LIMA, Peru, April 14, 2010 — Video of a 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq that resulted in civilian casualties shows just part of the story and lacks context, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.
Drawing broad conclusions from the video that surfaced on the Internet and others like it is akin to “looking at a situation through a soda straw,” Gates told reporters traveling here with him.
“You have no context or perspective,” he explained.
Gates expressed frustration that while the military faces the challenge of getting all of the information about such incidents, others can post material on the Internet with impunity that tells only part of the story.
“These people can put out anything they want, and they’re never held accountable for it,” he said. “There’s no before, and there’s no after. It is only the present.” The video in question shows a helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed 12 people, including two journalists.
Gates contrasted the concept of posting an isolated portion of an operation to that of war reporting by journalists embedded with military units.
“I have always believed embedding is a great idea, in part because it allows journalists to see what men and women do every day, to see these situations they face when they have to make these hard calls,” he said.
“But the reality is you end up looking at the war through a soda straw,” he continued. “And if the platoon you are with had a good day, then the war is going well. And if they had a bad day, the war is going badly. And that is the problem with these videos.”
The impact of civilian casualties on military operations is “very profound,” Gates said, and it hampers efforts in Afghanistan. He emphasized that the United States and NATO take extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties. It’s the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, he said, and the success of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan depends on it. The military investigates every incident of civilian casualties to determine exactly what happened and if someone should be held accountable, Gates said. The investigations also help to determine “if there are lessons to be learned in how to avoid it the next time around,” he added.
Despite these measures, Gates said, civilian casualties are a sad reality of warfare, especially given the enemy’s tactics in Afghanistan.
“We are in a war. And our adversaries, the Taliban, mingle with civilians, they use civilians, they purposely put civilians in Afghanistan in harm’s way,” he said. “And I think we had better not forget that reality as well.”
Gates said he sees no conflict in discussing human rights, among other topics, with his counterparts in Peru, Colombia and the Caribbean while headlines about civilian casualty incidents play heavily in the media at home.
“In Afghanistan, I don’t recall a single [incident involving civilian casualties] where anybody has alleged that the United States went in and did this on purpose,” he said. Rather, he added, they have been tragic incidents that happened because the Taliban deliberately put people in harm’s way, or due to a misunderstanding.
“So I think it is a completely different situation,” Gates said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)