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.