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Friday, November 19, 2004

Should the possum-take-out video have been censored?

Excellent discussion by Diplomads and Eagle1 about how the military should have handled the video of the Marine taking out the wounded insurgent fighter who he perceived to be playing possum. The dips make the case that the video should have been suppressed. Eagle1 argues that the right response would have been to come clean with the video, then aggressively defend the Marine's behavior.

Eagle hits the nail on the head about the proper PR response (best statement I have seen yet, my own included). But of course our military did not make an aggressive response. I can't believe our military spokesman only said "we are investigating," without explaining how feigning death is a hostile activity, and shooting enemies who are engaged in hostile activity is a soldier's job description.

I agree with the Diplomads, however, that the military must be ready to censor video that is easily misunderstood, or in the case of an actual war crime, could wrongly paint our entire military with the mis-deeds of a few. The military could censor video but still let the story out, then follow Eagle1's script and protect the brand by explaining our policy for the relevant hypotheticals.

Example: The Abu Ghraib pictures should never have been released. My local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, ran the picture of the hooded prisoner with the "electrodes" on his fingers over and over again, without ever repeating the information that the man was being spoofed and the "electrodes" were fake.

Just as our terrorist enemy does not abide by the rules of war, and hence must be treated with great suspicion, so too we are faced with a media that does not abide by principles of honest reporting, and hence should not always be trusted with full information, even when tactical information is not involved.

Half the world's press is on the side of the enemy. That fact needs to be taken into account every bit as much as the fact of explosive-belt-wearing possums.

UPDATE: Jawa and Ace are also talking about the media's search for more of that Abu Ghraib gold, as are Sasha, and lots of other smart people.

Also, signing the petition that is going around is, oh I don't know, a little like having a chance to VOTE again, and don't we have a good feeling about that? You even get to post a comment. Mine:
That soldier should be awarded a medal for his alertness in detecting covert behavior from an unsecured enemy, and for acting quickly to terminate the potential threat, in spite of great personal risk from a nearby camera-man, and the potentially lethal moral incompetence that the camera-man would almost certainly expose him to.

My fear is that the brass might say: "You know, that video LOOKS bad, so maybe we should burn this one friendly, just to prove to all the people who can't understand what is and is not bad behavior that we really do punish bad behavior." Read Dale Franks' powerful essay on the importance of demonstrating that we abide by the rules of war, and sacrificing one soldier almost seems plausible. But that would itself be breaking the rules. As Eagle1 says, our job is to illuminate. The way to create light is to do justice. The more explaining is required, the more illumination is accomplished. The brass must KNOW that if they try to sacrifice this Marine, it is THEY who will burn, and that WILL be justice. I don't think they'll be that stupid, but a few million signatures on a petition might provide a little insurance.

I had never come across Eagle1/Eaglespeak before, but he has an awesome blog. Check out, for instance, his background post on the fallujah shooting, with his from-the-horse's-mouth citations on the law of armed conflict. (Belmont has a similar background post, but not as thorough.)

Well, this is the limitation of the blogosphere at present. There is no reliable way to connect people to the information they would think is important. It's all just turning over rocks, finding the occasional slimy mollusk (Eagle1's rating in Truth Laid Bear's "ecosystem.") I'll definitely be giving Eaglespeak some visits.

Kevin Sites, who filmed the possum shooting in Fallujah, has a self-justifying post up on his blog that shows how immanently biased he really is. On the heart of the issue he writes:
According to Lt. Col Bob Miller, the rules of engagement in Falluja required soldiers or Marines to determine hostile intent before using deadly force. I was not watching from a hundred feet away. I was in the same room. Aside from breathing, I did not observe any movement at all.
That is, he interprets from the lack of observed movement that intent was not hostile. That is absurd. Hostile intent had already been determined. These were known insurgents who had been fighting from inside a mosque. It was already known that they were not bystanders. The only questions are whether the "hostile" was indeed playing possum, and hence engaging in covert action that warranted immediate termination, and whether the soldier should have known that these enemy fighters had already been taken prisoner the day before.

Sites reports that the soldier did not know that these hostiles had already been secured as prisoners the day before, and that that status was in question anyway because insurgents had re-occupied the mosque overnight. They easily could have booby-trapped bodies or armed the wounded with grenades. On the perception of possum-playing, Sites acknowledges the danger, and the possible reasonableness of the soldier's momentary preception of this activity, but tries to declare it unreasonable in the broader context. Marines had just been in the Mosque killing insurgents and those Marines:
...knew from their training to check the insurgents for weapons and explosives after disabling them, instead of leaving them where they were and waiting outside the mosque for the squad I was following to arrive.
Thus the soldiers with Sites, who went in next, should have known everything was secure. Bullshit. By Sites own report, they had not been told that there were any prisoners inside. The Marines coming out said they had shot everyone. The obvious implication, on finding a hostile playing possum, was that this body HAD NOT been secured, or it would have been reported as a prisoner. Sites is clearly glomming onto those bits of reason and evidence that seem to militate against the reasonableness of the shooting while ignoring contrary interpretations. Nowhere is this clearer than in his conclusion:
So here, ultimately, is how it all plays out: when the Iraqi man in the mosque posed a threat, he was your enemy; when he was subdued he was your responsibility; when he was killed in front of my eyes and my camera -- the story of his death became my responsibility.
Sites ASSUMES that the enemy was indeed subdued, and that the Marine should have regarded him as such. That is exactly the question, and no such assumption about the answer to it warranted.

Sites wants to present himself as an honest broker. His lengthy post is addressed to the soldiers he was embedded with. But the clear implication is that he does not even know what an honest broker is.

Thanks for the very kind words (and the links).
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