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.