Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’


Firdos and Tahrir

February 8, 2011

Tumblr_lfyhanYdob1qdxs88o1_500I’m very taken with this photo comparison, as are many folks.  I’ve poked around enough to know that the zoomed out shot of the square in Baghdad was available from Reuters all along.  Why, then, were there news reports comparing this event to the fall of the Berlin Wall?  Why was only the cropped shot published or streamed on TV?  At what level did the deception take place?

Lucky for me, the New Yorker decided to take on the myth of Firdos Square last week.  The article pretty decisively dismisses the circulating stories about the entire event being staged by US psychological operations teams. Rather than the government, it was the media that created the lie.

Primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war. It was an unfortunate fusion: a preconception of what would happen, of what victory would look like, connected at Firdos Square with an aesthetically perfect representation of that preconception.

We’re all relatively accustomed to the myth-making that happens when history is reinterpreted with the benefit of hindsight.  In the article, Wilson Surratt, senior executive producer in charge of CNN’s control room in Atlanta that day, says that “at some point, you’ve got to trust the viewer to understand what they’re seeing.”  But should the viewer really have to ask whether they’re being shown a deliberately cropped frame that hides a dissonant context?  The article’s author, Peter Maass, writes:

Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development.

And I would add, one that we’re not well equipped to protect ourselves from.

There is another question embedded in the article–about whether the event itself–as it really happened, not as it was falsely reported back home–was impacted by the presence of the media.  Any of us who have ever smiled for a camera or cheered when the video swung our way know that the answer is yes.  But the implications for responsible journalism are less obvious to me.




Julian Assange and the information war

June 1, 2010

The 2007 video from an Apache helicopter of American soldiers killing at least eighteen people, including two Reuters journalist, released by WikiLeaks earlier this year, had a huge effect on me.  It was my first real introduction to the site.  I’d heard rumblings before; had never bothered to go see for myself.

The video haunted me.  WikiLeaks itself baffled me.  So when I wrote before, I focused on the video.

But I’ve been thinking about the site ever since.  So it’s no surprise that this piece in the New Yorker about its founder, Julian Assange, caught my attention.  Eleven pages later, I’m still uneasy.  And not just because of the personal oddities of Assange.

The Web site’s strengths—its near-total imperviousness to lawsuits and government harassment—make it an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust. But, unlike authoritarian regimes, democratic governments hold secrets largely because citizens agree that they should, in order to protect legitimate policy. In liberal societies, the site’s strengths are its weaknesses. Lawsuits, if they are fair, are a form of deterrence against abuse. Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.

The analysis has merit (as does the whole piece), but I still don’t know where to land.

I don’t believe, as Assange does, that humanity’s primary struggle is individual versus institution.  I don’t believe that total transparency is the key to either justice or equity.  I don’t even know that I believe transparency is particularly normative.

I do believe some institutional secret-keeping is legitimate.  And yet, I struggle to articulate the boundaries within which it is permissible.

And at the end of it all, I really appreciated that WikiLeaks published the video.

I’m still baffled.

I imagine WikiLeaks will get another post out of me before I’m done.



Apparently, humans are idiots sometimes

April 7, 2010

I woke up this morning to discover Ezra Klein making a similar point to one in my last post about the classified US military video from WikiLeaks.  He’s writing about financial regulation, not war.  And he’s willing to call people idiots which I’m not.   But there is a conceptual link:

Larry Summers famously wrote — but sadly, did not publish — a paper that began with a timeless bit of wisdom: “THERE ARE IDIOTS,” Summers said. “Look around.” That paper was written decades ago. Maybe it’s time to finally publish it. Particularly that second line.

Like the poor, idiots will always be with us. In fact, we’ll frequently be among them. The seductions of group-think, the tendency to trust experts, the incentives for employees to go along with their bosses rather than contradict them and the need to deliver short-term profits even at the cost of long-term risk are more powerful than any regulation and will exist long after the visceral lessons of the subprime meltdown are gone.

So we’re left where Summers started: There are idiots. And if you look around, it turns out that they’re everywhere: In the banks, at the Federal Reserve, running the rating agencies, and selling mortgages. You can’t idiot-proof a system run by idiots.  But you can limit the damage they’re able to do.

And I think that’s part of what I was trying to articulate.  You can’t human-proof a system run by humans.  Rather than expecting our soldiers to be perfect super-humans, we should focus on minimizing how out-of-control their mistakes can become.

In this particular case, there was an opportunity to stop the massacre half-way by not firing on the evacuation van. Why didn’t that happen?

Ezra goes on to offer some thoughts on how we might limit the damage caused by failures in the financial sector.  I don’t know enough to propose parallel regulations and constraints for war.  But it still seems like a more productive response than some of my knee-jerk alternatives.



We have to talk about this.

April 6, 2010

By this point, most of you have already seen the classified US military video over at WikiLeaks.  If you haven’t, you probably should (Go do that and come back.  I know it’s long.  Watch it anyway).

I watched it first thing this morning and have been stewing over it all day.  It leaves me thinking about the ethics of the war in Iraq, about the consequences of modern warfare technology, about the differences between policy and implementation with fidelity, about the future of investigative journalism, and on and on.

I’ll start out with a handful of qualifiers and then tackle the differences between policy and implementation.

Qualifiers:  First, the US military hasn’t confirmed or denied the authenticity of this video.  Second, the video doesn’t show any of the context preceding the shooting (if, for example, the military had legitimate reason to believe that this particular group of people was dangerous).  Third, I know almost nothing about the rules of engagement.  Fourth, war is horrible.  And for the most part, people on all sides do their best to survive and cope with what they have to.  They’re real people, just like all of us, with real limitations.  I don’t expect perfection.  But I do ask–as I believe all of us are obligated to–how we can minimize the consequences of those imperfections.

And now: policy versus implementation with fidelity.

We have pretty clear rules of engagement in Iraq.  They’ve been (perhaps rightly; again, I don’t know) criticized as being so restrictive that soldiers are unable to defend themselves.  But they exist.  And as far as I can tell, they were violated in this instance.

Which either means that 1) Command has encouraged soldiers to ignore them by looking the other way when they do or 2) Soldiers on the ground aren’t following the policies they’ve been given.

If it’s the first, then we should broaden the discussion of what the cover-up was covering up.

But let’s assume for a second that it’s the latter.  Implementation fidelity is never going to be 100%.  Add the stress of constant danger, the emotional impact of “The Enemy” rhetoric, the low value placed on Iraqi civilian life,  the emotional distance of long distance weaponry…and implementation fidelity plummets.

The problem with war is that infidelity often results in civilian deaths.

It’s not that we should be particularly surprised that soldiers don’t always follow the rules of engagement.  It’s that, rather than just wishing they would, we should be prepared to deal with it when they don’t.

Right now, it looks like our strategy is to cross out fingers and hope that no one finds out.  Which means that when a solider, inevitably, doesn’t follow the rules of engagement and kills a dozen civilians and a couple of journalists by bad coincidence, the competence of the military and the morality of the entire war is called into question.

I’m the last person to tell pro-war folks how to improve their position, but this seems like incredibly harmful framing for them.

At any rate, this is the hard position to hold.  To acknowledge that some of the horrors of war are because individual servicewomen and servicemen act outside the constraints they’ve been given.  And yet to avoid the temptation to demonize them and paint them as particularly evil people–people somehow different than us; we who would, of course, always implement with full fidelity.