The Wikileaks Iraq war logs: what do they mean?

 In Iraq

Photo from The Guardian's coverage of the Iraq war logs.

By now, you have all heard about the massive leak of documents chronicling the Iraq war by online whistleblower organization Wikileaks—more than 390,000 documents revealing the daily grind of the war. Many media outlets, including the New York Times and the Guardian, have compiled stories looking at some of the most harrowing revelations in the documents, from the United States’ turning a blind eye to torture and harsh treatment of detainees to the chaos caused by the presence of ridiculous numbers of private military contractors. The Guardian’s interactive map of one day in the Iraq war in 2006 gives you a sense of the constant death and destruction as bombings, kidnappings, arrests and deaths flash by your eyes minute by minute.

These documents raise a lot of questions, but the big, overarching one is what all this information means more than 7 years into a war that is ostensibly “over,” though 50,000 troops remain? The New York Times offers this general observation:

Like the first release, some 77,000 reports covering six years of the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq documents provide no earthshaking revelations, but they offer insight, texture and context from the people actually fighting the war.

The reference to the Afghanistan war logs released in July hints at the collective yawn that met the trove of documents in some circles, especially from people who support continuing the misguided military approach there. In an op-ed in the Times, Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security dismissed the significance of the documents:

I’m a researcher who studies Afghanistan and have no regular access to classified information, yet I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance. I suspect that’s the case even for someone who reads only a third of the articles on Afghanistan in his local newspaper.

Amy Davidson of The New Yorker takes on those dismissive responses and brings us back to the true horror that lies in these accounts (emphasis mine):

How many thousands of deaths does it take for a revelation to be “earthshaking,” rather than a provider of “insight, texture, and context”? (The tally in the archive is a hundred and nine thousand deaths, sixty-six thousand of them thought to be non-combatants.) It is as if this were still about drawing a portrait of General Petraeus, only a better one, now, because we’ve added background figures.

Then there is Fragmentary Order, or Frago 242. Five or six years ago, it seems, our troops were ordered that, if they saw apparent violations of the laws of war that didn’t directly involve coalition forces, they should describe them but not make any further investigation unless otherwise ordered. In other words: move on. The Guardian has put together a short video on this aspect of the archive, and wrote this:

Hundreds of the leaked war logs reflect the fertile imagination of the torturer faced with the entirely helpless victim—bound, gagged, blindfolded, and isolated—who is whipped by men in uniforms using wire cables, metal rods, rubber hoses, wooden stakes, TV antennae, plastic water pipes, engine fan belts, or chains. At the torturer’s whim, the logs reveal, the victim can be hung by his wrists or by his ankles; knotted up in stress positions; sexually molested or raped; tormented with hot peppers, cigarettes, acid, pliers, or boiling water—and always with little fear of retribution.

If this is just what they stumbled across, what would our soldiers have found if they did investigate further? The Times notes that, at times, the torture would stop when an American soldier walked in. That might be good for the soul of that particular soldier. But the torturers were people we were going on patrols with, part of a government we kept in power, backed by a military we armed and trained. The archive has many instances in which we turned over people we captured to the Iraqis for questioning. Can we really say that coalition forces weren’t involved, just because they weren’t the ones holding the wire cables?

… Much of this, it’s true, shouldn’t be a revelation, if you’ve been following Iraq and reading all the reporting and books. But even among those who have, a certain amnesia had set in, to which these documents are a corrective. There has been, lately, a vague idea that the war was a bit rough in the beginning—what with the looting—but it all worked out in the end. (“End” being an odd phrase, as we still have fifty thousand troops there, Shiite-Sunni tensions are increasing, and the March elections have yet to produce a new government; in the months since, Iraq’s parliament has met for only twenty minutes.) It’s good to be reminded of what came in between, and at what cost.

Glenn Greenwald notes that much of the media has put far too much focus on the mystery around Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and his personal life while putting less emphasis on the issues within the documents that deserve serious media scrutiny:

Yesterday, Assange walked out of an interview with CNN, which he thought had been arranged to discuss the significance of the Iraq War revelations, because the CNN “reporter” seemed interested in asking only about petty, vapid rumors about Assange himself, not the substance of the leaks.  The Nation‘s Greg Mitchell summarized that interview this way:  “Assange to CNN: ‘Do you want to talk about deaths of 104,000 people or my personal life?'”  CNN’s answer could not have been clearer:  the latter, definitely.

But the low point of this smear campaign was led by The New York Times’John Burns, who authored a sleazy hit piece on Assange — filled with every tawdry, scurrilous tabloid rumor about him — that was (and still is) prominently featured in the NYT, competing for attention with the stories about the leaked documents themselves, and often receiving more attention.  Here’s the current iteration of the front page of the NYT website, with the Assange story receiving top billing.

With Congress out of session and most representatives hitting the campaign trail, we have heard little reaction from some of the people who are empowered to investigate and exercise oversight on policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. The leaks from both Afghanistan and Iraq give us more powerful evidence that we can use as we push the administration and Congress to end both wars, and a needed reminder of the stark reality of war that usually gets glossed over when this country decides to send soldiers into harm’s way.

Davidson ends her piece with some of the important questions we need to ask about how (and more importantly, if) we continue these wars and what it means for the future.


For all that the Pentagon talks about how the documents’ release compromises security, the conduct of the war in Iraq has deeply, deeply compromised us, both morally and, ultimately, in terms of our own security. What are the children of people who have been tortured in Iraq in the American years, and of women who have been raped by men to whom we gave guns, or of the mother who was killed when a private contractor we hired fired randomly into her car, going to grow up thinking of us?

More on this to follow; there is a lot to read. One wonders, by the way, in whose service these documents were secret. We are making decisions, deploying more troops, giving out more contracts, on the basis of things we think we know about Iraq but have glimpsed only indirectly, or not at all. We need to take a hard look. What we see in the archive is bad, but very good to know.

And one more question: Why was it, again, that we went to war in Iraq?

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