The Collateral Murder video (from Wikileaks) and free-fire zones

By Christopher Brown

It has been almost a year since Wikileaks published CollateralMurder, a video of a war crime. It is time to revisit the reality of what happened there and to acknowledge the existence of free-fire zones.

On April 6th 2010 Wikileaks published a video of a massacre of civilians which occurred in New Baghdad, Iraq,  on July 12th, 2007. Two Reuters photographers were killed and the incident was investigated at the request of Reuters and the military dismissed any irregularities, declaring the killing to have been lawful.

As a painter of images of war, four screenshots stood out for me. The first two involve the civilians walking along innocuously unsuspecting while they are seen in the crosshairs of the helicopter gunner video. Contrary to the Army report, these civilians were not shooting at anyone and they were aware of the helicopter’s presence. The dialogue of the pilots is revealing: they suspected these men of being enemies because they were military aged males.


In the second screenshot, the civilians are simply gunned down in a haze of dust and  30MM helicopter bullets. There was so much violence that even the gunner’s video could not display the true violence of their murders:


The numbers on the screen, the white crosshairs and the telemetry box at the bottom of each frame are depersonalizing. The pilots’ comments are sadistically charged as if the human beings they had just killed were beneath contempt. As a Vietnam era person, I can recall how civilians were mowwed down by helicopters in free fire zone mentality to increase ‘daily body counts’ of supposed enemies. But mostly, as I painted I thought how the American empire is the most bloodthirsty enterprise on the planet and how violence is as American as ‘Apple Pie”.

A black van stops and a Good Samaritan gets out to help a wounded man: The Apache helicopter asks for permission to shoot the van saying that they have come to retrieve the wounded and weapons. “Come on!  Let us shoot!” whines the gunner.

There are two children in the van who are wounded when the soldiers shoot everyone down from the helicopter. International Humanitarian Law states that when an enemy is incapacitated, soldiers are not allowed to kill them and are not allowed to kill Good Samaritans who come to assist the wounded.

Iraq had become a free fire zone in 2007 and it is now open season in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Gates said,”Hunting season is over in Iraq”. McCrystal is history and Petraeus is ‘surging’ again in Afghanistan. His occupying army will lay down withering fire on young, old, civilians indiscriminately. All year long they have decried Wikileaks as treason while simultaneously saying that whatever Wikileaks shows us, that there is nothing of importance to see there. The propaganda guys know that they can win the war if they can make it so that you never saw it, you never read about it, no one mentionned it to you, you did not hear about it on TV.

It has almost been one year since this video was published by Wikileaks. The world does not stop turning because of Americans’ willful ignorance about the wars.  The world does not look away from the murderous violence America inflicts upon weaker countries it attacks. These murders of innocents all ‘count’ and they ‘add up’ and they are permanent holds and liens against any American claims to moral adequacy.

In terms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention rulings, there were at least three violations of law in this incident. It is the opinion of Marjorie Cohn, an expert on International Law, that the attack on civilians was the first violation of International law. The second was to kill the wounded and the Good Samaritan, and the third was the desecration of a dead body by running over it with a tank. For more specific information regarding Cohn’s legal opinion, please read her work here: