Wikileaks has acquired and decrypted (!) a copy of a tape of an Apache helicopter attacking and killing two Reuters reporters in Iraq in 2007. The Apache crew thought that the photographers were carrying weapons when what they were really carrying was camera equipment.
The video has gone truly viral by now, (predictably it has made its was to jihadist websites: here and here and here) but I strongly recommend Anthony Martinez’ commentary (which is what I linked to above) on the tape. Anthony has personal experience with these sorts of engagements and offers an expert assessment on his blog. Aside from some stray mistakes that he points out, like the Wikileaks annotation not understanding what a Bradley IFV crew was saying when it said “drop ramp,” and referring at one point to HMMWVs as Bradleys, he also notes that the Wikileak people failed to notice that there really was a guy in the video near the photographers with an AK and another with an RPG. Anthony rightly takes the Wikileaks people to task for not pointing out that fact. On the other hand, he also notes that he’s very troubled by the fact that the Apache engaged the van that came to pick up a wounded survivor.
What do we have here? We have a non-governmental organization affecting the public debate by:
1) Engaging in activities that we would normally think of as those of intelligence agencies (acquiring the tape from an anonymous source in the US military and then figuring out how to decrypt it); and
2) Publishing a one-sided annotated version of it, at least in part because of their own technical ignorance, that is being seen around the world and negatively affecting the war effort.
While the incident had lamentable consequences (two dead reporters, two dead children, probably some other dead innocents), it does appear to have been justifiable in that there do appear to have been some bad guys present. [Correction. The children survived. I regret the error.] That said, the Apache crew made a mistake in misidentifying camera equipment as weapons. This is precisely the sort of thing that Clausewitz tells us happens in war all the time. People make mistakes in real life and they make them even more so in wartime, when time is short, when adrenaline is flowing, when people are in danger, when people are tired, when looking at small black and white video screens, etc. (Malcolm Glad well in his book, Blink, has a good discussion of some of these phenomena in the context of police shootings.) The incidence of this sort of thing can be reduced but it can never be eliminated. EVER. Unless there is no war and I’m not going to hold my breath for that.
The problem is, that such incidents can have strategic effects. As one commenter a jihadist site put it: “After publishing this video. Some ppl in my country said ‘I hate america and I support what Al-Qaeda is doing””
Welcome to modern war. Have a nice day.