Wikileaks, journalism and the military

April 26, 2010

I did mention the possibility of writing a piece on the publication of a US military video by Wikileaks which depicted two Reuters journalists being killed in Iraq in 2007.

But one of my colleagues at the War Studies Department, Jack McDonald, has beaten me to it. While not representing my own views, he does raise many of the issues I have been thinking about. 

Here is an extract I found particularly thought-provoking:

"We live in societies that expect to be able to understand events, but it also appears that we expect perfection in warfighting. And the problem is that both the military and the press tend to feed this expectation.

The complete footage is jarring because it challenges our cultural assumptions and depictions of conflict. In a sense, this is rather like the paradox Schrödinger’s cat. We are fed stories of soldiers killing other soldiers, or soldiers killing civilians, but it is rare that we are told that soldiers sometimes shoot at people who could be either, but “we didn’t know at the time of firing”.

The people dying in the footage, with the exception of the man holding the RPG, and the two photographers who were assumed to be holding AK’s, were neither insurgents nor civilians when the trigger was pulled.

There is a plausible enough argument that the information fed to the pilots at the time made them consider that they were insurgents, but the evidence from the footage itself is wholly inconclusive. In hindsight, they are discovered to be civilians, possible insurgents and children, all classifications that we require socially in order to make value judgments on their death.

But at the point of dying they were all and none of those things to the military personnel killing them: they were just people, and in war people die. I think that is what is so uncomfortable about watching this footage. It is one thing to be told that mistakes happen, that civilians get confused for soldiers, but it is another to be confronted with the fact that soldiers have to kill people because they don’t know either way, and they can’t take the chance of not shooting."

Read the full post and discussion at Kings of War. (And just on that last point, David Betz comments on the blog that exercising courageous restraint and not shooting has been part of counter insurgency thinking).

Further Reading:

Here are some bookmarks I picked out on the incident:

1. George Packer: Interesting Times: the Truth but not the Whole Truth

2. Democracy Now speaks to journalists who were on the scene the day after the attack.

3. Al-Jazeera English: Iraq outrage over US killing video

4. The Jawa Report: Case Closed: Weapons Clearly Seen on Video of Reuters Reporters Killed in Iraq.