Maybe the most significant piece of video to come out this week was not on television—not originally—but from the website wikileaks.org. The video, which TIME’s Mark Thompson analyzes here, shows the pilot’s-eye view as, in July 2007, a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad shot and killed a Reuters journalist, his driver and several nearby people and wounded others including two children. Reuters had attempted to get the video from the Pentagon; the Wikileaks site says it received it from a military whistleblower.
The video is embedded above (warning—it is graphic). I’m not going to try to rule on whether the shooting was error, understandable, or something far more egregious. (Wikileaks does editorialize on it, having posted it at the site collateralmurder.com.) But it is a stark reminder of the dangers and costs of war, and how little we’ve really seen of them in the last decade.And it seems to be another example of how even straight documentary footage is still subject for argument and fodder for very different conclusions.
One argument about showing raw combat footage—both for and against—is that it will have a single, predictable effect on public opinion. Usually the assumption is that (often with Vietnam cited as evidence) it will turn the audience against a given war. Not always, though: see the decision by FDR during WWII to release film from the Marine battle at Tarawa to give the American public an idea of the sacrifices that fighting men were making.
I don’t know if was ever really true that footage of war death moved public opinion in a predictable direction. But if it was ever true, it must be even less so now, as the viral spread of video and the endless outlets for debate make any raw material subject to argument and politicization. Already you can look at the comments at a site like Mediaite (not to mention all the ones at YouTube) and see that people are capable of seeing the same chilling footage and drawing opposite conclusions.
I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, but it’s a fact of our public discourse now. And to me it’s only more reason that, when our country goes to war, we have access to more, not less, first-hand images of the consequences. In a contentious era, the fog of war exists not just on the battlefield but on the home front. At least with primary sources and documentation, though, the debaters have common source material to start with.
Videos like this show what war is (or, at least, a very specific slice of it). Fom there, we can go on to argue what war means, and what it’s worth.