(Warning — video is pretty graphic and not for the faint of heart.)
A few points:
(1) The video is nauseating to watch knowing that the men in the video are carrying cameras, not an RPG. I had difficulty sitting through it.
(2) These kinds of attacks happen all the time. Gen. McChrystal in Afghanistan highlights an unfortunate truth of waging war — there will be many, many civilian casualties, very few of whom actually constitute a threat. Acting as if we can wage war without civilian casualties is folly. The only reason this video seems painful is because we are forced to see what is done in our name. It is important to note that these soldiers are not “defending America”; they are protecting America’s interests.
(3) As has been noted elsewhere, the true scandal is not the shooting, which does follow the rules of engagement. A cameraman adjusting a telephoto lens looks a lot like an insurgent adjusting an RPG. Certainly the crew of Crazyhorse in the video assumed this to be the case. This was a mistake on their part, and the result is beyond horrific. If anything, we should not lay blame on the soldiers in the helicopter; we should instead reevaluate exactly what kind of threat constitutes enough cause to engage. If the current rules of engagement are producing unacceptable levels of casualties, then we should probably change the rules. The problem here is not the choice made by soldiers under duress in a combat zone, but the policies and procedures that brought them to that point.
(4) That said, “following orders” is not an acceptable defense for war crimes. If I kill someone I believe to be a threat, and it turns out he is not a threat at all, I am still responsible for the life that I have taken. We, as a nation, are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. That is the burden of a failed war.
(5) The secrecy behind this only protects the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex from domestic criticism, not our troops. The notion that this video would be “dangerous” because our enemies would see our callous disregard for human life is absurd. I am pretty sure that our enemies already think that. This is as silly as not releasing the pictures from Abu Ghraib because they will endanger our troops abroad. They already know what’s in the photos! Why would it be so bad to release them? It’s not bad PR for our troops abroad; it’s bad PR for our generals and political leaders at home.
(6) Even considering civilian casualties shows how much our notions of war have changed. The idea of a major armed force going into a conflict with some notion of wanting to reduce civilian casualties seems rather demure, considering that our army once firebombed Dresden and Tokyo (not to mention dropping two atom bombs on civilians) during World War Two. My point is that civilian casualties were not unknown in previous wars; they were simply made unknown by the governments and propaganda machines covering the war. This is simply an extension of that urge.