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A Few Reactions to the First 36 Hours of Wikileaks Spin

[ 39 ] October 24, 2010 |

I see a few conceptual problems in the media coverage of the Iraq War Diaries leak (useful roundup here) and people’s reactions to it.

1) More than half of the atrocities detailed in the diaries were committed by Iraqis against one another, but I think the media’s frame makes more of that than it ought to, in a way that feeds into a dangerous political narrative about culpability in armed conflict. For example the NYTimes claim that “Detainees Fared Worse in Iraqi Hands” misleads us into thinking that somehow that makes the US record in Iraq a little more excusable. I have often heard precisely this argument from students and colleagues when insisting that the US be held accountable for its own crimes – that they’re nothing compared to what others are doing. You also hear echoes of this from DOD spokespeople like Geoff Morell:

“We have not always been perfect but we have been far better than anyone else has in the history of warfare.”

But international law, of course, compares states’ behavior to the standards in the treaties themselves, not to one another’s least common denominator.

2) To take the opposite tack, the argument, such as that made by Daniel Ellsberg, that US misconduct in Iraq “proves” the war was a unethical because it was a “bloodbath” is also, I think, conflating jus in bello ethics (regarding how we fight) and jus ad bellum ethics (regarding the conditions under which it is legitimate to fight). If the war was unnecessary for the reasons fought, a violation of the UN charter, and sold to the public through misinformation, it was unethical regardless of how well US troops may have behaved in the field (always at any rate a relative measure). And even if the war had been justified, this wouldn’t excuse the new evidence – now heaped upon the existing historical record – of detainee abuse, failure to ensure security during an occupation, and rules of engagement that put civilians at risk.

3) Though I agree with many commentators that there’s not a lot here we didn’t know about (short of the gory detail), it must be said there are some new stories in this set of documents. Of the five “bombshells” reported by the Christian Science Monitor, one that actually is kind of a bombshell is the US’ denying it had kept a secret death count. It should be emphasized that as far as I know this is not illegal: the US was never required by the Geneva Conventions to keep such a count or to publicize it. But I would argue governments should be (many others agree) and perhaps this new data will help that movement gain ground. The evidence here suggests it is feasible as well as appropriate to expect belligerents to collect casualty data, and that the better part of valor for belligerents is to make this part of the historical record of wars in advance rather than only when brought to heel by public opinion. In fact, I can think of no better initial mechanism for putting some much-missing teeth into the regime protecting war-affected civilians than to expect governments to account for their record in this regard.

Comments (39)

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  1. R.Johnston says:

    Re: #2

    Some degree of war crimes is inevitable in war. Some civilians will always be shot by a few trigger happy malajusted soldiers. Some surrenders will always not be accepted by the same, or not be accepted because of unreasonable panic. Some degree of torture will happen. Unintended consequences of war will, in fact, happen, and are largely predictable. When considering whether or not an attack is justified, the likely degree of war crimes that will ensue must be taken into account.

    Given who was in charge when the invasion of Iraq happened, the degree of war crimes we’ve experienced is just about what one would expect. In other words, the war crimes that have happened really do point towards the invasion being unjustified.

    • No, the question of whether the invasion was justified has nothing to do with the behavior of US troops, because “justification” turns on the determination of the state of affairs before the war, not on the determination of whether the war would be conducted badly or “well.” That’s what Charli means by saying “if the war was unnecessary for the reasons fought, a violation of the UN charter, and sold to the public through misinformation, it was unethical regardless of how well US troops may have behaved in the field.” So (a) the war was unjustified and unethical from the start, and (b) involved war crimes that were separate from the question of justification.

      This is not a minor debating point. It speaks directly to the liberal-hawk argument that the war would have been justified if only it had been conducted differently.

      • I have no idea why that tag didn’t close. Sorry.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Exactly. The war was unjustifiable, full stop. Identifying after the fact crimes is also important, but it’s an independent question, except insofar as it’s a reminder that casual calls for war are a really dumb idea.

          • R.Johnston says:

            I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I said, except for the “independent” part. War crimes happen. That’s life. That’s one of the things that you have to take into account before launching a war. And the degree to which war crimes actually happen, while not specifically knowable beforehand, is a useful starting point after the fact in determining what would have been reasonable to expect beforehand.

            The question of how extensive war crimes were after the fact is independent of the question of whether war was justifiable before the fact only if the degree of war crimes that will happen wasn’t reasonably predictable before the fact. That of course doesn’t mean that after-the-fact measures of war crimes causally determine whether war was a priori justifiable; still, there’s a high degree of correlation and a lack of independence.

            When lots and lots of war crimes happen it means, almost inevitably, that lots and lots of war crimes should have been expected in the first place, and that definitely reflects on the justifiability of war.

            • Joe says:

              Part of the problem here was that some proponents thought the war was going to be relatively quick etc. and not involve such crimes. Consider the Civil War. Some thought it would end in 90 Days or such. They did not think it would last four years. Andersonville was not expected though if a long war was expected, something like that would reasonably be.

              • James E. Powell says:

                Part of the problem was that people conned themselves into believing that they know anything about invading and occupying countries, and that they have a right to rely on their expectations, which are invariably based wishful thinking or works of fiction.

              • R.Johnston says:

                Anyone who thought an occupation was going o be quick was not competent to count the fingers on his hand.

                Anyone who thought the invasion of Iraq was not going to involve an occupation was not competent to breathe.

              • Joe says:

                Not competent? Okay. Well, we have been led by incompetents repeatedly. Anyway, I disagree if there is some assumption that the level of war crimes that occurred in scope and length was somehow inevitable. This is like saying deaths during Katrina were inevitable means that scope was inevitable. I guess maybe given the people in charge.

            • Scott P. says:

              War crimes happen. That’s life. That’s one of the things that you have to take into account before launching a war.

              I’m not sure why war crimes specifically have to be taken into account before launching a war. Everyone knows war is terrible, which is why it has to be justified in the first place. But if you’ve determined the cause is worth the general terribleness of war, the subject of war crimes has already been covered in that. Making an itemized list can serve to bring the awfulness of war home, but it’s not strictly necessary.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

                Making an itemized list can serve to bring the awfulness of war home, but it’s not strictly necessary.

                It’s necessary in order to prosecute the crimes.

                Just as war crimes will happen in war, murder will happen in major industrial societies.

                But just because one can discern a “normal” murder rate in a society does not mean that one looks the other way at the particular murders.

                It does not follow from the fact that war crimes will happen in a war that such crimes should be ignored.

  2. wengler says:

    Must we really employ petty fictions that US soldiers are the most virtuous warriors in the history of the world?

    Private Stephen Green and a couple of his buddies raped a 15 year-old Iraqi girl, killed her and her family and burned their bodies. This is just one incident, and this one became public after the locals got vengeance on two of the guys in Green’s unit by kidnapping them, torturing them to death and mutilating their bodies.

    There are tons of generically applied phrases about what war is, but everyone needs to remember that the US fought this war based on transparent lies. All of this was done because thousands of people in government, media and ideological institutions pushed those lies for months. They are responsible for every single death within the “rules” of war or not.

    • Oscar Leroy says:

      To touch on what you said, let’s not forget how our military lowered its standards for recruits when it became clear that most Americans weren’t interested in fighting this war. However virtuous our fighters once were, they are less so now thanks to our conquest of Iraq.

  3. James E. Powell says:

    Must we really employ petty fictions that US soldiers are the most virtuous warriors in the history of the world?

    Exactly where have you been? If you do not embrace, no trumpet, that fiction, you will be deemed a traitor. You will find that even the most liberal Democratic big shots will shun you.

    As anyone who watches TV can tell you, Our Brave Troops are fighting for our freedom. We owe everything we have to them and them alone. Without them, we would be subjected to Islamic Communism.

  4. wiley says:

    Our troops have suffered through stop-loss, multiple tours of combat, and are being given psychotropic drugs in the field for the traumatic stress they’re suffering. On top of the usual cast of psychopaths in the military (raised by lowering standards, as mentioned above), that victimize their fellow soldiers as well as civilians, we have a lot of soldiers who are out of their minds for reasons way beyond their control, being given drugs that may give them further leave of their senses in a nation that was destroyed in a Year Zero grade act of predation. Nobody can handle a failed state.

    It would be surprising to me if there wasn’t rampant abuse and war crimes.

    • Larkspur says:

      And as a citizen of the country that sent them there, I have to accept my share of responsibility, because nothing I did was enough to stop the whole thing. Whatever I believed or wished for, I own a part of the carnage and the aftermath, over there and back here at home. I wish there was a close war tag.

      • wiley says:

        Among other things, I begged the Russian, Chinese, and French governments to veto the resolution at the U.N. I don’t feel like I have to take responsibility for the acts of psychopaths—blaming any and everyone else for their evil is just another one of their baby tricks that thinking people keep falling for.

      • Joe says:

        accept if you like, but it’s mighty low

      • James E. Powell says:

        You are entitled to feel that way, but I am not going to assume any responsibility for what the US government does simply because I was born here. I was against it, I was out in the streets saying so, I alienated friends and family. I called. I wrote. Nothing I did or could do would ever have stopped the US government. The fact that I cannot stop something doesn’t make me responsible for it.

  5. Gary Farber says:

    I’ve had a few things to say here, for whatever it’s worth.

  6. So-Confused says:

    [W]e have been far better than anyone else has in the history of warfare.

    Wait a minute! I thought the IDF was the most moral army in the history of the known universe. But now I hear ours is the most moral army in the history of the known universe. Which way is it? Or could it be our armies are precisely identical on a moral scale? Like we are 99.9987834% moral and the Israelis are 99.9987834% moral, too! I say we need a more accurate Moral-o-meter. This tie is leaving this American feeling rather unsettled.

    • Simple mind says:

      The IDF wears pancakes on their heads. Hence they are not moral. Plus they run over American women with bulldozers because only their body fluids are precious.

  7. Michael Drew says:

    I don’t see any story here that moves the Iraq discussion anywhere it wasn’t already. Iraqis tortured each other; we tortured Iraqis. U.S. military killed Iraqi civilians without justification. Overall, tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died who wouldn’t have if we hadn’t invaded. To the extent the surge “succeeded,” it was through the use of aggressive force in controlling the population of Baghdad that resulted in a sharp spike in civilian casualties. This was U.S. conventional wisdom about this conflict since approximately 2006. I don’t have much problem with the publication of the docs, though I do with the leak, because I think it is quite unlikely anyone is much in danger from reprisals at this point. It seems to me it is a good service to history, but not a much of alive political issue anymore.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      This was U.S. conventional wisdom about this conflict since approximately 2006.

      Among whom?

      Certainly among people dedicated to actually noticing what happened in Iraq this was conventional wisdom, but they are a very, very small percentage of the American public.

      The strategy (promoted by Bush/Cheney, but hardly invented by them) of ignoring reality and trumpeting falsehoods, then belatedly declaring that the reality that one had been denying is “old news” continues apace.

    • Michael Drew says:

      My point is, what is the political conversation that is going to take place or be altered in the United States as a result of this docudump?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        By that standard, we might as we’ll just stop doing any investigative reporting, as it’s pretty clear that nothing anybody writes is going to alter our largely reality-free national political conversation.

        Sometimes, virtue is its own reward. This docudump is valuable even if it immediately changes nothing.

        • Michael Drew says:

          Absolutely – I said it is of value historically. All I am saying is, I don’t even see anyone making the argument about what the conversation that should be had as a result of these leaks is. I’m all for investigative reporting, but investigative reporting is not what Wikileaks does. Wikileaks is just a funnel for government and other leakers to release secret information. And I’m fine with that, but it is precisely not investigative reporting. Investigative reporting seeks to follow a story thread wherever it may lead, creating a story that explains its own significance to the reader. Wikileaks, on the other hand, takes these high profile disclosure actions where numbers like “400,000 documents!” (and WL itself) become the story, which step all over any simultaneous efforts to thread together narratives that distinguish between more and less significant details, and to explain their significance. In my view this is a situation that provides a good argument for the continued relevance of the traditional press — investigative reporting and contextualization of reported facts is precisely the value they have always added, in addition to raw data-gathering, which is now something that can be decentralized via crowdsourcing, etc. In my view, Wikileaks would do better to release the full logs to essentially any news org who wants it, allowing them to mine the data for the most significant storylines, follow up on them with supplementary reporting, etc, and report the stories out as regular investigative stories that are placed in such a way as to have the kind of effects that investigative stories often can. They could release the full logs sometime thereafter as documentation. But making their high-profile releases the story, which is plainly their intent, and plainly is nothing more than their commitment to self-promotion getting in the way of clear-headed assessment of how the leaks can have the greatest public impact, is currently short-circuiting the public’s accustomed process of digesting revelatory investigative reports that are of interest to them, with the result being that Wikileaks itself is negating the impact of their own disclosures.

  8. wengler says:

    I think these documents do point out the massive failure of the American oligarchy. Our oligarchic overlords approached the Iraq War as if it was some sort of Oxford debate topic. The argument was stacked on one side, but the disturbing sociopathy inherent was quite evident.

    Fundamentally, the oligarchy perceived 9/11 as a bold strike against their agenda of free markets and slave labor. What better way to stick it to so-called globalization’s opponents than to open up a country outside the US-led global market and destroy an old enemy?

    In the future anyone opposing the agenda of the people who own the world really need to remember what drives our oligarchy to do things- an insatiable greed for power and control over the future.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      How is this a failure for the oligarchy? To me, it looks like a massive, blood-stained success, at least on the oligarchy’s own terms.

      The record of crime is open for all to see.

      And yet the old crimes go unprosecuted while new crimes continue, now under the leadership of the other major political party.

      This series of policies only becomes a failure when the oligarchy is thrown from power, and I see no path in the foreseeable future by which that could occur.

      • jeer9 says:

        Exactly, IB. And war always serves to smother domestic dissent and postpone progressive economic reform by the real enemy, independent good government types, whom the oligarchy truly fear. After eight years of Clinton, Rubin, and Summers paring away at the financial regulatory state, 9/11 was the perfect vehicle to consolidate the upper tier’s gains while the country lashed out in patriotic drunkenness at some darker-skinned scapegoat. The bailout was the icing on the cake, the perfect denouement to another eight years of significantly more criminal activity.
        Obama is the oligarchy’s perfect representative: reasonable, oratorically gifted, shamelessly hypocritical. He will be rewarded for his stewardship with a loony Tea Party opponent in 2012 to ensure his re-election and perpetuate the dismantling of the middle class.

  9. Galrahn says:

    I find the information regarding Iranian activity an interesting aspect of the new data that was previously poorly documented.

    Raises several intelligence questions with me, starting with the quality of our intelligence reading the Iranian government. It is one thing to have poor intelligence on stuff or capabilities – but if intelligence serves any purpose, it should be capable of giving us enough information to predict reactions of others to our actions.

    The ability to do so is the foundation of effective deterrence.

    • John F says:

      but if intelligence serves any purpose, it should be capable of giving us enough information to predict reactions of others to our actions.

      That I think is the hardest thing to do- and one I posit everyone has trouble with to one degree or another- no we are not good at predicting others’ actions/reactions – nor are they good at predicting ours-

      but let’s go back in time to the early 80s- The “junta” ruling Argentina decided that conquering (excuse me- “retaking”) the Malvinas- was just the diversion needed to distract the populace from the Junta’s failures, corruption and criminal acts.
      Now such diversion had a slight problem- how would the Limey’s react?

      The Junta dismissed that- it was not a factor- the Brits would do nothing- at worst the “retaking” would play out the way India’s conquest of Goa had played out. Maybe the Brits would send over a few V bombers in a snit, no biggie- the Argies intended to land 3000 men- capture the Royal Marine contingent (a dozen men I believe)- capture the Government officials- and leave- with just a 500 man garrison- to keep the Islander’s down- the actual Brit reaction completely flummoxed them- pre-invasion they never once envisioned that the Brits would even attempt to retake the Islands by force- they had no contingency plans for such an eventuality…

      The ability to do so is the foundation of effective deterrence.

      I think the key to effective deterrence lies as much as the “other side” not knowing what you will do – and being AWARE that they do not know what you will do- deterrence typically fails when one side erroneously believes a country will or will not do something.

  10. JJ says:

    Well said, Charli. I think #2 stands out most importantly, that we must see the necessity of keeping track of the true cost of war, in blood, of both innocent civilians as well as the soldiers fighting in them. Maybe then more people will be inclined to seek alternatives to violence, or maybe not.

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