Commander of Wikileaks Apache Pilots Speaks Out for the First Time

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Walach is the commander of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, whose soldiers piloted the Apache helicopter in Wikileaks’ infamous “Collateral Murder” video leak. Walach took to the Army Times to “stand up for what is right” in the wake of Wikileaks-themed movie drama The Fifth Estate:

This is the first time I’ve spoken of this firefight, and I did not speak out in the past three years because … I believed at the time that the WikiLeaks narrative would fade away, but instead it grew into an evil and haunting presence,” he said. “Now, with the making of the movie ‘The Fifth Estate,’ [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and WikiLeaks’ actions are once again glorified. This story is about defending the honor and integrity of my people and my unit that served in war together.”

“We were dealing with chaos every day,” he said. “The pilots, in order to deal with combat and when you’re being shot at every day, there’s a mental process you have to go through in order to effectively operate. When people see something like that, it may seem shocking, but we weren’t operating in a normal environment.”

Note that in standing up for what’s right, Walach primarily concerns himself with the reputation of his former battalion. This is a fairly common perspective in military culture that differs in important ways from the perspectives of other stakeholders to conflict. Walach is entitled to this perspective, of course. But the consternation with which some circles received the Collateral Murder video (whose release, I maintain, was a public good) is not predicated on the professional image of 1/227 or any other military formation.

From the perspective of a citizen, the reputation of a state military unit is subordinated to the just and democratically legitimate conduct of that unit. The perspective of a humanitarian reaches further to the effect of military force on the lives of foreign citizens who have no formal voice in American policy. One hopes that there would be considerable overlap between these perspectives in a Western state founded on the principle of equality.

Much of the backlash to Collateral Murder was in reaction to the sadistic attitude of the pilots. Observe Walach’s remarks in the twenty-ninth paragraph, which I assume is a close paraphrase of a point that he elaborated at some length in his discussion with the Army Times reporter (published interviews typically contain only a small portion of the remarks made by an interviewee):

“These are extremely surreal conditions we put our men and women in,” he said. “In Iraq, you can’t put pink gloves on Apache helicopter pilots and send them into the Ultimate Fighting ring and ask them to take a knee. These are attack pilots wearing gloves of steel, and they go into the ring throwing powerful punches of explosive steel. They are there to win, and they will win.”

In the span of four sentences, this quote goes from a legitimate explanation of the kill-or-be-killed dilemma faced by Walach’s pilots to violent, unqualified braggadocio. Note what’s implied by his last sentence: Shooting up a van full of kids does not conflict with being “there to win,” even in population-centric counterinsurgency.

I have found that servicemembers are often unable or unwilling to draw a distinction between performance of duty and lust for the human suffering implied by that duty. I don’t see that it follows from the existence of surreal conditions that we should expect mature professionals to approach the infliction of harm on others with alacrity rather than resigned stoicism. That they jump at the chance to kill unarmed responders who are unambiguously rescuing a wounded noncombatant seems all the more an extravagance.

That all involved parties escaped criminal punishment has awful implications for the protection of the wounded, first responders, and medical personnel in future conflicts. The Army’s investigation of the filmed incident found that “there was no information leading anyone to believe or even suspect that noncombatants were in the area.” This is a blindered and possibly delusional understanding of the combatant/noncombatant distinction as applied to counterinsurgency warfare in a city of eight million inhabitants. Does the investigator assume that the many residential structures visible in the film are all uninhabited?

Article 219 of the Army’s Field Manual on the Law of Land Warfare states that,

“The military authorities shall permit the inhabitants and relief societies, even in invaded or occupied areas, spontaneously to collect and care for wounded or sick of whatever nationality” [emphasis mine].

Clearly, inhabitants cannot expect to enjoy this right in practice.

I hope you can see the danger posed by adopting Walach’s position as the dominant policy narrative. If, by the time his pilots arrived on station, they had no choice but to pull the trigger, then fair enough. But the US citizens Walach is serving should be overwhelmingly concerned with preventing such situations from arising again, his defensiveness be damned.

If Walach’s pilots are there to win, and winning necessarily includes the events depicted in the Collateral Murder video, then the United States should avoid unnecessary military contests like Iraq. When his pilots rationalize the injuries meted to two children inside the van by saying, “that’s what you get for bringing your kids to a battle,” they’re wrong. That’s what the parents – who didn’t vote for that war or anybody leading it – get for the US bringing a battle to their kids. Whatever sense Walach’s mindset makes in the heat of combat, it is extraordinarily dangerous at the policy level. Military commentary should be taken with a grain of salt.

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