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.