The footage in the video leaked by WikiLeaks of a U.S. helicopter shooting hellfire missiles at Reuters journalists, killing them, is a classic example of the challenges of counterinsurgency. Helicopter pilots perceive that they are being threatened by insurgents carrying an rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. After engaging the insurgents, they target a van being driven by other insurgents who are attempting to remove their injured brethren from the scene.
Except the RPG launcher is actually the camera lens of a Reuters photographer. The van is civilian. It has two children inside, a boy and a girl. Both are wounded.
A similar incident happened in Operation Cast Lead where the IDF targeted what it believed to be a truck carrying rockets, only to learn later that the truck was filled with harmless oxygen tanks.
Blame in this case is very difficult to pinpoint, as it also is in Israel. The pilots did not have the proper training to identify an RPG. They also lacked knowledge of the operations of insurgent groups (whom in Baghdad tend to launch RPGs from outside the city, not inside it). Yet higher command can only give permission to engage targets based on information given over the radio. The pilots asked permission to engage every single time, and they were granted permission. Their description of the situation was a totally reasonable standard for a commander to give permission to engage.
There are some sad truths about this incident. The first is that it is likely not unique. There could be literally hundreds or even thousands of similar cases. Secondly, such incidents are virtually inevitable in a theater of war. Innocent people always always die in war. Let this video be a stark reminder of the true costs of war.
The U.S.' official response will be very interesting to watch, especially in comparison to the Israeli government's response. In this case, there's no explanation of events to be proffered. The United States engaged unarmed civilians and children attempting to give medical assistance to the wounded. Under Article 21 of the Geneva Convention, convoys carrying the wounded are protected at the same level as hospitals, meaning the incident may in fact qualify as a war crime.
Thus far, the White House has called the tape "shocking," which will resonate in the domestic and international audience. Because the incident happened under the last administration, this reponse is sufficient for a first move. The DoD has been completely silent except to confirm the authenticity of the tape. This is a good first move because there's no use delaying the inevitable, and it appears the military is at least taking responsibility for its actions. Past that, however, DoD has been silent, likely for legal reasons. Someone may very well challenge the event in court, though not the Iraqi government, which is caught up in post-election politicking.
But not even the best response from the government will bring back the innocent people who were killed.