Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In case you haven't been following the news, Wikileaks.org recently posted a video showing American helicopter pilots firing on Iraqis in Baghdad in 2007.  I've embedded the shortest version below the fold.

I won't rehash the whole saga here - check NYT or WaPo for the background - but the short version is that among those killed in the attack were two Reuters employees.  Reuters has been pressing the US military for information about the death of their employees without success.  Additionally, the attitude, disposition, and actions of the pilots has been called into question.  See here, here, or here for some insight into the issue.

I have two primary takeaways.

First, without knowing the ROEs and situation, I'm hesitant to condemn the pilots.  While I too find their language overly-enthusiastic, that alone doesn't make their actions wrong. 
They did receive permission to engage, and several people were armed.  It's easy to judge the situation innocuous and their actions unjustified three years after the fact and from the safety of home.  That said, the military should conduct a thorough investigation.  The video along presents enough information to warrant a full inquiry.

This incident illustrates Clausewitz's "fog" and "friction" of war.  Clausewitz posited that battle is inherently chaotic and information always murky.  Because of these factors, plans can never be executed as designed and warfare decisions are often made based upon incomplete or inaccurate information.  In Iraq, the plan calls for U.S. forces to engage militants with deadly force but protect civilians.  While this sounds straightforward, in practice it is incredibly difficult to implement.

Secondly, the fact that the military suppressed this information, covered up the incident, and refused to help Reuters determine the fate of their employees is troubling.  If the pilots acted improperly, they should face discipline.  If the military feels the pilots acted correctly, than why would they bury the incident and stonewall Reuters?  I understand the urge to avoid negative publicity, but in this case the actions of the military are worrisome.

I'll be following this story closely and will be updating as new information emerges.

UPDATE: April 7, 4:30PM

A few more thoughts about the implications and fallout from this incident:

Globally, this footage will damage U.S. efforts to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Efforts to "win the hearts and minds" will take a major hit, and insurgent and terrorist actors will receive a recruiting boost. Some pundits have already invoked Abu Ghraib as a comparison, and while this footage is not as severe as the prison torture it will similarly harm U.S. interests and stature worldwide.

The entire affair is tragic and disturbing. But it should serve as a reminder of the overwhelming complexity of war, especially as continue to withdraw soldiers from Iraq and mount new offensives in Afghanistan. The words of Clausewitz still hold true:

"The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently - like the effect of a fog or moonshine - gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance."

Warning 1: The video is graphic and disturbing, so be prepared
Warning 2: I wish I could edit out the unnecessary and inflammatory commentary Wikileaks included, but I don't know how - my advice is to disregard their commentary


Anonymous said...

Watch the whole tape. The pilots were sadistic and juvenile. We'll pay for this enormously. Consider the case in Afghanistan, confirmed to have been "murder" by Special Forces. We'll pay for that too.

Drew said...

Yeah, my main concern is how they handled the van situation specifically. While I could see a possible danger with the group suspiciously peering around the wall and carrying objects that look like weapons, when the van arrived it just seemed like the gunner was itching to shoot some more. I didn't see anything that looked remotely suspicious. The only thing I'd think you'd be able to interpret from that situation was that there were some people trying to care for the wounded, and firing upon them seemed like a gross infringement of the Geneva Conventions.

But yeah I agree with you. In war, there are going to be mistakes. You have to assess a situation and react quickly. I just don't like them *wanting* them to go for a gun so they can shoot them, or reacting with a flippant "Ah damn, oh well" when they learn that they injured a child. That's just disturbing.

Jeff Schneider said...

Dave -- first, great piece. @Drew -- I agree with alot of what you have said here, but I think some context needs injecting here. On NPR today a reporter imbedded with the Bradley column that these 2 Apaches were providing danger-close air support for was interviewed about the day of this incident (i will find the podcast)-- it was evidently one marred by incredibly high levels of violence, with multiple casualties.

While I too find the language and behavior of the pilots to be inflammatory (to say the least), I think alot of what we are hearing in their commentary and tones of voice is the result of hearing their buddies on the ground getting chewed up reasonably well, as well as their own adrenaline rush/masked fear. I think specifically we hear that fear in the voice of the gunner as he spots a man holding an RPG -- something that would threaten the aircraft, followed by the live fire incident.

After the incident/attack, we hear the pilots and gunners laughing and relaxing -- which to me seems insanely human. Flawed, and horrifying when placed out of context, but uniquely human.

@Guest 16:35 -- I don't see the sadism or the juvenility, I hear scared kids in a warzone trying to mask their fear and uncertainty, placed in one of the most deadly weapons platforms imaginable. A horrifying, reprehensible, and dangerous scenario unfolded as a result -- but in this, I don't see sadistic men, but exactly what Dave has highlighted hear -- the fog and friction of war.

This was a tragedy of errors -- on all sides. It was a (marginal) error of target identification -- I say marginal because RPG's and AK47's were present at the scene -- and a few blocks over there was direct contact with insurgent forces. It was an error of communication -- the Reuters employees followed the story, but informed none of the combatants as to where they were going, the result being the ground commander clearing the Apaches to engage, since he knew of no elements of his forces (or non-combatants) in the region they were patrolling. It was a horrific accident, the kind that unfortunately comes with war.

This does not excuse it, nor does it clear those involved, but I wonder how this situation could have unfolded differently. It boils down to scared pilots, unclear targets, intense combat, and a 3"x3" targeting screen in a moving helicopter in a danger zone. War's fog and friction create this situations, which is why War cannot be without unintended consequences -- and why it must be undertaken as the last possible resort for any nation. I see nothing but the victims of War in this video. The victims of a 30mil chain gun, and the living victims who must now live with the deaths of children and civilians, deaths they were responsible for.

Jeff Schneider said...

Also, I want to apologize for the horrendous typos in my comment above. It's late, and I'm going to bed.

Drew said...

@Jeff - I can see a lot of what you mean here. I mean, looking at it from a different perspective, the length of time it takes the helicopter to make the full circle around, and the fact that for a long time they would be in a position where they wouldn't have a clear view of what was going on, necessitated quick, decisive action. I understand that the gunner and pilot were trying to act quickly in order to potentially save lives or what not, and that they are severely limited in being able to determine the exact situation on the ground (i.e., they wouldn't have known about the children in the van). Also, I understand the humanity of it. I wouldn't expect the gunner or the pilot to have a severe emotional outburst of regret or sadness after learning more of the situation. I think Dave's perspective is a great one. No one knows what they'd do in this situation, no matter how much you may believe from viewing the video from the safety of your computer. They are in a position to analyse it more carefully after the fact, and not have to be in a position to make these difficult calls (especially since most people watching the video will already know the context, and be looking for the evidence against the potential threat).

I can't pretend to know what I'd do if I were in their position. I imagine I'd do what I was trained to do. I still just wish they'd be a tinsy bit more careful with their attitudes and language. That is what I think most people are infuriated about when they watch this video. While you may see them as acting human, most people (myself included) are disturbed by their jocular attitude about what is happening on the ground, and see that as inhuman. That said I do feel bad for all people involved in this unfortunate and horrifying situation. While they may act shockingly distant about the children caught in the fire, like you said they're going to have to live with this. It is tragic.

Thanks for the context, Dave and Jeff. I actually didn't know all the details of the situation. It's hard not to see videos like this posted on Reddit or Digg and avoid jumping to conclusions based entirely on gut feelings. Yet another reason why I really, really like your blog, guys. You're all pros.

Drew said...

@Jeff - <gasp> Typos! Your entire argument has been invalidated!</gasp>

Anonymous said...

Let's hyper-analyze the situation until responsibility is completely washed away. Moral dwarfs. It reminds me of the memoirs of certain nazi children whose parents could justify the entire operation through detailed analysis and context, and the children who couldn't live with the excuses. This is how wrongs becomes rights. In fact, instead of looking for lame excuses and using amateur psychology to "understand" the perpetrators of these vile acts, you should be analyzing the likely fallout of this information throughout the Muslim world and those pockets in the West where people still recognize right from wrong (lamentably shrinking pockets.) If this ain't international relations what is?

Homelesseus said...

Dave's not a "dwarf". He sees it clearly. Check out Greenwald at Salon today. He calls it correctly. 3 issues: our right to know, the corruption of military culture, and the propaganda cost to the US. To trust the military first seems naive and a bit childish. They've lied so often in the past that one should expect lies from them, and when they tell the truth one should see it no more than the accidental convergence of what they wanted to happen and what did happen. Cowards lie and cheat.

Jeff Schneider said...

@Drew -- thanks so much for your thoughtful comments here, and thanks for reading. The best part of this blog is the chance to discuss these issues with people like you!

Jeremy said...

There are two major problems with this video. Obviously something went wrong because civilians died and I don't mean to sound insensitive but shit happens in the heat of battle.

Problem #1 This clip is very biased in the sense that it makes it appear as though these two Apaches were simply in the area, saw some arab guys standing around and unleashed hell on them. The fact is that those Apaches were called into that air space for a specific reason, one which we may never know. The military obviously had a reason to suspect that these individuals might have been combatants since a ground unit was also deployed nearby to engage or capture them.

Problem #2 What happened here appears to have been an intelligence failure. Listen to the audio of the two Apache pilots talking. They clearly reference RPG's and AK-47's several times. From the video and their vantage point they could not have seen those things. Someone else (likely on the ground) had to call in that intel. What I have not heard from Reuters or the military is whether their employees were traveling with armed guards as many people in war zones do. This may have explained the report of weapons on seen. In that case this would be an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.

Whatever happened this is a very sad incident that probably could have been avoided. However, lets not call for heads on a platter before we can put this footage in context.

Bart said...

I'm quite shocked by the apologetic comments on this video. May I point out that the “weapons” the men were carrying turn out to be photo camera’s instead? While I realize the stress that may come from flying in a danger zone, there doesn’t seem to be any “intense combat” in this video. The victims did not pose any direct threat to the Apaches – other than working for the global media – and the pilots seemed to take their time in finding the targets. And what imminent danger did they fear when they opened fire on a van assisting the wounded! Add to this the sadistic commentary by the pilots and I don’t see how this can be excused by the “fog-of-war” argument.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand that war is dirty business and that “collateral damage” is unavoidable. But the ease with which these civilians were executed makes me lose all faith in the standards that the US military applies in its operations anywhere.

Lesson learned: if you go to Iraq, leave your camera at home.

Bart said...

Okay, I watched again closely and there were AK47's on the scene - but still, there is a difference between a RPG and a camera

Anonymous said...


You raise some excellent points. There is a clear difference between an RPG and a camera, and I'm upset by the juvenile and offensive dialogue between the pilots. However, my point is that it is difficult for us to categorically condemn their actions without knowing the full situation. As Jeremy pointed out, there was a squad on the ground nearby that apparently was taking fire and may have called in the support request and supplied the (possibly erroneous) situation details. Given the chaotic nature of Iraq at that time and the fact that American troops were under fire, I believe that the "fog and friction" argument is illustrative.

But, I should add, attributing their actions and the horrific outcome to "fog and friction" does not justify what happened. This incident cannot be swept under the rug or explained away by calling it a mistake. That's why I called on the military to conduct a full and comprehensive investigation. If an inquiry, taking into account all information about the situation and available to the pilots, finds that they acted improperly, then they should be disciplined. This is also why I find the military's attempts to suppress this information deeply disturbing.

On a grander scale, I invoked "fog and friction" not to justify "collateral damage" (which it does not) but to remind military planners that nothing goes according to plan and nothing is as simple as it seems. As the US military contemplates a massive offensive in Kandahar, they would do well to remember the wisdom of Clausewitz - just because the plan calls for protecting civilians doesn't mean it will work in practice.

Dave Reidy said...

Oops - "Guest" at 20:10:54 Today was me. I'm not sure why it showed up as "Guest" but it's my comment.

Bart said...

Thanks Dave,

I agree that it's much easier to comment from my office chair than from an apache seat - I can realize though not start to understand the stress those guys are under. That's why it's so important that the military has adequate procedures in place to deal with situations like this. It seems that this is not just a mistake by a couple of gunners, but rather a systemic failure of the rules of engagement (though, full disclosure, I'm unfamiliar with the details of those) - in particular the shooting of the van - a thought that only makes me more uncomfortable with this video.

Trevor K. said...

First off, Dave I agree with Jeff, great post. Definitely illustrative of the fog of war. My understanding from the articles I have read is that the Apaches were called to respond to "insurgent activity." However, even with that as background, I don't buy the argument that "because they had weapons, the soldiers should have engaged." Lots of people carry weapons in war - zones especially when the state is unable to provide security. And if your overarching goal (as the U.S. military) is to secure the population, as Dave points out, then you "can't shoot first and ask questions later." Force has to be used discriminately and backed by solid confirmation that the people you are firing upon are in fact insurgents. In that respect, I'd agree w/ Jeremy that perhaps, this suggest an intelligence failure. I understand that raising the threshold for engaging with potential enemies requires placing a greater burden of risk on U.S. soldiers. And that is difficult to ask a 20 year old kid. But, the cost of not raising the burden of proof for engaging the enemy in counter-insurgency war, in which the population is the center of gravity, is potentially mission failure.

Louisa said...

This video is simply heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking for the obvious reasons - the children were visible (even in the grainy video), and the Geneva Conventions were clearly violated when no one was looking. The GCs state that warring parties are allowed to collect the dead and wounded without fear of retaliation. (Convention I, Art 3: (1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.)

Unfortunately, these days "conventional warfare" and its rules of engagement are blatantly ignored by all sides. In recent decades the U.S. military has engaged in combat where they see civilian men, women and even children participating; the reaction is to treat everyone as a hostile. (Somalia immediately comes to mind.) That paranoia is heavily earned and not easily dispelled. Giving civilians the benefit of the doubt can cost troops their lives. This may explain the jovial tones in the audio (treat everyone as a hostile), but doesn't explain why the troops couldn't distinguish between cameras and weapons in this day and age.

What is also truly disappointing and indicative of the situation is that the U.S. military men in this video see Iraq as a pure combat zone, without a clear delineation between possessing a weapon and intention to use it. The reality is that Iraq is the only home to millions of people who struggle to survive, some with the intent of harming U.S. interests and others simply hoping to protect their families. The children may have been in the vehicle because it was deemed the safest place for them at the time. In most insecure parts of the world where police are either not present or corrupt, men (it's usually men - not trying to be sexist) take up arms to protect their families and communities from whatever lies out there in the relative anarchy. I am not saying that the U.S. military didn't have good reasons for investigating this particular situation, but I do firmly believe that possession of a weapon is not the same as the intention to use it. I will add, however, that I have never experienced what it means to live or work in Iraq.

The particular nature of having an active military presence in a situation like Iraq demands both news agencies and the U.S. military to reconsider their communication with one another. Traditionally they prefer to go their separate ways, but given the "untraditional" nature of this combat, I suggest they come up with an "untraditional" way to cooperate and avoid tragedies like this in the future.

The much harder task of re-instilling respect for all human life, even in war, is a centuries-old debate I will leave out of this post! Great job to D&D for raising such poignant issues.

Louisa said...

Trevor - I just saw your post, and I couldn't agree more!

I'll just add that it's not up to a 20 year old kid to make the call - it's about the institution of the military reassessing their perceptions and tactics in a unique situation like Iraq. A good start would be not to lump it together with Afghanistan...

Matt said...

Drew. Those of us who have been in these situations know what we would do (and will always be haunted by times when we made mistakes). Part of being a Soldier is becoming comfortable with the thought of killing people. One aspect of this is adopting language that taken out of context is horribly offensive.

The chatter you hear on the video is between the gunner and his pilot, it is intimate and never intended for anyone else to hear. Imagine intimate dialog you might have with a good friend was taken out of context. For those of us used to the chatter of infantrymen this is not at all offensive, just the language of warriors coping with the horrific.

The air crew is circling in helicopters over a hostile and dangerous city supporting Infantryman in contact on the ground. They have a stressful and difficult job to do. They must stay "frosty," even when faced with the horrifying news that they have injured children. What you are hearing is them trying to cope with this and stay calm as they continue to preform their mission. They are not relaxing at home in front of a computer; they are in the middle of combat.

"On Killing" by LTC Grossman (http://www.amazon.com/Killing-Psychological-Cost-Learning-Society/dp/0316330116) is an excellent book on this subject, if you are interested.

Matt said...

At 18 seconds into the video that is embedded the man that turns is carrying an RPG. 2 men are clearly carrying AKs and 1 is carrying an RPG.

Matt said...

"I suggest they come up with an "untraditional" way to cooperate and avoid tragedies like this in the future. "
That is why we embed reporters, and the military investigation re-emphasized the importance of embedding as the safest way to report on this war.

Everyone is trying to arm-chair quarterback the pilots and that is distorting their perception. I see no sign that the pilots mistook the 2x cameras for weapons. 2 men are clearly carrying AKs and 1 is carrying an RPG. Watch the video looking for the weapons, not the cameras.

If you put 20 year-olds in that situation they will have to make the call. I am personally familiar with the ROE they were operating under, and they were not in violation of it. However, I can appreciate the argument that the ROE is flawed and should be adjusted to prohibit engaging the van in situations like this.

The Laws of Land Warfare require that for "medics" to be protected they must be marked. If the van was a marked ambulance it would be protected, it was unmarked so it is not protected. In hindsight it is clear that engaging the van was regrettable. But imagine, that the injured man being picked up by the van was a AQI leader making his escape...you would regret not engaging and allowing him to escape. Anyone (except for a designated and unarmed chaplin or medic) aiding a combatant is also a combatant, and as such is a permissible target. It is fair to argue the man being rescued was a non-combatant, who was injured in the legally-permissible attack on the 3 armed men, and as such the van was aiding a non-combatant so it should not of been a target. But, I think you will agree that it is rather hard to track who was originally armed after the first engagement.

Everyone loses in this situation, except for terrorists that can use this for propaganda purposes. Unlike many Americans Iraqis know very well that when the US Military does something like this it is a tragic mistake, but that for AQI and JAM it is there intent to conduct these sorts of attacks on civilians.

Matt said...


The Army did investigate this. Twice:

The Army did share this with Reuters, they allowed them to view the footage. Reuters wanted them to release it and they refused, for exactly the reasons you identified. The private dialog between the pilots is offensive and the only "win" from releasing the video is for terrorists to use it as propaganda. Transparency is a difficult principle to apply to war.

Matt said...

I highly recommend reading the investigation. I think you will find it is very fair and provides a lot of context.

Dave Reidy said...


Thanks for sharing the CENTCOM investigation report. I had not previously seen that, and it is illuminating. It does make a convincing case for exonerating the pilots, though I still struggle with finding "hostile intent" in the video.

However, I think the primary importance of this incident is as an illustrative example of how difficult it can be to fight a war in an urban environment against insurgents. While writing this post, the issue I found myself returning to was the massive operation that U.S. and ISAF forces are preparing to mount in Kandahar. While I applaud General McChrystal for his embrace of COIN theory and the importance of protecting civilians, I think this video shows that even the best intentions can go horrifically wrong once combat begins. I feel that the U.S. command is portraying the upcoming campaign in Kandahar as a finely-calibrated surgical operation, with the logical conclusion following that civilians will not be harmed. This video should serve as a reminder that war is never neat and tidy, and no operation can be executed the way it was planned. I hope General McChrystal has not disregarded this lesson and does not expect his operation to be flawless.

You can call it collateral damage, but I find that term repugnant. It is a fact of war, and I'm not trying to levy individual culpability. Instead, this video should serve as a reminder to us all that war is inherently disturbing, violent, and tragic, even when no laws of war are violated. I hope everyone remembers that as the campaign in Afghanistan continues, and that we all accept the bitter reality than any assault on Kandahar (or elsewhere) will inevitably result in similarly horrific outcomes.

Matt said...

You are exactly right, the American public should keep in mind the horror of war and that there is no such thing as a "clean war" where civilians are not harmed.

But, I worry, as I watch the discussion and coverage of this video, that we are losing sight of the fact that an attack like this is a tragic mistake when done by American Soldiers; but, for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda it is their intent and desire to conduct such attacks on civilians.

Anonymous said...

this is nonsense - all of you should get a job and shut the fuck up for once!

Anonymous said...

seriously you contribute nothing new

Jeff Schneider said...

Guest IP: @ 23:41/24:52

A few questions:

1. When you say "all of you" -- to whom are you speaking?
2. When you say "stfu for once" -- you realize this is a blog right? I do hope we are not crowding the "say nothing blogs" from your voluntary readership, if so, "all of us" heartily apologize. We are so sorry that you elected to read this post, and then felt compelled, after your voluntary reading, to ask us to not write something that you would choose to read. "our" bad.
3. When you say "'all of you' should get a job" -- I can happily say that not only are we all grad students, but also all of us are gainfully employed during our school years, and for our upcoming summer -- sorry. But thank you for your guidance. We have done just fine without it, but we do appreciate your advice.
4. Thank you for choosing to read our blog. We aren't sure why, but thanks -- sorry that you chose to read this piece. We promise, we will not seek to tempt you with our guiles into reading our analysis anymore -- for once?
5. When you wrote "seriously you contribute nothing new" I think you forgot the comma. It should read "seriously, you contribute nothing new."
6. Oddly, I can't get the phrase "doctor, heal thyself" out of my head.

Jeff Schneider
Demagogues and Dictators

homelesseus said...

It's always hard to arm-chair quarterback. Should he have thrown the pass, should he run with the ball, should he have. . .? But wait, should he have kicked the referee in the groin? It cost him the game, but I'm not in a position to know what went through his mind. Was it really a kick? Was he merely pointing with his foot? Did the Nazis really have no justification for their crimes? I wouldn't want to second guess what they decided upon in the fog of war. Not in the fog of their moral nihilism, but under the pressure of war. How could Germans, the moral titans of Europe, make such evil expedient choices? Racism? We can cross that off our list, we're not racists? Ethnic purity? But what's wrong with that, that's the entire basis upon which Israel exists, and we strongly support its continuation. I don't know, but we'll have to revisit the NAZIS were evil meme in light of our adapting their methods.

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