The Horror, The Horror

I'm still not quite sure what to say about the now infamous video of pilots in Iraq shooting down a group of people, two Reuters cameramen among them.

Mostly what I think at this point is that the video is considerably more ambiguous than the editorializing from Wikileaks suggests.  That's not to say that the pilots were right; only that the video is clearly stripped of context, like why the pilots thought there might be insurgents in the area.  Of course, it's not beyond imagination that some psychos with guns decided to shoot for the sheer joy of it; that's one of the tragic side effects of putting guns into the hands of large numbers of people.  But they do at points seem to be discussing the rules of engagement, which you assume they wouldn't be if they were just shooting for the hell of it . . . indeed, if they were just shooting for the hell of it, one assumes that their camera would have some sort of "malfunction".

My sentiment is probably closest to Roger McShane's, at the Economist:

I've watched this video a couple of times now, first with outrage similar to Mr Sullivan's, then with an eye towards seeing what the pilots saw. I don't mean to turn this tragedy into a psychological experiment, but I'm reminded of this selective attention test. By way of the text and markers in the video we are prodded to see one side of the event. (The helicopter pilots do not help matters with their casual approach to killing and intermittent laughter.) But ask yourselves, would you have been able to distinguish between the journalists' cameras and the guns some of the other men were carrying? More importantly, did you see the man with the RPG? Did you see him poke around the corner and seem to aim it at the helicopter?

Perhaps that is still not justification enough for the slaughter that ensued. I will let the Pentagon try to defend the act of firing on those helping the wounded. But I think the scene is more ambiguous than it first appears, and I think the pilots could make a case that they thought they were being engaged by armed insurgents. (We do not know why the helicopter was in the area.) I'm sure many of you will disagree, but my broader point is that no matter how precise our weaponry gets, no matter how much information we feed into our targeting systems, the decision to fire will always be based on incomplete information and come down to fallible human judgment. So while it is normal to react to these tragedies with varying degrees of moral repugnance, let us not be shocked. This is the nature of war and there is only one truly effective way to avoid such incidents.

I'm not sure this video is so much evidence of a war crime, as evidence that war is horrifying.  It involves finding the most efficient ways of killing other human beings.  So naturally when you hear soldiers casually enjoying being good at their jobs, you think "this is wrong".  It may be.  But there is no legal requirement that soldiers be repelled by what they do. They probably wouldn't be very good at their job if they displayed the horrified soul-searching that most of us here would like to see on that tape.

So I'm not sure what we're witnessing is against the laws of war, rather than the instincts of a cosmopolitan public that has enjoyed an unusually long period without confronting slaughter directly.  Don't get me wrong--I like peaceful cosmopolitanism, and think the world would be a better place if we had more of it.  But I suspect this tape raises more questions about war itself, than about the conduct of the pilots.

That said, I'm certainly no expert on the law of war, and I'm sure actual experts will rush to correct me.