Collateral Murder and the After-Life of Activist Imagery

Even after 4 years, the WikiLeaks video retains its power and relevance.


Presented at the “Image Operations” conference held at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin on April 10, 2014.

I would like to begin by noting that last week marked the 4th anniversary of the uploading of the WikiLeaks Collateral Murder video. This is a coincidence, but not a happy coincidence. This is in part because of what the video shows, and in part because what has happened — or not happened — in the half-decade that has passed since the first person (of over 14 million) clicked on the YouTube link and watched the 17 minutes and 47 seconds of naked US power.

And this, I feel, is a good way in which to summarize where I would like to go: to consider not only what is shown in the Collateral Murder video, but to also reflect upon what the act of uploading this video symbolized, and continues to symbolize; and, how the multi-faceted symbolic value of the video has led to its steady inscription and re-inscription into the public consciousness during a wide variety of popular and political debates.

On April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks released ”Collateral Murder”: a video showing a July 12, 2007 US Apache attack helicopter attack upon individuals in a Baghdad suburb. Amongst the over twelve people killed by the 30mm cannon fire were two Reuters journalists. The following is the statement published by WikiLeaks on their website in conjunction with the release of the video:

WikiLeaks has released a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff. Reuters has been trying to obtain the video through the Freedom of Information Act, without success since the time of the attack. The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-sight, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded. The military did not reveal how the Reuters staff were killed, and stated that they did not know how the children were injured. After demands by Reuters, the incident was investigated and the U.S. military concluded that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own “Rules of Engagement”.

The response to the clip was swift from supporters and opponents alike. The US military and sections of the US media (including the then-editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller) pointed out that the video was only an edited portion of a much longer video, and that WikiLeaks had deliberately cut the film to downplay the potential threat to US soldiers and the context within which the attack took place. Even the title of the release, Collateral Murder, was critiqued as anything but the mere presentation of facts, and as a de facto anti-war editorial. In response to this, Julian Assange stated in an interview with Al Jazeera:

You can see that they also deliberately target Saaed, a wounded man there on the ground, despite their earlier belief that they didn’t have the rules of engagement—that the rules of engagement did not permit them to kill Saeed when he was wounded. When he is rescued, suddenly that belief changed. You can see in this particular image he is lying on the ground and the people in the van have been separated, but they still deliberately target him. This is why we called it Collateral Murder. In the first example maybe it’s collateral exaggeration or incompetence when they strafe the initial gathering, this is recklessness bordering on murder, but you couldn’t say for sure that was murder. But this particular event—this is clearly murder.

Of course, WikiLeaks has been the genesis of a broad range of stories over the years: from illegal waste dumping in the Ivory Coast, to money laundering by Swiss banks, to the most famous war documents from Iraq and Afghanistan. And, while it would be an exercise in futility to attempt to gauge which of these leaks has had the greatest impact, I think it is fair to say that the Collateral Murder video is one of the best-known and most widely recognized results of the ongoing WikiLeaks project. This, I would argue in turn, is because — unlike the hundreds of thousands of pages of material released by WikiLeaks — Collateral Murder is visual evidence of the gross abuse of state and military power. To me, it is this visuality which touched so many nerves: one can read endless accounts of, and reports on, the brutality of war, yet there are very few combinations of words which can generate the feeling one gets from watching a human shot with high-powered helicopter cannon-fire while lying injured and defenseless on the ground. These particulars image were, in many ways, the crystallization of the horrors of war.

I would also say that the first few weeks after the release of Collateral Murder, in conjunction with the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, reflected the power of these images. Three years ago I wrote the following in an article for Le Monde Diplomatique:

As a researcher, it struck me that the period shortly after the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, the “Afghanistan War Logs” and the “Iraq War Logs” illustrated the potential impact of the WikiLeaks-mainstream media collaboration. This was a rare and exciting (albeit short) period of political, professional and cultural introspection, particularly in the United States. US foreign policy and military spending, civilian deaths and possible war crimes in Iraq, journalistic under-performance after 9/11, and government transparency were all thrust into the open as topics for consideration. It appeared, during this short time, that WikiLeaks may have done something that I had thought near impossible: inserting a radical critique of US military and geo-political power into mainstream popular discourse (particularly in the US). Granted, the Guardian and New York Times are not the newspapers of choice for many in the US and UK. Far from it. Yet the very presence of the material on their front pages opened up the possibility that the murky world of US power might now be forced to concede ground to transparency advocates.

Since this was written, the relationship between WikiLeaks and these news outlets turned sour. But, the broken relationship between WikiLeaks and the mainstream news media does not change the fact that it marked a shift in how activist organizations might collaborate with their mainstream counterparts, to the benefit of citizens. And, as I will now discuss, the impact of the Collateral Murder video has extended well beyond the initial period of leak and release.

In order to consider what I am calling the “after-life” of this video, I would like to break down my discussion into three areas: the film itself, the act of leaking and release, and, finally, the various geo-political events over the past 4 years which have reintroduced this leaked film into the public consciousness.

The film itself is, as discussed earlier, from the gun-sight of a US Apache attack helicopter. For those old enough to remember, the video footage is reminiscent of the aerial imagery that emerged from the first Gulf War in the early 1990s (the “Nintendo War”). This aerial footage has been updated in recent years with the development and use of drone technology for the identification and killing of individuals from unmanned military aircraft. One could argue that the repeated use of this imagery (and corresponding audio) has created an entirely new genre of military reporting. It is a genre with specific, often disturbing conventions: the grainy images of those on the ground, the flat, bland coloring, the “narration” of the aircraft operators which swings between the clinical and the cynical, the silence of those under surveillance or attack, the sound of the weaponry as it is discharged, and, importantly, the “overtness” of the technology, by which I mean the way in which the screen is filled with evidence of the technology being used in the form of the cross-hairs in the middle and data visible at the top and the bottom of the screen.

It is not my intention to offer a deep analysis of the contents of the video. My interest is more in the ways in which the leak and release of the video have been linked to a wide variety of events since 2010. However, I would argue that what makes videos such as Collateral Murder so strong is the overt imbalance in power between filmer and filmed. This may seem like an incredibly obvious point to make — after all, humans are being shot by cannon-fire as they lay injured on the ground — but the power imbalance is heightened by the overtness of the technology, by the silence of those on the ground, by the graininess of the imagery and by the clinical and cynical narrative from the pilots.

By virtue of this form — this genre — the dominant popular understanding of warfare is subverted and challenged. This is an understanding which has been hammered into our consciousness for millennia: war is marked by bravery, heroism, combat which is often at close quarters, and, even in moments of extreme violence, by rules of conduct and engagement which separate the battle from the indiscriminate mass slaughter. As Donald Rumsfeld put it in 2003:

The targeting capabilities and the care that goes into targeting to see that the precise targets are struck and that other targets are not struck is as impressive as anything anyone could see. The care that goes into it, the humanity that goes into it, to see that military targets are destroyed, to be sure, but that it’s done in a way, and in a manner, and in a direction and with a weapon that is appropriate to that very particularized target (…) Every single target has been analyzed, and the weapon has been carefully selected and the direction in which the weapon is delivered has been carefully examined, and the time of day when there is greatest prospect of minimizing any innocent lives. It is an enormously impressive effort, a humane effort.

This is warfare as only Donald Rumsfeld could describe it. Yet his discourse, while easy to ridicule, nevertheless links very neatly to a great deal of techno-utopianism from both inside and outside of the military world. In other words: technology in the service of humanity. The Collateral Murder video not only shatters the mythology of humane warfare and benevolent US power, but also causes us to question the notion of neutral technology at the service of human development: a theme which has regained a central space in public debate in recent years.

As a final comment on the content of the Collateral Murder video, one of the central elements of the release, and the impact of the video, was the fact that two of the victims were journalists working for Reuters. Thus, the US attack was not only on men and children in New Baghdad, but also upon the practice of journalism itself, and the impact of the video would likely have been far less had these two men not been killed.

In addition to content, what makes Collateral Murder such a powerful vehicle for the questioning of authority is the manner in which the video was obtained and released. There are, of course, many iconic images which serve as clarion calls for anti-war and anti-authoritarian movements: from the disturbing footage of Neda Agha-Soltan slowly losing her life on the streets of Tehran, to a lone protester defying a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, to the young, naked Vietnamese girl Kim Phuk, running along a dirt road, her body burnt by a US napalm attack.

I don’t wish to place Collateral Murder in any kind of competition with these images. They are all context-bound and have particular political resonance, but what makes the WikiLeaks clip so compelling is how it is not only the content of the video which challenged (and continues to challenge) US authority, but how the obtaining and release of the video (and related documents) were equally threatening to US power. This was not footage shot by a journalist working for CNN or a bystander on her phone. This was classified material, part of the largest leak in history for which the source, Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Thus, as we now all know, Collateral Damage was but one component of an enormous act of whistleblowing. The power of the content of Collateral Murder is enhanced via the knowledge that what one is seeing is the result of deliberate acts of dissent: both from Manning in the form of the leak, and from WikiLeaks in the form of the decryption and release of the video.

Manning’s act of bravery, and the visual evidence supplied, went beyond blowing the whistle on a potential war crime. Manning, WikiLeaks and Collateral Murder blew the whistle on the arrogance of unilateral power, a disdain for human life, a clear and systematic opposition to transparency, and the undermining of democracy through the elimination of citizen participation and knowledge.

But Manning and WikiLeaks blew the whistle on even more. They blew the whistle on failed post-9/11 journalism, particularly in the United States. The fact that two Reuters staff were victims in the film served as a reminder to viewers about the function of news reporting in war: to see the horrors of what happens in armed conflict, and to do so not only from the perspective of one’s “own” country, but also from the perspective of “the opponents.”

The participation in armed conflict, and the use of military force, is one of the ultimate exercises in power in which a state can engage; and, thus, a critical examination of that use of power (on behalf of the citizenry) is one of the ultimate responsibilities of a functioning system of journalism. I won’t give a laundry list of references at this point, but academic research since 9/11 has illustrated the extent to which US journalism was not only generally uncritical with regards to US post-9/11 geopolitics, but was actually complicit in stoking the fires of war through an unquestioning position vis-à-vis weapons of mass destruction, as well as a disturbing willingness to play the nationalism card in both the direct aftermath to 9/11 as well as the early stages of the occupation of Iraq.

Within this context, the killing of two Reuters employees by the US military was particularly poignant. At the most basic level, this was the symbolic killing of Journalism (with a capital “J”) by a military unaccustomed to critical coverage or investigation at home. The killings, of course, then went unreported until Manning leaked the material and WikiLeaks published it: itself an act of journalism. With Collateral Murder, there is a layering and re-layering of meaning, and, for me, journalism lies at the heart of the clip. These are humans first, of course, and most of those killed or wounded in the attack were not journalists. But, in addition to the tragedy of human death, there is also the tragedy of what is symbolically destroyed: Transparency. Democracy. Knowledge. Critical thinking. And it took an act of journalism to bring these tragedies to light, an act of which has now itself been subjected to the full force of the state via the imprisonment of Manning, and the threat of criminal charges being brought against Assange in the US.

And this is where I would like to conclude: the ways in which Collateral Murder — as a symbolic vehicle in relation to democracy, journalism, transparency and state power — has maintained relevance over the past 4 years.

Naturally, the trial of Chelsea Manning and the ongoing media coverage of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were/are steady factors in this particular film maintaining currency. During Manning’s trial and sentencing — events, I should note, which received relatively little media coverage in the US given the volume of Manning’s material used by news outlets — the video was perhaps one of the central pieces of visual evidence underpinning Manning’s contention that she was acting out of a desire to expose US abuses of power, rather than an attempt to undermine the United States driven by anti-American sentiment.

In much the same way, WikiLeaks is intrinsically linked to the film. As the organization has seen threats from the US government, a cutting-off of financial resources due to a corporate blockade (itself the result of threats from the US government) and the current legal problems facing founder Julian Assange, Collateral Murder has been referenced and re-referenced as evidence of WikiLeaks’ importance. Again, this is not to suggest that the other material leaked by WikiLeaks, or the copious volume of written material it has released, are any less important or vital, but rather that this short film has established itself as an organizational touchstone in the minds of many.

Following Manning’s conviction and sentencing, there emerged a new whistleblower: Edward Snowden. With the explosion of material released by Snowden to the then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald evolved substantial popular debates on technology, the use and abuse of state power and journalism (and, in many cases, a combination of these areas). Snowden and Manning were often linked under the “Whistleblower” title, and Snowden’s revelations about the abuse of US power through mass surveillance via high technology has fed into much of the discourse on violence and technology.

In the media in general, and amongst social media users in particular, Snowden, Manning, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, Assange, Barrett Brown and Aaron Swartz are discussed as a general collection of individuals and groups with a common goal. As I have noted earlier, what is interesting about the people listed here is that they have all seen their actions criminalized: in the case of Manning, Brown and Swartz in real terms, and in the case of Snowden and Assange in terms of potential prosecution. In these discussions, the Collateral Murder video emerges and re-emerges as one component of a larger body of material exposing abuses of US power. The release of this video, as with the release of the NSA documents from Snowden, the link by Barrett Brown and the articles by Swartz, was met by the state with threats of wildly excessive prison terms. As I also wrote earlier:

The irony is, were Manning a Chinese, Iranian or Cuban soldier who had exposed potential war crimes committed by his government, his solitary confinement and impending life sentence would be held up as evidence of the barbarity and anti-democratic tendencies of the “regimes” in question, and calls would be made for his release on “humanitarian” grounds. As it is, Manning (like Swartz) is being given the 1986 crack cocaine treatment by the US government: the threat of a wildly excessive prison sentence, at odds with both logic and law, for the purpose of crushing the individual in question.

Within this punitive logic of the state, it is the act of releasing the material — the video, the documents, the link — which is the crime. (And, I would note that it is not only the state which takes this position, but also certain segments of the media.) What is actually contained within the video, the document or the link is dismissed as secondary, or within the rights of the security state. And this is how Collateral Murder continues to maintain relevance and capital: although it is snapshot of a place in time, it is a recording of a crime. In this way, the content is universal and timeless. Yet because its very existence is the product of multiple act of dissent—dissent which is criminalized—the video, Manning and WikiLeaks find themselves as part of a much broader discussion about the nature of transparency, justice and democracy.

The story of Collateral Murder — as with Snowden, surveillance, drones — is about how the very exposure of a crime was itself defined a crime, and that we are told, with no hint of irony, that the real threat to democracy is the fact that we have access to these pictures or documents at all. With logic like that, there is little wonder that these forms of dissent are likely to continue.