Irak — Gates: Internet Video Shows ‘Soda Straw’ View of War

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)