Image courtesy of Flikr user US Army. Image courtesy of Flikr user US Army.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

If a soldier gets hit in a war and no one is around to film it, does it really matter?

Following two highly publicized police encounters – one in Ferguson, Missouri and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City – the New York Times carried a story that raised the issue of police body cameras.  Technologically (and economically), it is now feasible for the average “beat” cop to wear a camera integrated into body armor and clothing while on duty. President Obama has pledged to “request $75 million in federal funds to distribute 50,000 body cameras to police departments nationwide.”

To quickly run the math:

$75 million/50,000 body cameras = $1,500 each

Now let’s look to what it costs to outfit an American military soldier.  According to a 2007 estimate, it was roughly $17,500 to outfit a US soldier (*worth noting that at the time it cost the Chinese People’s Liberation Army roughly $1,500!).  By now, it is reasonable to extrapolate that US figure to $20,000.  If my raw math is accurate, and this is in fact the actual ratio, then body cameras would represent an additional expenditure on the order of a 7-8% which is roughly the equivalent cost of a latte flavor shot at Starbucks.  But do we want this “flavor shot?” Should we want body cameras?

I’m not sure these questions matter. If the cameras are relatively inexpensive, and their widespread use is being considered in law enforcement circles, it is not a difficult leap to the assumption that at some point in the near future the land forces (Army and Marines) will adopt body cameras.  I think this is highly likely, particularly for stabilization and counterinsurgency environments.  We’ve already seen anecdotal trends pointing this way.

Colonel (now Lieutenant General) HR McMaster achieved some fame for his “ask the customer” program in 2005 in Tal Afar, Iraq, in which he sought to improve his soldier’s behavior towards detained Iraqis (Ricks, Fiasco, 422). I could envision a similar place for cameras on the battlefield.  Beyond that, there are obvious intelligence and organizational “self-improvement” applications. For example, consider that US Army military helicopters carry video for these purposes.  Unfortunately, however, these cameras produced footage that made serious negative headlines for the Coalition effort in Iraq upon the release of the Wikileaks Collateral Murder video (not for the faint of heart).

But video need not necessarily be negative. Army Captain Will Swenson effectively earned a Medal of Honor on camera; we can actually see breathtaking herioism due to MEDEVAC helicopter footage. I’ve also heard Major Dan Kearney, one of the principal subjects of Sebastian Junger’s exceptional book War, say that he felt the watchful presence of journalists helped encourage him to keep his “moral compass straight.”  That’s not a bad impact, by my thinking.  It’s worth considering: would Second Lieutenant William Calley have acted as he did at My Lai had he known that his actions were being filmed?

With regards to policing, unfortunately, we only have three studies on them in the United States so far.  My fear is that our Army would adopt something like this without truly being aware of the likely extensive ramifications.  And they will be massive and unanticipated.  Extensive use of soldier body cameras will upend and then slam war on the ground, for all of YouTube to see.

One police officer in the New York Times story had this to say: “I expect everything to be filmed.”  How long until we regularly hear that sentiment from Army officers?