A recent Guardian story in which I called out the United States (US) military’s lies over the killing of Reuters staff Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh in Baghdad in 2007 put the actions of two American pilots back in the spotlight.
The pilots flew the Apache helicopter gunship — call sign Crazy Horse 1-8 — that killed Namir, Saeed, 10 other Iraqis and wounded two children. I did various media interviews in the weeks after that story by Paul Daley was published.
It was Julian Assange’s release of a 38-minute recording of the attack that showed people around the world what the war in Iraq really looked like. I’ve urged my government to bring Julian home, so he is not extradited from Britain to Trump’s America. I was a guest on a panel hosted by the Don’t Extradite Assange campaign.
During those public appearances, clips from the recording have been played. It’s been nearly three years since I watched the tape, but I know some of the pilot banter off by heart. I instantly recognise their voices. I know how the attack unfolds. It’s hard to watch Namir and Saeed, two men I was responsible for as Reuters Baghdad bureau chief, die again and again.
Nevertheless, I would show compassion to the pilots.
I tried to contact them in late 2016. I wanted to know if they’d suffered as a result of what they did on July 12, 2007. Did they have PTSD? Moral injury? How did the release of the tape affect them?
I spent a lot of time thinking about the pilots in 2016 and 2017. During the third week of my first admission to the Ward 17 psychiatric unit in Melbourne in August and September 2016, I wondered if they felt remorse. I’d feel compassion for them if they did, I wrote in my journal. That was in stark contrast to a week earlier, when I railed at them in a session with my psychiatrist.
The context for the sudden change of heart was my own self-reflection. Wanting to atone for not keeping Namir and Saeed safe was among the chief reasons for my own moral reckoning. I also read about how U.S. military training methods desensitised its soldiers and made it easier to kill because soldiers “engaged” targets instead of human beings.
I decided to try to contact the pilots towards the end of 2016 after Reuters published a story I wrote called The Road to Ward 17: My Battle With PTSD.
To an intermediary, I said: “I want to stress that I am not looking for retribution… After my initial story was published a few weeks ago, I’m now exploring in greater detail how that day affected not just me, but others. I would like to ask the pilots how it affected them … at the time as well as nine years later, and how the release of the video in 2010 impacted on them.”
I hoped to write a follow-up story as part of my journey, I said. I’d understand if the pilots wanted to remain anonymous, I added.
This person wrote back, saying he’d forward my message. He doubted they would talk to me.
“The time for remonstration and anger has passed,” I wrote back. “It’s time to heal. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of moral injury and how it relates to soldiers who feel guilty about something they did or didn’t do on the battlefield. Having read a lot about moral injury in recent months, I feel certain that this accurately describes my guilt and shame over my dead staff.”
My intermediary went quiet for a few weeks. I chased him up in early 2017. He apologised for the late reply, saying he’d only kept in touch with two of the four pilots in the air that day. He didn’t say which ones. I’d assumed they were both from Crazy Horse 1-8. They might have been. This person said one pilot understood why I wanted to talk but wanted to put the event behind him. The other didn’t reply to his message.
I was admitted to Ward 17 a second time on June 28, 2017. I couldn’t cope with the approaching tenth anniversary of the deaths of Namir and Saeed. In Ward 17, a spiritual care worker helped me plan a memorial service in a chapel where I asked Namir and Saeed to forgive me. Unexpectedly, I also forgave myself.
In the chapel, I read aloud a 4800-word letter to Namir and Saeed. I told them that when the video was released in 2010, I hated the pilots. I said it was only in the past year that I’d come to fully realise what training does to soldiers.
“Namir and Saeed — I believe that for healing to take place, for there to be a sense of peace among people who will be forever tied to an act of extreme violence, there needs to be reconciliation,” I read.
I met many Australian veterans during my three admissions to Ward 17. Some were haunted by what they did, or did not do, in wartime. All felt abandoned by a government that trained them to kill but hung them out to dry when they got sick with PTSD/moral injury. When they became damaged goods, like me.
I’ve been asked in the past month if the pilots should be prosecuted. That’s not a question for me to answer. I think the more important question is how to prosecute the architects of the invasion of Iraq — Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and co: The men who put those pilots in the air in the first place.