This weekend marks the fifth anniversary of the release of the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video which showed a July 12, 2007 US Apache attack helicopter attack upon individuals in a Baghdad suburb. Amongst the over twelve people killed by the 30mm cannon-fire were two Reuters staff. The video was part of the huge cache of material leaked to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning.
It is worth marking the anniversary of its release for a number of reasons.
First is the film’s enduring, haunting quality. I have written numerous articles and conference papers on Collateral Murder, which I consider to be the one of the most influential pieces of material released by WikiLeaks. Yes, WikiLeaks has made public a massive volume of written information, but the raw emotional power of this video is special. Every time I show it to students or colleagues it never fails to elicit a strong emotional reaction. Some people can’t watch. Some look away. Many are mesmerized. Almost all get angry.
In a statement by Manning made during her 2013 trial she outlined her motivations for the leak, stating (in relation to Collateral Murder) that one of the most disturbing aspects was the “bloodlust” exhibited by the US military. At one point we can hear members of the aerial weapons team begging a wounded Iraqi to pick up a weapon so that they would have a reason open fire on him once again. This, as Manning put it, was “similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.” The violence in the video is both dehumanizing and grotesque, and serves to remind viewers of the perversity of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as the subsequent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
This brings me to the second reason why the video is so important.
In the film we see two Reuters staffers killed by US military cannon-fire, and the symbolism of this act is striking. The lead-up to the US occupation of Iraq was marked by a high level of government propaganda and disinformation, as well the failure of mainstream journalism in the United States to engage (in a critical fashion) with the claims made by the Bush administration that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. So, to me, when those two Reuters employees are blown to bits on the ground in the suburb of New Baghdad, their deaths symbolized all state violence committed against those who search for the truth. In addition to the tragedy of human death, there is also the tragedy of what is symbolically destroyed. Transparency. Democracy. Knowledge. Critical thinking.
Finally, what makes Collateral Murder such a powerful video is not only what it shows, but also the knowledge of how it was obtained. This was classified material, seen by a US citizen who felt that it violated the things for which her country was supposed to stand, and so she leaked it (aware of what this might entail at the personal level) for all the world to see. If the content of the video illustrates the violent arrogance of power, then the leak of the video illustrates the potential power of dissent and courage. As we now know, such dissent is not taken lightly as Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison as thanks for her act of conscience.
So, as Collateral Murder turns five, rather than looking at the video as a curiosity from a bygone conflict, we should watch it again and consider how the film continues to speak to us about the state of contemporary geo-politics, journalism and whistleblowing. How much has actually changed? Manning continues to sit in jail. Snowden continues to sit in Russia. Civilians continue to die in Iraq. US drones continue to kill civilians. And whistle-blowers continue to be targeted.