On July 12, 2007, during a long, hot mission, American soldiers searched houses in a ruined maze of a neighborhood in east Baghdad. The largely routine effort came to a violent conclusion: An Apache helicopter circling overhead spotted several men carrying weapons. The chopper stalked the targets, then opened fire. Among the 11 killed were a Reuters photographer and his driver. Among the wounded were two young children.
The Army investigated. No one was publicly found at fault.
And no man recalls things the same. Each member of Bravo Company of the 2-16 — Second Battalion, Sixteenth Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division — played a slightly different role, in different locations, affording various perspectives. They have reached two broad, opposite conclusions about what happened that day.
Ethan McCord — who says he scooped up the children — and at least one of his comrades say the incident revealed the bankrupt brutality of the war. Michael Bailey — a medic who treated some of the wounded Iraqis — and an apparently larger number of 2-16 veterans say it showed soldiers acting honorably amid the inevitable horror of war.
The two views might have remained frozen there, to be rehashed into old age in the twilight of VFW posts — except that unlike so many fading war stories, this one comes with a DVD.
First, a classified video of the action as seen from the Apache was released by WikiLeaks in April 2010. Now a 22-minute documentary of the “Incident in New Baghdad” by director James Spione is up for an Academy Award at the Oscar ceremony Sunday.
Yet for all the documentary evidence — video doesn’t lie, does it? — collective truth remains elusive. Nobody, including the Pentagon, disputes the authenticity of the video. What it means, however — and what happened before, what happened after, what were the intentions of the actors — those are different questions.
Rather than clearing things up for the men who were there, if anything, the politically motivated dissemination of the video — which WikiLeaks called “Collateral Murder” — dug the two camps more deeply into their positions. The prospect of an Oscar for “Incident in New Baghdad” — based on the video and featuring McCord’s take on events — has driven defenders of the 2-16’s honor to a furious activism of their own.
“We’re angry at McCord, because he’s making us out to be heartless killers,” says Bailey, who created a Facebook page for 2-16 vets to challenge McCord and the documentary. “He’s the only man who’s been given a microphone. His opinion of the war is the only one that’s been carried, and his opinion of his fellow solders is not one that people should take so much to heart.”
McCord does not fault his comrades, although he says troops killed civilians “every day” in Iraq because of the way the war was fought, as dictated by politicians and superior officers.
“You can’t blame soldiers for being put in this situation,” McCord says. “Blaming soldiers is like slapping a child because his mother is ugly. This is what we’re trained to do.”
* * *
July 12, 2007, was not even the worst day in Iraq for members of the 2-16.
For one thing, none in the battalion were killed. Two had been killed in the weeks leading up to the house-search mission. Bailey endures the psychic pain of fellow soldier Andre Craig lying mortally wounded in his arms June 25. McCord, in honor of the same loss, tattooed images of Craig’s dog tags on his arm.
But the video and documentary have made July 12 perhaps the unit’s most high-profile day — and the most ambiguous. (The day also merits a chapter in “The Good Soldiers,” Washington Post reporter David Finkel’s 2009 book about the 2-16.)
“If you watched just the video, you wouldn’t know we’d been receiving fire all day,” Bailey says. “You wouldn’t know the mortars platoon came close to losing someone. And you wouldn’t know the tactics of [the insurgents] Jaish al Mahdi. That’s the problem with this whole incident. There’s no way you can put it into context, unless you . . . make it a movie that’s ‘War and Peace’ and 12 hours long.”
After the guns fall silent, and the videos are replayed and the stories retold, it becomes a war over context.
“I’m not here to please the left and I’m not hear to please the right,” McCord says in an interview. “I’m here to provide context. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry. That’s my truth. I’m providing what I saw, what I felt.”
A little context, then, from those on the ground, on the screen and behind the cameras.
* * *
McCord, now 35, was older than most of the recruits in the 2-16. He had served in the Navy. He says he joined because he wanted to be part of the “good cause” to “help the Iraqi people.”
Bailey, now 28, had served a previous tour in northern Iraq and had the strong sense he was making a positive difference in Iraqi lives.
July 12 gets off to an unnerving start before dawn, with a few enemy rounds flying over the exposed troops’ heads as they are preparing to leave their base.
The mission is to flood a zone where insurgents have been especially active and the 2-16 has suffered numerous recent casualties. The soldiers reach the neighborhood and settle into a rhythm of searching houses. They confiscate some weapons and detain some suspects. Someone snaps a picture of a smiling McCord and his buddy Anthony Merlino playing with a goat.
“All of a sudden, we heard gunfire from a rooftop,” Merlino recalls. “At one point, an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] just misses us.”
The troops advance house by house, rooftop by rooftop, but whoever was shooting at them apparently slips away.
Two Apaches from another unit circle overhead. Their 30mm automatic cannons are poised, their video cameras and voice recorders are on.
One Apache crew spots men carrying what appear to be weapons. Later, a grenade launcher and at least one AK-47 will be found at the scene. But two other devices the crew takes for weapons are actually cameras with long lenses carried by Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40.
The Apache crew gets permission to open fire from members of the 2-16 on the ground, according to radio chatter captured on the video.
“Light ’em all up,” says one crew member.
A gunner fires several bursts of the automatic cannon. The men jerk and crumple and disappear in a cloud of dust.
“Oh yeah, look at those dead b-------.”
The video shows a van pulling up to a wounded man, as if to take him away.
The Apache radios to the 2-16 that the van is “possibly picking up bodies and weapons” and requests permission to shoot again. Granted.
“Right through the windshield.”
“I think we whacked ’em all.”
Members of the 2-16 are seen in the video, advancing to secure the area.
One of the first to look in the front of the van is Merlino, according to Merlino and McCord. The video doesn’t show the van’s interior. Merlino sees the driver is dead. A boy next to him looks dead. Another front-seat passenger is alive.
“I saw the little girl,” Merlino recalls. “It was something I’ll never forget. She wasn’t screaming, she wasn’t yelling; she was looking down. She looks up at me with the whitest eyes I’ve ever seen. Snow white. And her face was covered in blood.”
Merlino remembers feeling on the verge of vomiting as he is ordered away from the van to secure the area.
McCord looks in the van and, he recalls, gathers the girl into his arms. She appears about 4. He carries her to a house where medic Ryan Searles starts treating her. McCord recalls picking glass off her face and hair and washing away blood with water.
This moment is a turning point for McCord, when his growing doubts about the war begin to crystallize. His recollection of this moment is the crux of the documentary.
“I almost felt as if I were holding my own child,” he says in the film. “The whole time, I’m fighting back tears. . . . Things from that day changed for me. I no longer felt I was doing good in Iraq.”
Searles, now a security contractor in San Antonio, remembers those moments differently.
McCord, Searles says, never held the girl. “I pulled her out of the van. McCord was never in the house.”
In an interview, McCord insists on the veracity of his account — which he has told consistently many times over the years. Both he and Searles sound sincere and certain.
The video records someone on the ground reporting a child with a belly wound who needs to be evacuated.
“Ah damn. Oh well,” says a voice in the chopper.
“Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”
Searles says he hustled the girl to a Bradley Fighting Vehicle for evacuation.
McCord recalls looking back inside the van and seeing the boy take a labored breath. The child appears about 7. McCord pulls him out of the van and runs him to the Bradley.
Searles insists it was he who collected the boy from McCord and carried him to the Bradley. The medic treated both children on the way to a hospital.
When soldiers disagree on their own actions, does it affect the meaning of the incident? From the sky, the Apache camera captured it all. But the video is little help. Soldiers are seen trotting gingerly with the children in their arms. It’s all but impossible to tell which soldiers.
Bailey arrives on the scene just as the Bradley is departing. He starts treating two gravely wounded adults, one of whom is found lying on top of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with a grenade in the tube.
According to the documentary, the children survived. Their names are Duaa and Sajad Mutashar, and they live with their mother and uncle in Baghdad.
* * *
After an investigation, which the Army did not make public, and an initial burst of media attention, the incident seemed over, consigned to the private theater of each man’s psyche.
But when the WikiLeaks video burst on the public scene, the incident acquired a sensational afterlife. Members of the 2-16 had the surreal experience of seeing themselves in the washed-out black-and-white of the Apache’s camera.
McCord and Josh Stieber, another former member of the 2-16 who was not part of the action that day, wrote an “open letter of reconciliation and responsibility to the Iraqi people.”
McCord began speaking and writing publicly against the war, highlighting the mental toll on the troops.
Bailey, Merlino and Searles followed his comments on the Internet but didn’t speak publicly until now. Facebook users have posted threatening messages against McCord.
Merlino, who says he remains haunted by the girl’s white eyes and bloody face, does not see an indictment of the American mission in her suffering.
“We had no idea there were children there. We didn’t know there were journalists there,” Merlino says. “I don’t know what people in America think war is, but it doesn’t come in pretty little boxes. . . . I’m proud of what we did. We helped that area. We helped the people. And we did our jobs honorably.”
Searles asks: “Do civilians die during war? Yes. It’s gonna happen. Do we purposely kill them? No. Ethan, I guess, couldn’t handle it. He’s trying to make [the incident] antiwar and we were these horrible people — which we weren’t.”
McCord’s former comrades interviewed for this article had not seen the documentary because it wasn’t widely available until this month. However, McCord’s recollections and conclusions in the documentary are consistent with what he has been saying since the WikiLeaks video came out.
“I’m challenging people’s self-justification for their actions in Iraq,” McCord says in an interview. “Because I cannot self-justify why I was there.”
The film has won prizes at several film festivals. Director Spione says he intends to make a feature-length work including many perspectives — including McCord’s — on the incident.
The firing on the van troubles McCord the most.
“I didn’t shoot those children, and I didn’t shoot their father or those men on the ground,” he says in the documentary. “But I am a part of that system that killed those people. And I think every American is a part of that system.”
Bailey, who studies history and international relations at West Virginia University, casts the fate of the van in a different light.
“Any vehicle that comes on to an active incident like that is already suspicious from the get-go,” he says. “Maybe it’s humanitarian, maybe it’s not. You don’t have time to assess that. . . . It’s extremely possible that a bunch of militia could have jumped out of that van and continued the engagement.
“You have people who are doing a difficult job at a difficult time, and they’re doing the best they can.”
McCord and Bailey agree on one thing: They don’t think the American public has bothered to learn the full reality of the Iraq war. McCord thinks that the knowledge would make more people oppose the war. Bailey is convinced that it would increase respect for the troops.