Some of the discussion around the leaked video of the incident in Baghdad in 2007 where helicopter gunships killed two Reuters journalists and 10 Iraqis has focused upon comparisons between that incident and war games.  The comparison has, in part, been motivated by the obvious similarities between the camera view in the video and the eye-of-god view provided by many modern video games.  The feedback loop here is pretty complex, however: the overall design and sometimes the specific moments of some games that simulate modern warfare are both heavily influenced not only by the actual technology employed by the military but by video-footage of the weapons in action (the “weapons-eye” view that became so popular with news networks during Gulf War I, for example).  Yet the military is increasingly taking a leaf out of the same playbook that game designers are using in the designs of their interfaces because the basic design challenge is in both cases the same: to give an operator effective control over a weapons system in a high-stress, high-stakes, information-overloaded environment.

Of course, “high-stress” and “high-stakes” are ultimately relative to the potential real-world outcomes of those tasks, something demonstrated all-too-clearly by the video footage.  In that regard, the most disturbing aspect of the limited discussion that has taken place about this incident is the way in which the comparison with videogames has been invoked in order to blame the gunship pilots.  Critics have pointed to their dispassionate approach to the killing and they have coupled this with the kinds of video-game like images in the video to suggest that the soldiers were treating their real-world warfare as if it was a videogame.  While I haven’t seen any reputable commentator (as opposed to the usual dickheads who pop up with alarming regularity in the comment zone of the blogosphere) make this connection directly, there has been the none-too-subtle implication that–surprise, surprise–videogames desensitize people to . . .yawn. . .now where was I?  Oh, that’s right. . .desensitize people to violence and are ultimately responsible for the kind of carnage we witness in that video.

Therefore it was refreshing to hear NPR’s On the Media (the only mainstream media commentary and analysis source worth getting out of bed for) air a segment called “Virtual War” recently in which technology writer for Wired and The New York Times, Clive Thompson, offered an unusually nuanced (for the media) analysis of the relationship of games to warfare.  He quite sensibly noted that it is pretty bloody unfair to blame the gunship pilots for that incident given that maintaining this kind of emotional distance from killing is exactly what the military is training people to do (and he also notes that over the ages it has actually proven incredibly difficult to do this).  Moreover, it is what we as a society have collectively authorized the military to do in our name.  If we don’t believe our troops should be involved in these kinds of conflicts, if we don’t believe that the military should be utilizing this or that training system, or specific types of weaponry, we should act on those beliefs through the ballot box, lobbying, etc.  I hasten to add that, on the other hand, I don’t for one moment buy the “just following orders” defense for committing atrocities–but I don’t believe that is applicable here (more on that in a second).

The “Virtual War” segment is interesting in a lot of other ways.  Thompson and Gladstone consider the larger relationship between game design and ethical and moral behavior and provide a couple of intriguing examples of how even big-budget games (which, as Thompson points out) are usually under an economic imperative to dispense completely with a moral and ethical dimension) are providing new ways to confront players with ethical and moral dilemmas.  Thompson also categorically dismisses the idea that there is any research out there that “proves” a link between games and violent behavior.  If anything, the macro picture tends to point in the opposite direction, as he notes.  In the same period that the popularity of gaming has skyrocketed, rates of violence in the US, especially among younger people, have steadily declined.  Of course, that won’t stop your average Concerned Parents group from trotting out the first piece of dubious research into game violence they can lay their Google on, but that speaks more to the general scientific (and research) illiteracy of our society.  After all, there are people who actually argue that Creation Science is, well, a science.

There are, therefore, some more productive criticisms we could bring to bear on the events depicted in the video.  James Fallows has argued that we should be focusing not only on the rules of engagement that made an incident of this kind–if not this specific incident–inevitable, but also the wisdom of engaging in these kinds of conflicts in the first place.  Whatever you think about those issues, he suggests, it is important that we don’t replicate the Abu Ghraib follow-up fiasco where only the lower-level grunts were hauled over the coals while the military (and governmental) higher-ups who created the conditions for such a prison to flourish were–Quel Surprise!–exonerated, if indeed they were ever charged.

For me, however, the video raises three additional questions that are each troubling in their own way.  First and foremost is the almost complete lack of discussion of this video in the US mainstream.  Somewhat hilariously (if you imagine a kind of bitter disappointment to the hilarity) NPR’s On the Media refers to the fact that the video “generated much debate in the media” but when you click on their link it takes you to a (very interesting) summary of responses across the blogosphere.  Fallows is right to put this video up there with the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib as something that should motivate a national conversation.  Again, I’m not suggesting a particular outcome to that conversation as being more or less desirable; I’m pretty conflicted about this incident myself.  But for heaven’s sake, let’s talk about it!  Lots of chatting amongst the blogeratti is not the same thing as a mainstream conversation.

[rant]I recently posted a link to this video on Facebook.  I’m still a bit of a noob on FB so I naively expected that it would generate some comment.  Only one of my friends commented.  Now there could be many reasons for that, but I suspect that one of them is the fact that there’s a terrible irony at work with FB.  It is turning into one of the single most powerful mechanisms the world has ever seen for networking people across the boundaries of space and interest.  Yet it is also absolutely the worst space to engage in any kind of discussion about anything that really matters.  But it is only meant to be a “social network,” I hear you say.  True.  But when did we come up with this idea that the social–in contrast to thousands of years of human cultural history–automatically means “nothing serious should be discussed here?”  I suspect FB is putting the final nail in the coffin of the idea that increasing the interconnectedness of people (long the mantra of the technogiddies) will improve citizenship and democracy.  Instead, it is just going to allow us to build more effective gated communities.[/rant]

The second thing that I troubles me about the reaction to the video of the 2007 incident is that it seems to indicate how isolated most people in the US have become from both the nation’s military and the real nature of the wars in which they are engaged in our name.  As many people have observed, the US is massively engaged in two wars but in terms of day-to-day living in the US you would never know it.

Most of the blame for this I think falls on the news media; it is clear from looking at this footage, for example, how sanitized has been the coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (To be sure, our government and the military have found this sanitizing mighty useful and have not discouraged it; indeed, one of the controversial aspects of the video is the way in which it seems to point to–at best–misrepresentation of this event by the military and perhaps even a coverup).  And I’m sure that when many people heard about this video and heard the phrase “civilian casualties” most people went “meh.”  Because that is one of the drumbeats in the media, especially in Afghanistan.  Whether or not all the dead in the video were civilian is in question.  But irrespective of that fact, being informed about what “civilian casualties” really means is important for US citizens in understanding what it is we are asking our armed forces to do, with what tools, and what consequences.  “Civilian casualties” sounds so neutral, so harmless, so inconsequential.  But in this video, a “civilian casualty” is a living body literally ripped apart by a 30mm chaingun.  Why is it important for ordinary people to see that?  For starters, if you don’t feel that you have the stomach to watch such a thing it is pretty hypocritical for you to actively encourage or passively acquiesce in other people doing it and/or witnessing it in your name.

Furthermore, US armed forces in Afghanistan–again, in our name–have developed a regrettable history of producing large numbers of “civilian casualties.”  When you watch the video you get a sense of why someone coming across the scattered remnants of one of their relatives in the wake of such an “accident” might be a might ticked off.  Might feel that the inevitable apology from the US is a little lame.  Might even feel that they need to take matters into their own hands.  Do we want to be putting our men and women in that situation?  Do we want to be altering the conditions under which they fight?  Alter the leaders under which they fight?  All worthy topics of conversation. . .if only we were interested in talking about any of them any more.  Yes, the state of your IRA is important.  Job losses are important.  But if we really believe those things are more important than fighting two wars half a world away then for heaven’s sake let’s bring the men and women home.  At least let’s not forget about them and shut our eyes and ears when we see evidence of the conditions they are being asked to endure and the actions they are being asked to perpetrate.

The third disturbing issue raised by the video is the degree to which it highlights an extremely problematic reliance on a manifestly inadequate technology (at least in this environment).  The situation on the ground was certainly ambiguous.  The limited media discussion of this video has overwhelmingly used the term “civilian casualties.”  But frame enlargements of the video clearly show that one of the soon-to-be-dead is carrying an RPG.  Not quite your garden variety civilian, then.  However it is also clear from the intercom chatter that one of the two journalists among the crowd was mis-identified as carrying a weapon when in fact he was carrying a camera.  Therefore the gunship crews had not the slightest inkling that they were about to open fire on a crowd that, whatever its additional makeup, included two unarmed journalists.  While there may be some scepticism on this point, I want to believe that had they known this fact they would have either held fire themselves or reported that fact back to their command who would have told them to hold fire.  More disturbingly, a video enlargement of the van that came to pick up the survivors of the first gunship pass (and which was filleted in the second pass) shows the two children at the window.

The crews, however, did not have the benefit of either the video enlargements or the leisure with which to study them.  And that is the real point.  They were making snap situational assessments based on small-screen images of a reality they could not witness up close.  The cameras provided them with the feeling as if they were witnessing the scene first-hand, but in no real sense were they doing so.  The tools they were using were not only inadequate for the job, they were giving them a false sense of certainty that made them feel as if they did have an adequate handle on the situation.  The crews felt that they knew with certainty what they were looking at on the ground and what the situation was and they were tragically wrong about that.  This was compounded by the fact that they were being put in a situation where they had to act on that imperfect information in real-time.  In some ways this has always been the condition of combat: you are always dealing with imperfect information.  Usually, however, when you have imperfect information about a situation commanders will be aware that the situation is imperfect and they will have to weigh the risks of acting very carefully.  What is so troubling about this incident, therefore, is the way in which reliance on some forms of technology appears to be creating a false sense of certainty in some combat situations and eliminating a very necessary level of tactical hesitancy by banishing any inkling that your information is imperfect.  When the gunship is hovering over the wounded journalist, and the crew is begging him to produce a weapon so they can waste him, it is not naked bloodlust–it is simply that there is no doubt in their minds that he is an insurgent and a threat.  Because that is what the technology in control of their weaponry has allowed them to believe.

That may be the only really useful connection between gaming and this incident: both participate in a culture where the dominant technological paradigm encourages us to believe that we can master the universe by eliminating uncertainty and shortening the feedback loop between input-decision-output.  However, as the video sadly demonstrates, evolution gifted us with both skepticism and doubt for a reason.

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  1. […] Political Science Department.  The piece was written prior to the leaked video footage of the helicopter gunship attack in Baghdad, but it also raises the issue of the effect of military simulation training on battlefield […]

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