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Wikileaks: Video of journalists being killed

Just over a week ago, a post I made about Wikileaks (lifted directly from Dylan Horrocks’ twitter feed) went ballistic and garnered nearly 100,000 sets of eyeballs in a day. The events in question mentioned an upcoming video release about murder in Iraq and a Pentagon cover-up.

The video has now been released. It’s circulating all over the place, and Scoop has a good overview, with the short-form (17-minute) video embedded.

Basic story: a U.S. military helicopter identifies a group of men in a street as targets, and shoots them down. When others arrive to evacuate the wounded, they too are shot down. I don’t recommend watching the video lightly – it’s intense and emotional, and the video-game chatter of the U.S. soldiers is hard to listen to. But I do think it’s important, and if you intend to form an opinion on this, you should try to get through it. Warning: children are injured in the attack.

Now that you’ve watched that, here’s some essential reading: Keith Ng on this video, and the respionsibilities we have when making sense of primary sources such as this. Go read it, then come back here.

There’s lots of discussion happening all over the ‘net about what the video shows, and whether the U.S. military personnel involved were right or wrong to designate the men as targets and shoot them, and whether they were right or wrong to do the same thing when more people arrived to help the wounded. A lot of this discussion concerns the rules of engagement in play at the time, and whether the men in question were reasonably seen as carrying weapons.

The weapons are, to me, of greatest interest. You can hear in the spotter’s (gunner’s?) commentary as he sees the men and sees guns that he believes this is a legitimate military target. Look again at how exactly this happens:

At 3 mins into the video, the leaked footage begins as the spotters identify a group of people standing together.

At 3 mins 20 seconds, Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen is in the centre of the frame, hoisting his camera. The spotter says “That’s a weapon.” (With those words, Namir and companions were condemned to death.)

At 3’37, the spotter reports: “Have individuals with weapons.” Note the plural – one weapon has become several, without obvious cause.

At 3’40, two other men come into frame, and they both are carrying weapons, AK-47s apparently. (These are, again, legal to carry here.) Spotter, on seeing the first of this pair: “He’s got a weapon too.” Then, after seeing the other: “Have five to six individuals with AK-47s.” Three identified weapons (one erroneously) have become five to six. They’ve seen enough. At 3’50, permission to fire is sought, and soon after is received.

At 4’10, a long camera piece is identified as an RPG. Note, permission to fire has already been received at this point.

There’s a well-known perceptual/cognitive phenomenon called confirmation bias. This says that we interpret what we are seeing in terms of what we expect to see. This video captures confirmation bias in action. A camera became a gun, then two others with guns became proof of an attack squad, then the camera again became an immediate threat. The pattern is clear: there is no way for the spotters in the helicopter to step out of this chain of perceptions.

This is not a trivial matter. I’m not trying to diminish these events by pointing at a cognitive bias as an excuse or rationale. No, to me this is exactly where the scandal is. Fire orders are being made on interpretations that do not correct for this extremely common and well-understood bias. Lives are being taken and the system that authorizes this fails to account for decades-old research (and anecdotal understanding that goes back hundreds of years.) Instead, the whole apparatus operates in precisely the opposite direction; once the action is taken, it must be justified. The evidence is massaged and re-interpreted to support the initial confirmation bias. A perceptual error becomes truth.

Now, the target identification issue isn’t the only troubling thing here, and it isn’t the focus of Wikileaks’ interest. The assault on unarmed men (and children!) attempting to evacuate the wounded is horrific. The Pentagon’s stonewalling of Reuters trying to get this tape is appalling. The disengaged chatter of the U.S. military is disturbing, if completely understandable.

Regardless of those issues, the confirmation bias explanation for what happens is all I can think about right now. I probably won’t come back to the rest. I don’t think I want to watch that video ever again.

{ 11 } Comments

  1. samm | April 7, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    re the ‘video game chatter’. Soldiers have been talking like this since long before video games were even thought of. Its an unnecessary and incorrect implication to link it to gaming culture.

  2. morgue | April 7, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    samm: totally agreed. The “video game” comment was an allusion to the way it’s being talked about in lots of places, including in the official responses of various parties e.g. Reuters.

  3. Scott A | April 7, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Well, I’m glad I watched the entire clip; it’s not as clear cut as some of the blogosphere would have you believe.

    You mention “confirmation bias” but one does have to be acknowledge what must’ve been a strong impetus to that bias by recognising the context. Those Cobras weren’t just circling around looking for trouble, they were flying sector support for an operation we don’t see, and their mission is to prevent other combatants entering the area, and after any engagement their orders were to secure the area until ground troops could arive to secure the scene, secure any intelligence and prisoners, and assess the encounter.

    Terrible errors were made, absolutely. But I do think the soldiers themselves took completely understandable actions based on their rules and their orders. The responsibility lies not with them, “video-game chatter” or no, but those who ordered them there and created the rules under which they thought while there.

  4. Scott A | April 7, 2010 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    “in which they thought.” Heh. Odd typo. “Under which they didn’t think” would be more appropiate, given the soldiers eagerness to see the enemy where it didn’t exist.

  5. rb | April 7, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    If you consider their launguage carefully, they know that they are being recorded and that their words may one day be examined and judged, or at least selectively quoted or used to paint a picture by an investigation that is intended to exonerate them.

    Interesting to note that the US DoD are now saying that they don’t know where their copy of the video is. This is an old trick that is “good enough on balance” for most people. The reality is if they can’t locate it, they don’t need to answer to it.

    @Scott: some of the individuals in the video took an utterly understandable course of action and/or understandable interpretation of events. This does not by any means include everybody heard on the video.

    Ultimately, they have been told that as long as they give the impression that they are operating under the rules, they will be judged as if they are operating under the rules.

  6. samm | April 8, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Scott- Apaches, not Cobras. I also think ‘Collateral Murder’ is an extremely spun and biased title. This is wrong in many ways, but premeditated murder it is not.

  7. morgue | April 8, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I’m pretty comfortable with “Collateral Murder” as a title. The confirmation bias fascinates me, but that’s at the start of the situation. The decision to fire on the van trying to take the wounded man away? That seems exactly like murder to me. As far as I can tell from what I’ve read, it’s murder according to the US military RoE, as well.

  8. Ron | April 13, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Scott: “the soldiers themselves took completely understandable actions”

    I can 100% understand the initial mistake of seeing AK47s, but…

    They gunned down civilians who tried to help the wounded, several minutes later. What part of shooting a civilian “ambulance” is ever understandable?

  9. Scott A | April 22, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Ron: this is worth reading, for another point of view without being offensive or offensively gung ho:

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/04/2007-iraq-apache-attack-as-seen-from-the-ground/

    The rules of engagement, as that interview points out, were to prevent the removal / rescue of “insurgents” before friendly ground forces could arrive on the scene. That’s what the pilots were doing.

    I’m not saying the rules weren’t fucked up, they clearly were. But the soldiers who opened fire on the van were doing what they were ordered to do. From their eyes they weren’t murdering a rescue party, they were preventing the enemy removing evidence, weapons, prisoners from a combat area.

    Add to that the confirmation bias Morgue talks about, that the people in the helicopters were seeing enemy because that is what they were there to see, and I cannot selectively withdraw my empathy from the soldiers. If I’m going to empathise with the murdered Iraqis I also need to empathise with their killers, and in doing so I understand why they did what they did, and why they believed they were doing the right thing. And they probably still thing they did the right thing.

    I’m not saying they were right, but I understand why they did what they did; and I have to accept they were doing what they were told to do by their superiors.

    The more I think about it, the more I agree with the soldier interviewed in that link. Wikileaks did a good thing by releasing this video, but their framing, their editorialising, hasn’t helped their cause at all.

    But it bluntly, wikileaks, two wrongs don’t make a right. Removing context, not highlighting the AKs and RPG like you highlighted the camera is just the other side of the same coin that they were trying to protest against.

    Truth needs to out, but framing it in a manner that enables people to criticise without addressing the issue at hand doesn’t work. Wikileaks needed to be more open handed than they were, and by editorialising as they did they’ve allowed the debate to focus on other things rather than the issue at hand.

  10. Scott A | April 22, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Sorry to keep rambling, but typing the above has really allowed me to solidify my thinking about this video; this issue. So, what I’m ultimately trying to say is that Wikileak’s editorialising has allowed the debate to be about the actions of those Apache pilots and gunners.

    Which means that the people who made the rules of engagement, the people who directed the behaviour of the occupation of Iraq, the administration who ordered the invasion can bypass responsibility. Because the debate is about the actions of some individuals.

    And thats why I think its important to understand that those individuals were doing what they were told to do, and their actions were understandable by their orders and the way they saw their environment.

    Blaming them won’t stop this happening again. Wikileak’s approach may actually help those really responsible escape censure by creating scapegoats.

  11. samm | April 22, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Well put Scott