Brian Katulis highlights a telling aspect of the controversey surrounding WikiLeaks’ release of video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter gunning down civilians, including a van arriving on the scene to evacuate the wounded: the story barely made a ripple in Iraq. That’s not necessarily a good thing:
GWEN IFILL: Rod, there — on a related subject, there has been some discussion here, some controversy here about the release, the leak of a video of an Apache attack helicopter killing, among other people, some Reuters employees in 2007 in Iraq. Has that video been circulated widely there, and has there been reaction at all on the ground?
ROD NORDLAND: It has circulated widely here, but I think there was actually a somewhat muted response here, even compared to other Arab countries. Sad — sad to say, most Iraqis have a pretty cynical attitude toward the Americans. And incidents of this sort don’t really surprise them as much as maybe it does ourselves.
…[I]t was Rob Nordland’s observation about the Iraqi reaction to this Wikileaks video that I found most interesting – and it seems accurate to me based on some conversations I have had with Iraqi friends and my reading of the Arabic press in Iraq. Earlier this week, I took part in an hour-long news interview program on Iraqiya television, and the host didn’t bring up the story. Iraqi leaders haven’t said much about the Wikileaks video either (though they do have their hands full with negotiating over a new government and dealing with an increase in attacks this week.)
Nordland’s statement that most Iraqis being cynical attitude about Americans and incidents of this sort not really surprising Iraqis is an important observation – it challenges the conventional wisdom among many Americans about the Iraq surge and how Iraqis view American forces. There is a myth perpetuated in narratives peddled by many COIN advocates that ordinary Iraqis view U.S. forces as positive and constructive, and this fundamental misunderstanding leads some analysts like Tom Ricks to make specious arguments about extending the presence of U.S. forces beyond the redeployment deadlines outlined in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
A few months before U.S. forces withdrew from urban areas last summer, nearly three quarters of Iraqi citizens (73 percent) said in an early 2009 poll that they did not have confidence in U.S. troops (strong confidence in U.S. forces was mostly found among Kurds, and the United States doesn’t have much of a troop presence in the Kurdish regions of Iraq). And this overall negative view about U.S. troops came at a time after Iraqis had recognized there were substantial gains in security. Incidents like the one depicted in the Wikileaks video have not been uncommon in Iraq, as former U.S. Army soldier Josh Stieber told Glenn Greenwald in this interview.
Watching the killings in Wikileaks video – again it was filmed at the height of the 2007 surge – it makes sense why Iraqis don’t seem to buy the notion that the U.S. military has been operating with an effective “population-centric” strategy in Iraq, even as some Americans seem to so badly need to believe that to be so.
These observations undermine one of the common critiques about journalists endangering U.S. soldiers’ lives by reporting on stories of atrocities and civilian deaths, which supposedly enflame the local population. Although for American audiences at a safe distance half a world away, convinced of the nobility of the mission and the flawless discipline of U.S. soldiers/tactics, reports of war crimes, atrocities and accidental civilian deaths might come as a revelation that would have gone unnoticed but for the perfidy of “treasonous” journalists, the locals aren’t actually relying on CNN or the New York Times to inform them of what their everyday lives are like.
That is, many on the ground are directly affected by the ravages of war - even when practiced under euphemized and sanatized COIN veneer. Beyond the victims themselves, siblings, parents, cousins, tribal relations, neighbors, etc. aren’t waiting for the chyron on CNN to inform them of the loss of loved ones due to intentional or accidental acts of U.S. military personnel, or the ongoing operation of a prison where hundreds of thousands were tortured, wrongly imprisoned and/or mistreated, and then released (or not).
While the war in Iraq might be out of sight, out of mind for the American public, it’s a bit harder to ignore in Iraq. No matter how tightly managed the information flowing to domestic audiences is, no matter how deferential journalists are to the Pentagon’s wishes, Iraqis will not be swayed. The real risk, of course, is not that the Iraqi people will be outraged by a report in the U.S. media about an event that occurred in plainsight of the Iraqi people. Rather, the danger is that such stories will puncture certain myths about the nature of war and the costs – a taste of reality that could erode the all-important domestic political will to keep fighting. Can’t have that.