Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Fighting Under a Microscope

How will American soldiers fight when every movement is recorded by surveillance equipment? We are pursuing a transparent battlefield where we see all enemy movement and all friendly movement. We won't get to the former, but we may get pretty good about the latter.

I'm not talking about how we'll fight the battles. I'm not worried about squad leaders on the Potomac. Command and control we will deal with, I think, as long as we are careful. I'm wondering about how we deal with the fact that war is horrible and wretched. No matter what the history books say.

When we have a battlefield where we see all of our troops and record all that they do, how will we treat our soldiers? Even in "good" wars that are universally agreed to be justified, such as World War II, we had our share of criminal actions and mistakes that cost lives. Civilians were killed or abused. Prisoners were shot or robbed or abused. Americans died from incompetent commanders or shoddy equipment or just bad luck.

Our military fights very clean based on any combat standards you want to apply--from a historical basis to a contemporary comparison. But war will never be completely clean. Even police commit crimes and abuse prisoners or detainees. Combat is far more stressful and so our troops will commit crimes or simply make lethal mistakes on occasion. How will we react to this? How will we make sure our troops fight even cleaner and how will we protect out troops from unfair prosecution?

We have three recent examples of how recording the battlefield can be very thorough.

Some type of overhead imagery (the report says a satellite but maybe it was a drone or other ground surveillance asset) has shown that the car carrying communist reporter Giuliana Sgrena after she was freed by the payment of a ransom was indeed approaching the US checkpoint at high speed and not slowly as Sgrena has sometimes claimed (at other times she said they were traveling dangerously fast):

CBS, citing Pentagon officials, said the satellite recording enabled investigators to reconstruct the event without having to rely on the eyewitness accounts.

It said the soldiers manning the checkpoint first spotted the Italian car when it was 137 yards (meters) away. By the time they opened fire and brought the car to a halt, it was 46 yards (meters) away. CBS said that happened in less than three seconds, which meant the car had to be going over 60 miles an hour.

In another report, a US Marine was cleared of wrongdoing in a shooting of wounded terrorists in the Fallujah battle. While the film of the even prompted an investigation, the film also played a role in clearing the Marine:

According to the Marine Corps, an enhanced videotape of the shooting supports the corporal's claim that the wounded Iraqi was concealing his left arm behind his head. Although the Marines said it was unclear from the video whether the Iraqi made any overtly threatening gestures, enemy forces commonly feigned death.

I'm glad our troops have been cleared in these cases but they are just a shadow of what will come if we truly create a battlefield where surveillance cameras feed every action back to our headquarters and analysts.

Still another report says that a pilot was hotdogging to his passengers in Afghanistan, trying to show off when the chopper crashed killing eleven:

The pilot in Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Darrin Raymond Rogers, 37, of Mililani, Hawaii, pleaded guilty last week at his court-martial to charges of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, property destruction and failure to obey orders.

"I'm not a bad person," Rogers told the judge. He acknowledged that he was "trying to impress the guys in the back." Rogers was sentenced to 120 days without pay at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas. He also must retire from the Army, but will retain his pension.

"There's a difference between aggressiveness and recklessness," said Richard A. Cody, a four-star general who holds the Army's No. 2 job. "We want them to be aggressive but also disciplined, so they don't get themselves in an envelope they can't get out of."

Some pilots bristle over challenges to how they fly, says a retired Marine Corps judge.

"Hot-dogging is not necessarily negligent," says Patrick McLain of Dallas, who presided at courts-martial. "You need a person who's bold and daring and courageous. It rubs against the grain to have this sort of nitpicking oversight. A very small minority would be in favor of scrupulous adherence to the voluminous rules about flying."

In past wars, this might have gone unnoticed or unreported. Yet another accident in a war.

So what do we do with situations that in the past would have never been seen? Incidents that officers might have overlooked based on the people involved being good soldiers who made a mistake or acted criminally but under extenuating circumstances? Incidents that nobody saw but a small group or even an individual responsible? People who might carry guilt the rest of their lives yet try to live good lives to make up for snapping in a moment of weakness?

How do we get our military to win when human rights groups might get a hold of tapes that show fatal mistakes and even isolated crimes?

We want our troops to fight clean but when even a good war like World War II would be flyspecked in our day, how do we deal with all this recorded material and how do we bring our troops home with their heads held high over a war well fought and won?

I don't have any answers at the moment, but we need to think about how we will treat our soldiers when their every step in an inherently chaotic environment is scrutinized for errors or wrongdoing. Perhaps years after the events.

If we don't, our military won't fight for us. It will kill--such as in Kosovo when we face inferior enemies unable to strain our capabilities--but will it fight and struggle in a tough fight?

That isn't all that clear to me.