The Wikileaks release of the Iraq War Logs on Friday has rightly aroused great interest. There has been excellent coverage in English by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (apparently sort of a British version of ProPublica in the US), Aljazeera, and the Guardian. The New York Times also had coverage, some of which was useful, but, as so often with the Times, their presentation was too influenced by official US military perspectives.
Much of the attention has focused upon reports of over 1,000 incidents of torture and detainee abuse by Iraqi government soldiers and police witnessed or reported to US troops. Rather than investigate or take action against Iraqi torturers, US troops were ordered to turn a blind eye to these abuses. In addition to ignoring the torture by Iraqi forces, the US was further complicit in that US forces knowingly turned over prisoners to Iraqi units known and expected to torture. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture has called upon the US to investigate these torture claims. The British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has also called for an investigation.
Clegg said: "We can bemoan how these leaks occurred, but I think the nature of the allegations made are extraordinarily serious. They are distressing to read about and they are very serious. I am assuming the US administration will want to provide its own answer. It's not for us to tell them how to do that."
Asked if there should be an inquiry into the role of British troops, he said: "I think anything that suggests that basic rules of war, conflict and engagement have been broken or that torture has been in any way condoned are extremely serious and need to be looked at.
"People will want to hear what the answer is to what are very, very serious allegations of a nature which I think everybody will find quite shocking."
The War Logs also detail horrific and repeated attacks on civilians as well as other potential war crimes, including the killing of guerrillas attempting to surrender, a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
CBS News has used the material in a different way. They took the comments made by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld ad top generals during one week to the field reports from that week. In what will no doubt be a total surprise, they demonstrate that the US officials lied over and over.
Much has been made of the civilian deaths reported on the Logs. The NYT, true to form, emphasized that most of the reported deaths were Iraqi on Iraqi. This may be true. However, the Logs also provide evidence that many civilian deaths at the hands of US troops were either not reported or were misreported as being deaths of "insurgents." Thus, in the October 2004 battle for Samarra, the Logs report no civilian deaths, whereas an AP reporter reported 23 women and 18 children among the dead and Iraq Body Count (IBC) reports 48 civilians dead in the battle. And in the brutal April 2004 battle for Fallujah, again, the Logs report not one civilian death while independent reports indicate that hundreds of civilians were killed; IBC estimated that 600 civilians died in that battle.
There are two possible explanations here. One is that the Logs were influenced by a deliberate policy to downplay civilian deaths. The other explanation would be that US troops really could not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Both possibilities are chilling.
These Logs are an amazing resource. They will allow us to systematically compare the war as experienced by US troops with the war as described by US officials, and the war as observed by Iraqis and by independent observers. These comparisons should help us understand, not just the Iraq war, but the very nature of modern counterinsurgency wars of occupation. Perhaps these Logs will help citizens of the US and of the world understand the barbarity of modern warfare and put an end to it.