Originally Published on Demagogues and Dictators
However, despite the shocking footage, we need to understand this incident in the larger context.
Without knowing the ROEs and situation, it's difficult to condemn the pilots. Their language is crass and overly-enthusiastic, but that alone doesn't make their actions wrong. They did receive permission to engage, and several people were armed. Raffi Khatchadourian at The New Yorker has an excellent rundown of the technical aspects of the Rules of Engagement. It's easy to judge the situation innocuous and their actions unjustified three years after the fact and from the safety of home. That said, this disturbing footage alone presents enough information to warrant a full military investigation, which should be done thoroughly and publicly.
More importantly, this incident illustrates Clausewitz's "fog" and "friction" of war. Clausewitz posited that battle is inherently chaotic and information always murky. Because of these factors, war plans can never be executed as designed and decisions are often made based upon incomplete or inaccurate information. In Iraq, the plan calls for U.S. forces to engage militants with deadly force but protect civilians. While this sounds logical and straightforward, in practice it is incredibly difficult to implement. When fellow soldiers are under hostile fire and technological limitations make it impossible to positively identify insurgents or weapons, even the clearest battle plans go astray.
Globally, this footage will damage U.S. efforts to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Efforts to "win the hearts and minds" will take a major hit, and insurgent and terrorist actors will receive a recruiting boost. Some pundits have already invoked Abu Ghraib as a comparison, and while this footage is not as severe as the prison torture it will similarly harm U.S. interests and stature worldwide.
The credibility damage will be compounded by the fact that the military suppressed information, covered up the incident, and refused to help Reuters determine the fate of their employees is troubling. If the pilots acted improperly, they should face discipline. If the military feels the pilots acted correctly, than why would they bury the incident and stonewall Reuters? The urge to avoid negative publicity is understandable, but in this case the actions of the military are worrisome and counter-productive.There is nothing positive to take from this situation. The entire affair is tragic and disturbing. But it should serve as a reminder of the overwhelming complexity of war, especially as continue to withdraw soldiers from Iraq and mount new offensives in Afghanistan. The words of Clausewitz still hold true:
"The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently - like the effect of a fog or moonshine - gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance."