Home > ill-considered rants, war > Confirmation bias in Baghdad

Confirmation bias in Baghdad

By now, everyone has seen the Wikileaks video showing an American helicopter crew deliberately targeting civilians and journalists, and is aghast at their callous and bloodthirsty behaviour.

Except this is not what the video actually shows.

What the video actually shows is how confirmation bias leads to disastrous decisions, and the dehumanizing effect of fighting at long range through television cameras. It shows what happens when we fight wars with modern technology.

And at another level, the video—or the reaction to it—shows how framing and context shape our understanding of what we’re seeing, and how happily we allow ourselves to be manipulated, as long as we’re allowed to believe what we want to believe.

The problem with this video is that it encourages us to see what we see and hear as the whole truth—it encourages us to believe that the camera is authoritative. But it is not the whole truth: we see the action only from the perspective of one camera, and only for the time that camera is active. We don’t know what’s going on outside the frame, or what happened before the recording begins. The full transcript helps, but it’s confusing, because we don’t know who or where the various callsigns are.

The first event on the video is a target handoff. An observer (Hotel Two-Six?) passes a target he has identified (“target 15”) to another helicopter, presumably Crazyhorse One-Eight. In the transcript, target fifteen is initially identified as “a guy with a weapon.”

The gunner slews the camera about fifty degrees to the left to pick up the designated target, and zooms in. He’s looking for a weapon, because he’s been told this is a guy with a weapon, and this is probably why he initially identifies what appear to be camera bags as slung weapons (starting at 3:14).

But moments later, he also sees real weapons, as he shifts the camera to a group of four men following the photographers. Three of these men (starting at 3:38) are unmistakably carrying weapons. At 3:45, one of them turns, and it is clear that he’s carrying an RPG.

And the next thing he sees is a long cylinder being aimed around the corner of the building. The gunner is looking for weapons; he sees an RPG. And the last thing he sees, as the wall obscures his view, is the man with the RPG raising and aiming it.

At this point, we hear “we had a guy shooting, and now he’s behind the building.”

“He was, uh, right in front of the Brad.”

So this is not an attack on unarmed civilians and journalists, as a torrent of self-righteous protest insists. It’s an attack on a group of armed men, accompanied by two journalists, after the helicopter gunner misidentified a long telephoto lens, protruding from behind a wall, as the business end of an RPG. And the gunner saw an RPG, instead of a camera, because he had been told his target was armed, and because he had already seen a real RPG on the scene. That lens was aimed at an American vehicle, the Bradley IFV.

When the helicopter clears the buildings, the crew already has permission to engage and have already made the decision to open fire. In the few seconds before they do, they don’t consider what the group of men are now doing. They are just watching for a clear shot.

In the gunner’s place, you would likely have made the same decisions. If you saw this video without first being told that two photographers were killed, if you could only watch it once, if you didn’t have the ability to freeze it, and if you had to make the decision to fire, you would likely make the same decision.

And you would likely have had the same cockpit conversation: look at those dead bastards. Because to you, the guy who was aiming an RPG at a Bradley is a bastard, and now he’s dead, and that’s a good thing.

What about the van? It comes down to whether you think you’re seeing unarmed civilians picking up a wounded man, or a group of insurgents picking up a wounded comrade. With no weapons in evidence, you might err on the side of caution.

Or you might prejudge the situation, assume they were insurgents, assume they’d be picking up the weapons, and you might open fire. That would depend on whether you saw what you expected to see, or what was actually there.

We want to be angry at someone, and the helicopter crew is the obvious target. But the helicopter crew is only doing what normal people do when they’re put into that situation. Instead, we should direct our anger at the men who put them there—at the “goofy child president” who launched that war, and the people who helped him to do that. Because this video demonstrates clearly just how easily confirmation bias can get non-combatants killed, and just what happens to bystanders in an urban fight. This video shows why war is not acceptable.

So I support Wikileaks; it’s important to bring these things out into the open. But I will also say that their video is deliberately manipulative.

They frame it with an introduction that encourages us to see the video in a certain way. They run radio noises, but no chatter, under that introduction, giving the impression that nothing was happening up until the first transmission we hear. And they highlight the journalists, but do not highlight the AKs and the RPG that were on the scene.

They lead us to see what they want us to see, and we see it. And we loudly complain about what we see, and puff ourselves up with self-righteous indignation.

And this is how I know, gentle reader, that in the gunner’s place, you would have made the same decision: because just like that gunner, you see only what you expect to see.

Categories: ill-considered rants, war
  1. April 10, 2010 at 7:54 am

    That the video has been very lightly “sexed up” at the beginning in no way obscures the truth of what happened.

    You say:

    “And at another level, the video—or the reaction to it—shows how framing and context shape our understanding of what we’re seeing, and how happily we allow ourselves to be manipulated, as long as we’re allowed to believe what we want to believe.”

    I’ll tell you what I see: I see a small group of men, some of whom are carrying guns some of whom are carrying objects which are not clearly guns, walking in the street of a populated city.

    Next you say:

    “…in the gunner’s place, you would have made the same decision: because just like that gunner, you see only what you expect to see.”

    If I was a gunner, I would presumably be trained in the laws of war. Relevant provisions are from the 1st Protocol to the Geneva Conventions:

    Part IV. Civilian Population

    Section I. General Protection Against Effects of Hostilities

    Chapter I. Basic rule and field of application

    Art 48. Basic rule

    In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.

    Art 51. – Protection of the civilian population

    1. The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations. To give effect to this protection, the following rules, which are additional to other applicable rules of international law, shall be observed in all circumstances.

    2. The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.

    3. Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this section, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.

    4. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:
    (a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective;
    (b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or
    (c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol;

    and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.

    5. Among others, the following types of attacks are to be considered as indiscriminate:
    (a) an attack by bombardment by any methods or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects;


    (b) an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

    This is an urban warfare situation. There are going to be civilians.

    Leaving aside the alleged misidentification of the camera lens as a gun: when a van pulls up and an unarmed man get out to assist a dying man, a soldier trained in the laws of war’s first reaction should be: is this person a civilian (and therefore not a target)? Might it be possible that there are other civilians in the van?

    Instead, the gunner itches to attack the van and the unarmed man as he drags away another unarmed man (who btw even assuming he was a combatant is now clearly gravely injured and thus no longer a legitimate target – Protocol I again). Yes, a military target is not illegitimate just because of the presence of civilians, but international law recognises the principle of proportionality: will my attack lead to disproportionate injury and damage to civilians?

    I suggest to you that a well-trained, good-intentioned, non-homicidal soldier in the same position as the gunner would not have acted as the gunner acted, and that to suggest that “we would have acted the same” in his position is a weak and disingenuous attempt to explain away – even justify – a crime.

  2. April 10, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Thanks for commenting, Sarah.

    One reason I avoid posting on subjects such as this is the difficulty of taking a nuanced position in the polarized world of the Internet. I am not attempting to justify the attack on the van; I am pointing out that, when placed in situations such as these, ordinary, well-intentioned people will inevitably do unjustifiable things.

    If you think that well-intentioned, non-homicidal people behave otherwise, I suggest you look up the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, both of which suggest that well-intentioned, non-homicidal people may be difficult to find.

  3. April 10, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    One of the details we can’t see in the gun-sight video is that the American ground forces were maybe 4 or 5 houses down the street when Namir took the photos around the corner [ See my blog about the last photo: http://cliffcheney.com/blog/2010/04/07/namirs-last-photos ]. If he had been the RPG armed man who had just disappeared behind the wall, an American vehicle could have been destroyed. The pilot was under a lot of pressure to protect the soldiers on the ground.

    The group of Iraqi men knew how close the Americans were and should not have held such heavy weaponry openly in an active combat area.

    It is unfortunate that Namir did not sense the danger of being near the men. I don’t think they knew the helicopter, which was one mile away, was targeting them or capable of hitting them.

    I am grateful to Wikileaks for bringing this video forward and I think journalists should not miss the opportunity to learn lessons from it.

  4. May 8, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    My response to your opinion. As a photojournalist.

    “Wikileaks: I suppose it’s bloody cinema. But so is satellite imagery.”

  1. April 9, 2010 at 7:55 pm
  2. April 10, 2010 at 8:51 am
  3. May 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm

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