to a human being,” said McCord. “I’m showing you these pictures because I really do believe that you need to see what your tax dollars are paying for.”
Thirty millimeter rounds fired from Apaches are approximately one inch in diameter and four and a half inches long. Used for anti-armor purposes, they may be tipped with depleted uranium, or DU, which, upon impact, explodes into a fine radioactive dust. Critics say DU contaminates the area and causes illnesses and cancers for those who come in contact with it.
The photos reveal what such weaponry does to bone and tissue: limbs blown off; brains and entrails exposed from bodies ripped open; a man’s torso, spine and rib cage torn asunder and heads that appear emptied from holes several inches large.
“You are asking soldiers to live with these images every day,” said McCord. “And fair is fair.”
Lies from the sky
With macabre photographs on display, the energy of the packed bookstore quickly dampened. The audience became hushed and keenly focused.
McCord explained that his platoon had been taking fire from insurgents on rooftops that day. The group the Apaches fired upon were five blocks away from his platoon and the enemy soldiers he had been fighting were several more blocks away.
According to McCord, two Apaches were circling the area the entire time, approximately one and a half miles away. He said the crews could not have mistaken the victims for the soldiers who were engaging his platoon, and that their claims were false and skewed so they could fire on the non-combatants.
In the video, one of the gunship crews reported there were five to six men with AK-47s and RPGs. According to McCord, there were two men, one with an AK-47 and one with a RPG. He said they were guards from a nearby mosque that can be seen early on in the video.
“There was no reason to fire on this group of men when they did,” he said. “We had people whom we had been fighting in the area, but these men were clearly not involved in that.”
The Apache crew identified the camera carried by photographer Noor-Eldeen as an RPG, saying he was “getting ready to fire.” At one point, they claim they were fired upon, saying, “Yeah, we had a guy shooting.” McCord said all this was being reported to his crew sergeant, who, unable to see for himself what was happening, took the gunship crews at their word and gave permission to fire.
The video shows the Apache crews were anxious to fire on the group again and again. When one wounded man is seen slowly crawling away, a crew member said: “Come on buddy. All you have to do is pick up a weapon.”
But the biggest problem McCord has with the video, he said, is when a passing blue mini-van stops to pick up the wounded and take them to a hospital. The Apache crews reported the van having four to five men in it, but inside was Saleh Mutashar Tuman and his two children, Sajad, 10, and Doaha, 5. Though it was observed the van was picking up wounded, the gunships fired on it, killing the father and a few others.
At the time, the Apache crews referred to the vehicle as a van in speech, but reported it as a “bongo truck,” a type of pick-up, when requesting permission to fire. McCord said that earlier in the day ground forces were attacked by such a vehicle, which often have mortars attached to the truck bed. He felt the name change by the gunship crew was deliberate so as to justify engagement.
“They are clearly lying about things that are happening,” said McCord. “These Apache pilots are clearly ready to engage. They want to fire those weapons. And these [Iraqis], they don’t know what’s about to happen to them. Death is about to be rained down from the sky and they had no idea it was coming.”
After the wounded children were discovered by McCord, an Apache crew member can be heard saying, “Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”
McCord used to be a social conservative and voted Republican, but said Iraq changed him. Now he speaks to students at high schools about the realities of war. He doesn’t do this to assuage them from joining the military, but to help kids get a balanced perspective from the romanticized version of war military recruiters promote.
On his visit to Los Angeles, McCord said he was speaking at five area schools. He says he wants to help the students make an educated decision when it comes to joining the military.
Though he would like to, McCord said he is never allowed to show his photographs to students. Sometimes he is able to show a video featuring him speaking along with edited clips from “Collateral Murder.” He said the reception he gets from students is often positive.
“I don’t live in a fantasy world. I know with the economy today, they are going to join the military,” said McCord. “But if I can change the way they act and react in the military, and tell them not to lose their own humanity and not to lose their moral compass, then things like what you saw [today] won’t happen.”
Besides the realities of war, McCord also talks to students about the realities of coming home.
Suicides among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan now outnumber combat deaths. According to San Francisco’s The Bay Citizen, the California Department of Public Health reported that “1,000 California veterans under 35 died between 2005 and 2008,” which is “three times higher than the number of California service members who were killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts over the same period.”
McCord also dealt with his own attempted suicide.
“Is it because we are doing good things for God and country over there in Iraq? I don’t think so,” he said. “I think that soldiers’ self-justifications are running out. I know that when I tried to commit suicide when I came back it was because I could no longer justify what I did.
“You can’t live with these things,” he added. “You can’t kill somebody and go on about your business the rest of your day like nothing ever happened. It sticks with you, and it will stick with you for the rest of your life.”
But high school students are not the only audience McCord aspires to get. For the last year, he said, he has been trying to get a congressional hearing. So far, McCord said his requests to Congress have been falling on deaf ears. He has even been ignored, he said, by progressive Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.
Besides what he wants to say about “Collateral Murder,” McCord said he has evidence of “360-degree rotational firing,” a military tactic that calls for soldiers to shoot at anything surrounding them when fired upon, which, he said, can cause numerous civilian casualties.
“When we are firing 50 cals into homes, we are killing people in their homes sitting on their couches,” he said. “The reason they gave us for 360-degree rotational fire, they said, this is the only way that we can control our area of operations is to ‘out-terrorize the terrorists.’”
McCord also talked about the lack of interest in his story within the mainstream news media. He said the message from news outlets amounts to calling veterans liars, as reporters and editors are more interested in reporting what officials and political figures have to say about the wars.
“Do you know how many times I’ve tried to get on national TV here?” said McCord. “Do you know that the only people who will listen to me are people from Amsterdam, Germany, China or Japan? Those are the only people who will listen to me.
“I’m not the only veteran who is saying this stuff,” he added. “There are thousands of us out there who have said pretty close to the exact same thing for the past 10 years about what is going on. But you know what? The media doesn’t want to listen to us. They would rather listen to some old, rich, white Republican sitting up on Capitol Hill versus the people who actually fucking lived it.
“We just need to be heard,” he said. “Quit calling us crazy veterans and listen to us.”