Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Collateral... What?

An organization called Wkilleaks.org has posted a 17-minute presentation about an incident in Baghdad in July 2007 in which 12 people were killed, including two Reuters staff, and two children were wounded.

The New York Times reports here, Wikileaks reports here (but with no specific link), and here's the video itself, which Wikileaks has titled "Collateral Murder":


It's a troubling story - on many levels.

First, the deaths. I don't see anyone arguing that the two Reuters staff, a reporter and a photographer, were engaged in anything illegal. Wikileaks says they were murdered, and that's not true, but they were killed while going about their daily business and were not engaged in warfare with anyone. Likewise the two wounded children.

It's a frustrating film, since contrary to its portrayal by Wikileaks, it's not clear what was going on. The context was the very successful Surge, in which American and Iraqi forces mostly halted an extremely vicious civil war, thereby saving countless lives. The film itself has two components: there's footage from an American helicopter circling over the scene before during and after the event, identifying a target, shooting, and directing American ground forces to the site. Interspersed into this raw footage are interpretive comments of Wikileaks, which are openly informed by a particular narrative. These comments tell us what we're seeing, not always convincingly, and also tell us what we're supposed to think about what we're seeing.

The military and political context, for example, is wholly absent in this framing. I don't mean this on a philosophical level, as in "the surge was a huge success and this is a regrettable incident in it". No, I mean we totally lack the framework in which the American forces were operating. What was the significance of spotting a group of men standing in the street in that part of Baghdad in July 2007, some of them armed. Was this typical? Unusual? Could it be ambiguous or was there only one plausible explanation? Was it likely that armed insurgents would mill around while an American helicopter hovered above? It seems a bit odd to me, but perhaps it wasn't odd at all. No-one's telling us about that part.

The film is black and white, and rather grainy. The Americans, however, were seeing the scene in natural color. Did this make them more confident about what they were seeing, and is it conceivable this confidence was misplaced (Is it possible a black and white film projects reality more accurately than five or six pairs of human eyes trained to be observing carefully?)

The NYT report alludes to a nearby firefight. How does that fit into the picture, and more important, how did it fit in at the time?

How come none of the men on the ground relate directly to the helicopters in any way? That aspect is truly weird. It's as if they're living their lives, and some omnipotent force in the heavens is intruding in a way they cannot see, foresee, understand or influence. Until that part is explained, we cannot even begin to decipher the scene. Sorry, I insist on that.

The Americans have an elaborate set of orders dictating when they fire, for how long and at what. Listen to the transcription and you'll identify at least three levels of authorization, perhaps more. There's the man firing, the man authorizing it, and someone higher, who's not at the scene, giving initial authorization. Once the first burst of fire is over, the entire process has to be repeated before the second. There's lots of deliberation going on, and interestingly, there's lots of time, too. It's not decisions being taken in fractions of seconds, as would happen in a ground firefight.

There was clearly a logic to firing at the van that pulls up and its occupants start to remove one of the wounded. For all we know, given the way the war was being waged, this logic could be easily defended. The film gives no inkling: the American troops don't need to discuss such matters, and the interpretation takes for granted that it's simply evil. There's a dissonance on this matter between the voices on the tape and the interpretation of it which is so enourmous as to render discussion impossible. Perhaps the Americans are callous killers shooting innocents - though if so, they've got a rather restrictive set of rules limiting themselves from application of force. Perhaps they're decent men concentrating on an unpleasant task which is a tiny part of making the world a better place. This 17-minute presentation clearly offers both possibilities, while making considerable efforts not only to obfuscate the contradiction but to ensure only one narrative is accepted.

Can the military defend itself - assuming it feels it acted properly? Not really. In order to do so, it would have to divulge lots of very specific operational information which would be extremely valuable to future enemies. Imagine a military force which knows exactly what it's adversaries' limitations are, all the details of its rules of engagement, and the thought process of its adversaries. A military planner's dream. Yet absent all this information, we are left with the suspicion that the military acted wrongly in this case, and when it tells us it investigated and found no wrongdoing, some will surmise there's a cover-up going on.

Sadly, the needs of a democracy for transparency, and the needs for a military in obscureness, while both are legitimate, really do contradict each other sometimes. You'd think any reasonable person could appreciate the problem; alas, you'd obviously be wrong.

Also, interpreting human action is complicated. Whoever claims otherwise, be they journalists, politicians, human rights activists, bloggers: they're all quacks. Serious scholars who spend their lives on slow, well-informed attempts, often get it wrong. The immediate-truth-brigade doesn't really stand a chance.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

if you read about it in the London Times it gets really weird - on the one hand it is heavy on citing callous sounding remarks of men in combat (ever read surgeons' talk while operating?) - on the other hand they insert a puzzle like this one:

"Reuters said it couldn't verify that the video was of its employees dying, although it looks as if one of the men killed had a camera slung over his shoulder."

so earlier in the piece they are sure it were their reporters but they aren't sure whether they were killed? or wounded or whatever - what kind of staff is that - shouldn't there be more contact even with a free lancer? There must be accounts that have to be settled or do they do it all in cash?

Last but not least footage of live killings should be banned - it can only wet appetites

Silke

AKUS said...

Compare this with the fuss that the Guardian made over one Arab camera man in Gaza who started filming right in front of a tank involved in a fire fight.

Absolute silence till now.

But this could become a PR nightmare for the US.

Anonymous said...

instead of all the grovelling that is likely to come now they should make it clear that people who leak stolen? footage are criminals, traitors or whatever else the law has to offer on that.
Silke

Joe in Australia said...

I understood that the video was an intercepted transmission from a drone, not a leaked film from a helicopter. But I don't know how the voice track got on it if it's from a drone.

Yaacov said...

If you follow the picture, it's very clear that the perspective of the camera is identical with the perspective of whoever is shooting (most of the time. At one point a second machine gun seems to be involved).

No drone.

Anonymous said...

Silke you make two great points about theft and about our vouyeristic tendencies.

Thanks Yaacov for posting your interpretation. It is a lot more down to earth and believable than many others.
I watched it last night and didn't know what to think. I needed some direction as does 99.9% of the rest of the world to at least help understand what we are watching.

It reminds me of our open-fire orders in Gaza during the 1st intifada - very restrictive adn elaborate.

Asaf

Anonymous said...

Asaf
I think elaborate orders also serve the purpose of shielding the soldier from the terrible thing he has to do.
Also if they go through several levels of command that minimizes the danger of group pressure taking over
Silke

PS: I haven't looked at the video and I am not tempted to
- I have never been in a battle field situation and so with me it would be pure voyeurism
- but I am very interested in why I get to read a garble of a report in a newspaper that is perfectly capable of telling a straight story.

Gavin said...

I've idly wondered on these occasions if the cameraman wasn't the catalyst for the attack. From a distance the camera held on the shoulder would look very similar to a person aiming a rocket launcher. The camera would also be aimed at the action, ie where the other side is, so it comes as no surprise to me that the odd cameraman has been killed under these circumstances. But that's too simple an answer isn't it.

Cheers, Gavin.

Anonymous said...

it seems that the London Times has deleted its report from this morning and from which I quoted above and which I remember included some kind of confirmation that whatever it was could be mistaken for weapons as Gavin muses. Instead the London Times has now a heavily tuned up text. (I have googled the quote from above - no London Times but this seems to be it
http://www.kurdiu.org/en/hawal/index.php?pageid=25736
"According to US officials, the pilots arrived at the scene to find a group of men approaching the fight with what looked to be AK-47s slung over their shoulders and at least one rocket-propelled grenade.

A military investigation later concluded that what was thought to be a rocket-propelled grenade was really a long-range photography lens; likewise, the camera looked like an AK-47."

Also I have read somewhere that the whole video is not 17 but 38 minutes ... (one doesn't want to "bore" the media;-(
Silke

infokriegtv said...

Yaacov,
you say

"Can the military defend itself - assuming it feels it acted properly? Not really. In order to do so, it would have to divulge lots of very specific operational information which would be extremely valuable to future enemies. Imagine a military force which knows exactly what it's adversaries' limitations are, all the details of its rules of engagement, and the thought process of its adversaries. A military planner's dream. Yet absent all this information, we are left with the suspicion that the military acted wrongly in this case, and when it tells us it investigated and found no wrongdoing, some will surmise there's a cover-up going on."

Pretty much all you need including ROEs for the specific time provided by wikileaks can be found, including the AR 15-6 documents, here at centcom, with which you can determine why "Crazy Horse" is there in the first place. You say,

"The NYT report alludes to a nearby firefight. How does that fit into the picture, and more important, how did it fit in at the time?

How come none of the men on the ground relate directly to the helicopters in any way? That aspect is truly weird. It's as if they're living their lives, and some omnipotent force in the heavens is intruding in a way they cannot see, foresee, understand or influence. Until that part is explained, we cannot even begin to decipher the scene. Sorry, I insist on that."

Ground forces ("Bushmasters") are held up a couple of blocks north (AIFs are being engaged by air mainly from the west; first spotted from the east) and have come under fire; they call in air support ("Crazy Horses"), they clear up. Maybe you have seen the ~40 minutes video; "Crazy Horse" also engages more AIFs with more RPGs and AK47s, with three hellfire missiles after they went into a house. Hope that helps the understanding.

-mrb

Anonymous said...

after I read this in a short profile of Wikileaks (link below) I felt quite guilty when remembering the glee and gullibility with which I may have greeted their earlier exposures

"The US joins a long list of states to take issue with the site. China, North Korea, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Russia, have tried to block access to Wikileaks after disclosures on the site."

If I shouldn't be the only one it seems we would have to do some serious recalibrating of our understanding towards "open society".

But maybe this explains best why Wikileaks decided to go after the US - if it does, then the self-hating public in the "West" to be milked for donations must be quite sizable.

"The not-for-profit site relies on small donations from the public. As a results taying in the media spotlight is crucial. This year it had to shut for several weeks because it ran out of money."

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article7089594.ece

Silke

Yaacov said...

Wikileaks has a pernicious aspect to it that mustn't be overlooked. Cutting a document out of context - even if it's a nasty document from a nasty regime - always runs the danger of distorting the true significance ofthe document. Any student who was paying attention in History 101 ought to recognize this.

Most people, however, either never took Hisotry 101, or weren't paying attention as they did.

Anonymous said...

Yaacov
I agree but pray where and when am I "the public" told about that?
- none of the MSM-stuff I saw mentions sufficiently prominent, if at all, that the thing has been doctored and that there may be even a 38 minute original, instead they all salivate over the callousness of the soldiers
- there once was something about how surgeons talk while operating on a patient - the same kind of self-distancing appearance of callousness so for a fair mind nothing objectionable about the soldiers' way of communication - after all who'd want guys in combat go into lamenting mode would be beyond the pale himself.
Silke

Anonymous said...

Helicopter noise over Baghdad might have been rather frequent and therefore unremarkable, even in residential areas. Maybe the helicopters were also too high to be heard or perceived as a threat? In the video, there was quite a lag between the fire and the shot men's fall.

What I find hard to see is how the logic in firing at the van and its occupants could be defended. According to the radio, the men were "picking up bodies and weapons". Maybe the helicopter crew had observed that. The video just shows a van which pulls over and men who try to rescue someone who is not even able to get on his feet anymore.

Judith

Anonymous said...

just saw a piece that the Reuters boss stopped his staff from yelling "war crime" all over the place before having cleared it up with the Pentagon but surprise the yeller's piece has leaked and the boss denies having done what he is supposed to have done etc. etc.
what a mess - rumour mongering seems to become ever more the fashion
Silke

http://gawker.com/5512623/exclusive-reuters-chief-spikes-story-on-killing-of-his-own-staffers-in-baghdad