War Crimes and Body Cams: Oscar-nominated Danish Film Raises Accountability Issues
February 23, 2016 Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet & Maj. Ryan Kenny / AFCEA International
Director/writer Tobias Lindholm's Academy-Award-Nominated Best Foreign Language Film, A War, captures both the rigors of war and the mundane, crippling consequences for war's survivors. It also introduces the idea of body-cams for soldiers. Using "body cameras" to police officers is now clearly established in the US. What are the chances that US soldiers might be equipped with cameras to record their interactions with foreigners in distant combat zones?
A War: Truth from an Oscar-nominated Film:
War Is a Bore -- and It Can Be a Trial Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet
(February 21, 2016) -- Director/writer Tobias Lindholm's Academy-Award-Nominated Best Foreign Language Film, A War, captures both the rigors of war and the mundane, crippling consequences for war's survivors.
Filmed in the outlands of Turkey, Lindholm serves up scenes that duplicate the Afghanistan we have glimpsed in nightly news reports. But the film goes beyond the battlefield to show a war's impacts -- both domestic and political -- back home. Like A Few Good Men and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Lindholm's tale starts in a soldier's dirty world and ends in a sterile courtroom.
This may be the slowest-moving war film in the history of cinema. Which is a good thing. Most war films focus on the frantic scramble of combat when a good part of a soldier's experience involves downtime -- sitting, waiting, pondering, fearing, regretting.
Lindholm's pacing provides viewers with sufficient time for inward reflection and evaluation about a soldier's life -- line of work that is often little more than a demanding form of drudgery, but one that carries the risk of sudden, life-changing injury or violent, bloody death.
Director Lindholm reportedly cast actual Danish soldiers and real Afghan civilians (both villagers and refugees), as well as Taliban fighters, in his film. In a video interview with the New York Times, Lindholm describes how he aimed for authenticity by inviting professional snipers to join him in the post-production. He even allowed them to "edit" a scene involving a long-distance "kill."
It's an important scene, since it depicts the legal "niceties" of modern, nuanced war. In this case, a Taliban fighter recovers a buried IED but the snipers cannot open fire while he is merely digging up the bomb. They need to wait until he's holding it in his hands. At this point, the target is judged to be acting with "hostile intent" and can be gunned down -- by hidden gunmen hiding behind a pile of rocks a quarter-mile away.
A "Show of Force" Slowly Falters A War details how the daily work of this forlorn band of brothers requires them to "show their presence" by roving through Afghanistan's isolated, tree-less, dry-dirt provinces dressed in sweltering battle gear, hauling backpacks and vests weighed down with ammo and water jugs -- and always cradling high-powered rifles.
These men are perfect targets for any Taliban fighters that want to hunker in the landscape and fire off a few potshots. Easier still for the local fighters to simply sit back and wait for a foreign soldier to stumble across a buried bomb -- a weapon that is virtually guaranteed to leave a human body in three pieces.
A War provides one clear sign that US presence in Afghanistan has had a lasting influence: The Danish soldiers have all adopted the phrase, "Fuck, man!"
Early in the film, "Denmark's finest" vent their frustrations and challenge the value of these seemingly futile -- and dangerous -- "displays of strength" that require them to creep around villages where, as the locals tell them: "The Taliban run away whenever you show up. But they always come back at the night."
When a team muscles its way into the home of a poor Afghan family with rifles drawn and their nerves on edge, all they find is a desperate father whose young daughter is lying in a bed, whimpering from the pain of a burned and infected arm. And all the team's medic can do is offer to "rinse the wound with water" and rewrap it in military-grade gauze.
Company commander Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbaek) is a powerful presence on the battlefront, alternately leading and comforting "his boys." Asbaek brings a brooding profile to the role, thanks, in part, to a muscular, furrowed brow that suggests he starts every morning with 100 eyebrow push-ups. (While Clark Gable had a cleft chin, Asbaek has a cleft forehead.)
But, when it comes to his role as a long-distance father, the daily cross-continental phone calls to Denmark don't give his struggling family much comfort or support.
Abandoned at home, Claus' wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) has to deal with three children -- one adorable, one sullen and one deeply troubled. The oldest boy has a penchant for starting fights, ignoring orders, challenging his mother and biting other kids.
The film captures the insanity of imposed wars. Civilians are confronted and threatened by nervous soldiers who grow angry when their commands are not instantly obeyed. (Remember, they are shouting commands in Danish!)
"At the end of the day, our job is to get our men back all in one piece," Claus insists. The primary goal is to "protect your brothers," not to protect civilians.
From Afghan Trails to Danish Trials
The defining conflict comes one day when Pederson and his team find themselves trapped inside a small village compound, under fire, with a fellow soldier bleeding to death. Desperate to protect his men and secure an opening for a medevac chopper, Claus calls in an airstrike.
There's an explosion that covers the soldiers in sand and pebbles as they hover protectively over the body of their injured comrade. He is evacuated to a hospital. No Danish lives are lost.
Claus explains his situation with a phrase that has been recited, used, and misused by soldiers in every century that has seen war: "I had to do something."
Claus has acted bravely and responsibly. Or so it seems.
Tragically, it turns out that the airstrike killed a number of civilians, including children. Pederson discovers the mistake when he enters a demolished room and finds the bodies of dead children covered with dust and blood. Pederson is stunned by the sight of the two bare feet of one dead child.
Some days later, army investigators interrogate Claus and inform him that he will be heading home to rejoin his family -- and to stand trial for war crimes.
The besieged soldiers assumed the targeted building was filled with Taliban. But assumptions are not enough. Under the laws of war, a commander needs to have "PID" -- positive identification of the enemy -- before calling in a lethal strike.
This can be a difficult choice in a situation where bullets are flying at you and cutting through the bodies of your men.
The film returns to Denmark. Claus is reunited with his family but he has to spend each day in a courtroom facing a panel of grim-faced judges -- and the prospect of a multi-year prison sentence.
The courtroom proceedings inevitably seep into the Pederson's shaky home life. One night, as Claus is helping Maria put his children to bed, his daughter asks a question that no father should ever have to answer.
The final image in the film is especially haunting. After Claus has tucked in his oldest son, he turns back and freezes. He finds himself starring at the boy's small feet, barefoot and sticking out from beneath his blanket.
The Issue of Combat-Cams
There is one element of Lindholm's story that is especially notable. The key evidence used against Pederson comes from a videotape that captured his commands during the heat of battle. It turns out that Danish soldiers are required to wear cameras in the battlefield. The evidence gathered by these "troop-cams" can be used in court.
The utility of issuing "body cameras" to police officers has now been clearly established in the US. What are the chances that US soldiers might be equipped with cameras to record their interactions with foreigners in distant combat zones?
Apparently there are a few cases where the Pentagon has allowed video cameras in combat situations but there is a basic resistance to their use. As Major Ryan Kenny explains in an article for AFCEA International, the Pentagon has blocked any plans for the use of battlefield body-cams out of a fear of "tactical video footage failing into enemy hands or being exploited for anti-US military proprganda."
The Pentagon has even opposed soldiers using personal Go-Pro helmet-cams while on duty. (That ban, apparently, is widely ignored, given the assortment of hand-made in-combat videos now widely available on YouTube.)
An Interview with Director Tobias Lindholm HuffPost Live
Director Tobias Lindholm tackles morality on the battlefield in his latest film "A War."
(December 1, 2015) -- Public outrage over police misconduct has boosted the number of appeals for police departments across the United States to equip patrol officers with body cameras. As a result, the US Justice Department announced a $20 million endeavor to supply law enforcement nationwide with the devices. Amid such efforts, now is a good time to examine the pros and cons of equipping US troops with body cameras.
The Defense Department has not yet mandated use of body cameras across the services, though efforts to modernize ground forces have indicated some demand for the technology. For example, the Army’s Land Warrior system employs a number of sensors, including video cameras, and a limited number of troops already use them.
But security concerns such as tactical video footage falling into enemy hands or being exploited for anti-US military propaganda have prevented leaders from requiring troops to video record their actions. If the incidents in Baltimore, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri, tell us anything -- it is that a video can dramatically alter public perception of an event.
Public accountability is the main reason that the military might want to equip its forces with body cameras. Footage could help officials dispel negative portrayals of US combat actions, for instance. Furthermore, as with the police, the military scrutinizes every violent engagement to ensure that troops acted appropriately and limited undue civilian harm and suffering.
In a time of instant news feeds and viral videos, military use of body cameras could protect the forces’ image and preserve US soft power. Media-savvy adversaries seek to portray military actions as excessively destructive. By recording and presenting actual footage from combat engagements, the military could counter such negative propaganda.
Additionally, footage could be used for after-action reviews and self-policing. Law enforcement agencies that have adopted use of body cameras noted significant benefits. For example, Birmingham, Alabama, police reported a 70 percent decrease in citizen complaints and a 34 percent decrease in the use of force by officers after deploying 319 cameras in June.
Body cameras used during security operations could similarly help military forces. The Hawthorne effect is alive and well: People improve their behavior if they think their actions might be observed.
The cameras also could serve as powerful training aids. To date, this has been the primary military use of body cameras. Recordings let individuals and teams review their actions, both from a first-person perspective and from teammates’ angles. Watching their own performance, as well as their teammates, lets trainees and veterans evaluate what went wrong and what went right.
Before large-scale adoption, however, a number of concerns must be addressed. Both police and military officials have expressed worry that use of body cameras will infringe on privacy rights. Body cameras can capture embarrassing information, which means officials must develop suitable policies to protect the privacy of wearers and the public.
In addition, military communicators soon will have to take on the challenges of integrating body cameras into tactical command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.
What military communicators will need in the future depends on the glut of data produced and the nature of new programs to tag content in video and image search engines, making the data more useful if easily searchable.
New analytics systems should include as much automation and meta-tagging identification as possible, and future systems should leverage emerging object recognition programs that can identify people, places and things.
New back-end infrastructure is needed to store and organize this raw data, but the challenge could prove more than worthwhile because other applications could extract useful information beyond the first-person experience generated by the body camera.
Developers of military body camera systems should consider how background data can be integrated into future C4ISR situational awareness platforms. Perhaps data could be collated to produce a cohesive understanding, with big data applications analyzing environmental factors in the recordings to reveal trends otherwise imperceptible to humans.
Military use would follow the sensor proliferation trend happening commercially through the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT). When combined with supercomputers capable of machine learning, body camera video recordings might offer another trove of sensor information from which machines could gain new knowledge.
In the military, the IoT will affect body camera usage through connections to wearable devices. Already, troops are exposed to augmented and mediated reality via tactical head-mounted display platforms, which will be fielded more frequently over the next three to five years. When body cameras are integrated with these systems, troops could analyze video feeds in real time, alerting tactical users to the presence of both threats and friendly forces.
Soon, body cameras might become mandatory for law enforcement. The requirement might not be such a bad thing.
Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA, attends the College of Naval Command and Staff of the US Naval War College and is a researcher with its Gravely Naval Warfare Research Group. He created an online forum to foster discussions on emerging technologies at www.militarycommunicators.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views and opinions of the Defense Department, US Army or other organizations. COMBAT FOOTAGE: Soldiers Ambushed In Kunar Provence
(March 26, 2012) -- US Army Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, get Ambushed by Insurgents in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Body Cameras in the Military --
A Challenging but Perhaps Necessary Technology Ryan Kenny / Military Communicators
(June 5, 2015) -- For government agencies, like the military and the police that depend on maintaining the trust of the public and experience profound litigious scrutiny over their conduct during violent encounters, the use of cameras and sensors to record their actions may no longer be an option -- but something mandated . . . .
Cameras and Sensors in the Military
In the military, the public and Congress provide greater lenience in requiring the use of cameras during combat operations. Obvious security concerns about the footage making its way into the hands of an adversary or being exploited for anti-US military narratives and propaganda has effectively shielded the military from being mandated to video record its actions.
However, if the incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore tell us anything -- it’s that a video can either save or destroy one’s public narrative.
A number of reasons to support the use of body-cameras at all times during combat operations exist.
Public Accountability -- First, like the police, the US military scrutinizes every violent act to ensure that the military means employed were authorized and used responsibly. The US military is bound by a number of conventions of war limiting undue harm and suffering to both its adversaries and civilians on the battlefield.
Our adversaries have sought to exploit this by portraying US military actions as unjust or overly destructive. By recording and presenting actual footage from these events the US military could make its case that it had performed due diligence and taken all necessary precautions to prevent collateral damage or death.
Quality Control -- Second, to the extent that the US military may have bad actors in its ranks, the use of body-cameras could help hold them to account for their actions. The US military will continue to have to operate in environments where everyone has a smartphone with a camera.
The pressure to act virtuously in all situations -- even during life-and-death scenarios -- will only increase. In the long run, the US military will be better served by using documented incidents to prosecute and remove bad actors than it will by trying to deny or cover up these events.
Training Resource -- Finally, beyond trying to employ body-cameras to counter the narrative of others and protect from litigation, the use of these systems should be considered as powerful learning tools. The military has primarily used body-cameras as a means to review the actions of individuals and teams as they encounter challenging tactical scenarios.
A service member’s ability to watch his or her own performance, or that of another, and evaluate what went wrong and what went right enables them to learn and adapt.
What are the Primary Concerns of Using Body-Cameras? Privacy Concerns -- Both the police and military have concerns that the use of body-cameras will infringe on their privacy and the privacy of citizens.
These concerns must be considered along with other concerns that the government in general is collecting too much information about its citizens. There is a balance, however. Limits can and should be put in place through the establishment of independent reviews and scrutinized access to recorded materials.
Over Dependence on Cameras -- Another concern by the police is that an over reliance on body-cameras may appear -- whereby other accounts by witnesses may become discredited or undervalued in courts of law. A number of innate biases and limitations to human cognition and memory have been well documented and used in courts to undermine the credibility of human witnesses.
New technologies will not change this. Instead, they offer a means to verify accounts and can provide a counter perspective to the limited recordings offered by bystanders with grainy smartphone footage.
User Editing -- Some early use of body-cameras found that users edited out content selectively. The mandate to use these devices centers on accountability and veracity. To allow users to modify content would undermine these efforts and negate their effectiveness. Tampering controls can and should be put in place to prevent this.
What will Military Communicators Be Asked to Support? Back-end Infrastructure -- Beyond the devices being worn the means to store and access the glut of recorded media produced will also be required. Systems designed for video surveillance storage and analytics appear good solutions. The banking and retail sectors have already invested mightily in the development of these systems therefore their experiences should be capitalized on by the DoD.
Data Security -- Data at the device, in transport, or in storage will have to be secured and properly classified. This will be a top challenge in developing any long-term solution. Should a device be compromised its data must be eliminated. If body-camera feeds are transmitted from the device, in real-time, it must travel encrypted -- increasing the overhead of its bandwidth use.
Unlike other forms of stored classified materials -- the video produced by body-cameras may contain personal data or other information requiring limited access. Uploading this data to the right location with the right access restrictions will be a challenge.
Automated Classification -- As new body-camera systems are designed they should include as much automated classification as possible. Some tools have already been developed for the use of augmented reality devices such as geofencing and automated object tagging that could be adopted to automatically label and categorize the content recorded by body-cameras.
Moreover, marking the time at which a given reference occurs could allow classified sections of video to be automatically restricted without intense post-production editing or management.
Video Search and Analytics -- The final requirements for the long-term success of body-cameras systems will be the capacity to search and perform analytics on the enormous catalogue of video that will be produced. The ability of systems to conduct image search within videos to identify key objects and people that have not been manually tagged will be essential.
Moreover, the ability to input video into other analytic programs -- such as those seeking to map geographical areas, analyze human performance and behavior, and study secondary factors from an environment -- may provide a profound source of information for future big-data programs.
The notion that a supercomputer someday may learn from these tapes just as Watson has learned natural language from Wikipedia and other data sources is not completely unreasonable. The first step in achieving this machine learning may come from access to the video content provided by body-cameras in the environment.
In conclusion, I believe much of the work to build the necessary back-end infrastructure to overcome these challenges will be difficult. However, I do not see any end in sight for the use of body-cameras by the police or military.
The demands for the use of these devices will likely increase as the technological means to employ them decrease in cost. Now is the time to begin a reexamination of our policies and practices to ensure we are prepared for this future.
As always -- the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the US government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.