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Iraq war video raises more than just ethical and legal questions

It is a given that governments try to control information in times of war, and they are particularly sensitive to photographs that reveal the hideousness of battle. Although President George W. Bush was happy to have aerial images of the “shock and awe” invasion of Baghdad broadcast around the world, he prohibited photographs of the flag-draped coffins of troops returning to the United States. Among the many lessons of the Iraq war, however, is that technology has made information control all but impossible. That became evident when soldiers sent home cellphone pictures of Iraqi prisoners abused and humiliated at Abu Ghraib, and we see it again now with the posting on a website called WikiLeaks of a classified video recorded by an Apache helicopter gun camera in which the gunner kills 12 people, including two journalists, and wounds two children.

This is real war, and it inevitably reveals more than any government or military would like to have posted on the Internet for millions of citizens and anyone else to view. It is horrible. Not in the way that suicide bombs in marketplaces are horrible, with severed limbs and entrails, with parents wailing over their lifeless children, but in the way that it reduces killing to a banality. The U.S. Army pilot and gunner are disembodied voices chattering about a day’s work as they fire and then circle over the bodies that we know -- but they do not know -- include two Iraqi journalists with the Reuters news agency:

“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.”

“Nice.”

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“Good shooting.”

“Thank you.”

Why is it so shocking to watch through the gun sight and listen to soldiers do the job they were sent to do? Because governments normally shield us from such graphic views of the human cost of war. But really, what did we think they were doing there? Now we see. Here on the screens of our laptops and cellphones, we have a real-time view of death, a close-up look at what is generally called by the grotesquely scrubbed term “collateral damage,” in this case a handful of the tens of thousands of civilians who have been killed in the Iraq war.

Ironically, just as technology is bringing war closer to home for American civilians, it is also allowing some Americans to fight from a distance. Although the soldiers in this July 2007 video were at risk, flying low over Baghdad during the U.S. troop buildup, many others monitor thousands of unmanned Predator aircraft flying over Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, firing from the safety of cockpits half a world away. As The Times’ David Zucchino reported this year, the Pentagon has adapted consumer-driven technology such as satellite television and digital video to provide information to drone pilots who “can fire on an insurgent dug into the Afghan hills and be home in time for a backyard barbecue” in Las Vegas.

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These developments raise ethical and legal questions, some of which have been around since bombers first took to the skies in World War I: Is it moral to kill from a safe remove? Is the civilian toll from gunships and bombers too high? Undoubtedly the new technology has led to better targeting and aim, and helped reduce civilian casualties in many cases. But problems remain. The CIA-operated drone program in Pakistan, for instance, has killed an estimated 400 to 500 suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban militants since January 2009, including at least two dozen leaders, according to news reports. But the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and human rights scholars have questioned whether the U.S. is breaking international law by targeting and executing these individuals, often far from a traditional battlefield and in countries against which the U.S. has not declared war, and with a disputed number of civilian victims.

The video posted by WikiLeaks raises other questions about what we see -- and what we cannot see. Americans can watch soldiers making the decision to kill. We see that they may not know who they are firing at in a war in which insurgents don’t always wear uniforms. We see the guesswork and mistakes: The long-lens camera carried by Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen is believed to be a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and when he crouches behind a wall to take a picture he is believed to be getting ready to fire. After the first round, a van pulls up and two men get out to retrieve the wounded. The Apache team seeks and is granted permission to fire. When it becomes clear that a child has been wounded in the van, the shooter is momentarily disturbed. “Oh, damn,” he says. Then, recovering, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle.”

Are the soldiers callous, or are they engaged in the kind of self-preservation necessary in war? Were they reckless in killing the journalists, or did they have reasonable grounds for believing these were insurgents? Are they criminals for shooting unarmed rescuers -- in what on the face of it would seem to be a blatant violation of war conventions -- or is there more that we cannot see in the video? Indeed, there is a whole context outside the gunner’s frame: The military reported at the time that firefights with Shiite Muslim militiamen were going on in the neighborhood, and that the helicopters had been called in to assist the troops. It isn’t clear to the untrained eye whether any of the Iraqis on the ground really were carrying weapons. As armchair viewers we benefit from slow-motion and stop functions, but these soldiers were making decisions on the scene.

Videos such as these are extremely valuable for the public to see. We must understand what is being done in our name when the United States is at war. But we also must know that pictures may not tell the full story. WikiLeaks, which is more an advocacy group than a journalism site, titled the video “Collateral Murder.” The military had investigated this case and absolved the soldiers of any wrongdoing; for three years, Reuters was denied a copy of the video. It does not answer all our questions, but it certainly raises enough of them to warrant further investigation. Now that we have a close-up look at the ugliness of battle, we have a right to know what it means. The key is not just what happens in the video, but what happened before, and what happens after.

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