I don’t know whether you have heard of Wikileaks until now; there remains no doubt whatsoever though that after today’s major whistleblowing coup they accomplished today. Although Wikileaks has shown the guts to go up against ‘the establishment’ previously nothing quite matches the controversy they have set off today, releasing a video which shows a US Army Apache helicopter opening fire, and ultimately killing, twelve people including two Reuters journalists. It’s a 17-minute video that is going to bring up a lot of questions in the near future about US presence in Iraq and rules of modern warfare in general. (You can also see the complete, unedited video here. In case you don’t have the bandwidth to watch the video, you can read the transcript but it doesn’t show the true horror of what happened.)
The initial reaction will be that of outrage and there are many reactions along the lines of how “the people in the video obviously aren’t carrying weapons”. In hindsight, from the comfort of our room, we can say that because we can watch it back at our leisure (I just dread having to use that last word) but during a war-zone when making split-second decisions, it can be easy to overreact and consider a telephoto lens of a camera to be an RPG – especially when you’re trying to make out what’s happening from such footage. And while I don’t find radio chatter along the lines of “Look at those dead bastards. Nice.” to be condonable, I do realize that soldiers on the frontline are not bound to make politically correct commentary. The New Yorker has released preliminary legal analysis regarding the rules of engagement with respect to this video. I think (and this is purely personal opinion) that the initial firing, while not absolutely necessary, can be understood as being over-cautious. What follows later on in the video, of opening fire on a van try to carry away wounded was overstepping the boundary.
What strikes me is the feeling that Pentagon would’ve given more shit about this – and mainstream media would’ve given more shit about this – if it had been foreign correspondents instead of Iraqi journalists (albeit still working for Reuters). It wouldn’t have taken three years, nor would they be making excuses right now of ‘not being able to find the video‘. That, I think, is the main issue. While what happened on that day is…understandable…the Pentagon going to great lengths to try and shut people and being forthcoming about details is what’s going to cause a major loss of confidence in the region. This video itself has the potential to become ‘recommended watching’ for terrorists – and the US isn’t going to come out looking any good out of it.
‘Mainstream media’ is a term that will be brought up again and again when this issue is discussed over the coming days. The very fact that it was Wikileaks – a non-profit organization that doesn’t take any donations from organizations, only individuals – publishing this online via bulletproof hosting servers in Sweden, without any physical offices was what made it possible. In times which are already financially hard for newspapers and new TV channels it’s difficult to conceive them being able to withstand the pressure from various authorities on not releasing such a video. Indeed, Reuters had been trying to get this same video released under Freedom of Information Act and failed. What did Wikileaks do? It obtained copies of the footage from whistleblowers within the military, did on-ground background research, broke the encryption on the copy they had and released the video. They went ahead and were simply able to do things while a news organization would have had to face pressure to shut up and at the same time consider the legal liability of disclosing this. That’s probably what gives whisteblowers greater confidence to reveal damning information to Wikileaks rather than a brick-and-mortar entity that can be sued to divulge their identity. Pentagon identified this and considered attaching Wikileaks by, among other things, outing whistleblowers and making an example out of them.
At the same time, you can’t deny the fact that the resources behind a ‘proper’ (although the definition is now up for debate) news organization can often make things easier to investigate. Wikileaks has been forced to shut down temporarily (and currently operates in a stripped down state) because of funding issues. Following the release of this footage it’s seeking funding right now to help it release further videos regarding US military actions. As it says:
Press conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC, a cost which starts at $2,000 for a medium-sized room with projector and microphone. In addition, it costs $5,000 to Web cast the video from the National Press Club.
This is why I don’t believe in statements such as “mainstream media is dead”. I know it’s trendy in the blogosphere to refer to the old guard as MSM and fill gigabytes of ‘pages’ online with whoop-whoop battlecries of “old media is dead, blogs will do all news reporting in the future”. It doesn’t take much to publish a blog or a video online, but it takes resources and support – for better or worse – to be able to get that content on to a proper pedestal that ‘MSM’ does. As the Washington Post opinion piece in the last link says, both ‘new’ and ‘old’ media have their own uses. ‘MSM’ can reach out beyond the fraction of the global population that is online and influence policy much more effectively than the blogosphere can.
One last thing struck me was how the footage looked so…unreal. Like being in a video game. My first emotion when I see or hear about next-gen weapon systems is childlike excitement. It reminded me of this mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare where you’re a gunner on an AC-130H gunship and you’re providing air support to ground troops. And how I initially failed in the mission because my ‘friendly fire’ kept decimating troops from my own ‘side’. I’ve read about research on this; on how pilots who’re bombing targets have less battle trauma (despite killing more people) because they effectively push buttons on seeing images on a screen, compared to troops who’re fighting on-ground and see the kills up close. And I can’t help but think how it seems from the radio chatter in the Wikileaks video that the soldiers involved might have felt, to an extent, detached from reality.