Monday, April 5, 2010
It's become a cliche to describe the media as an ever-present factor in modern military operations that can confer strategic importance on tactical actions, but Wikileaks is driving the phenomenon to new heights. As both the BBC and the New York Times have reported, the organization has posted video from an incident in 2007 when American Apaches fired on two groups of individuals on a street in Baghdad, killing twelve. The video is from the Apaches themselves, and thus provides more insight into the situation than is typical because it includes the communications between the two helos, and between the Apaches and US troops on the ground. Watch for yourselves, and please note that if I knew the first thing about video editing, I'd get rid of Wikileaks' inflammatory comments. But I don't, so try to ignore them.
The group that was targeted in the first instance included two people that appear to be armed, but it also includes two Reuters reporters carrying cameras that the pilots mistakenly identify as weapons. In fact, when one of the reporters crouches down and pokes his camera around a corner, the pilots report seeing an RPG. Partially mistaken or not, the Apaches opened fire on a group that did in fact include armed men. As tragic as the reporters' deaths are, this seems to me part of the risk assumed by journalists who embed (however informally or momentarily) with combatants on either side. Notably, this seems to be Reuters' position as well, who characterized it as a tragedy, rather than murder as Wikileaks alleges.
A couple of issues do seem to bear consideration. First, these pilots seem awfully eager to engage, and one has to wonder if that eagerness led them to mis-identify the cameras as RPGs. I could be wrong (and I'd welcome correction), but I'd imagine that the pilots may have felt a greater urgency to engage if they believed they were in the threat envelope of RPGs. Eagerness by pilots to engage has led to tragic mistakes elsewhere, and therefore might constitute a problem unto itself.
Nonetheless, there were two guys with weapons there, so it seems reasonable to have engaged. However, I am genuinely at a loss to understand the rationale for firing on the people who arrive in a van following the attack to help the wounded. None were armed. They weren't spotters for other combatants. Their only actions were picking up one of the wounded reporters and moving him towards the van. Am I missing something here? What would the justification have been to engage? I'm not leaping to judgment, but on the face of it this seems outside the line.
Whatever the reality was, whatever events led up to this incident (note that 38 minutes of video were released, of which Wikileaks posted 17), this is an info ops failure. The pilots come across as awfully cavalier, particularly when told there were small children in the van they demolished with 30mm fire. We may be missing a lot of context here, but revelling in the carnage when they weren't under threat seems likely to make that context irrelevant for a lot of people.
So, what do you all think? Were they justified in opening fire on the van? More broadly, is this incident symptomatic of the new pervasiveness of media scrutiny? If so, what are the implications for how we manage our communications?
UPDATE: So as usual I'm behind the curve on this one. Schmedlap started a thread at SWJ that's drawn some informed comments, and Starbuck is all over it. And the report of the Army's investigation ca be found here. Go read those smart people and then come back here and discuss further. H/T to Schmedlap, and thanks to the other insomniacs who've already weighed in.
UPDATE II: Schmedlap has a great post you should all read, especially the section entitled 'Positive Identificaiton (PID) and Basic Human Decency' .