History and Wikileaks

It’s funny that on the day I intended to sit down and write about how soldiers on the ground between 1916-1918 circumvented Standard Operating Procedures and tailored information going up the chain of command in the light of perceived perceptions, that Wikileaks blew the lid on 92,201 US documents pertaining to the conduct of the War in Afghanistan. While covering a huge range of subjects the material that I suspect will gain the most press are the blue-on-white reports of citizens being killed, and perceived acts of subversion by troops on the ground to withhold accurate reports of these reaching the upper echelons of the army. Julian Assange hinted at this himself in his in his presentation, shown live on the BBC website (I would link but it’s been cut down) when answering the journalists’ questions, and the Grauniad have begun to have their completely  ‘unbiased’ say. But what does this mean for the historians whose job it will be to document this?

Before I tackle this it’s important to be honest: truth is I can’t bring myself to trust Julian Assange. Now amidst all this adoration I should take some time to explain myself. Firstly I don’t know what his political agenda is. And this scares me.  I suspect it’s not quite as squeeky clean as we would imagine, his titling of the Apache video a few months back as ‘Collateral Murder‘ suggests that his organisation’s starting position was less than objective, while his comments here stray into speculation and were in my opinion grossly unfair to the gunners in the helicopter. On this issue I almost wholeheartedly agree with Jack MacDonald.  This is an important point. We as military historians must be politically and emotionally objective, we must familiarise ourselves with the realities of the operational environment and only then can we make fair and rational judgements. This is never easy when the war is still going on and I’m certainly not convinced that Assange has done such a thing.

I do think that with time and distance though these documents will be very useful to the historian and wider public debate. The journalists will pick through them first though. By the time the historian will come to it, the results will be known; the implications obvious and the political battlefield won or lost. This is concerning. In the wake of the Great War a number of politicians (notably Lloyd George, and Churchill) released memoirs indicting the generals and its conduct while various authors gained prominence as the economic situation worsened during the inter-war years. The timing and prominence of such a range of sources coloured later interpretations c.1960s of the conflict to such a degree that even today the war is considered a ‘bad war’. This has been comprehensively challenged when the archives opened up and the full breadth of evidence became available, both official and anecdotal.

This should serve a warning, 92 201 documents of very limited character and disparate in chronology, location and unit cannot possibly hope to tell the whole story of Afghanistan. There is no such thing. The lesson from history should be that there are a range of perspectives and they often contradict each other. Civilians tragically die, soldiers kill soldiers – sometimes their own, and leaders do not always make the right decisions. But as historians it is our job not be misled by any transient political feeling but to be guided by the stories from the ground, the statistics (preferably declassified) and with appropriate distance to reflect without bias.

Despite the historian being encouraged to adhere to these lofty principles for the journalist and blogger it’s not necessarily happening yet. Very little has been said of the soldiers’ side in all of this. The question why? Has been overlooked. Soldiers circumventing SOPs on the ground is nothing new, they were doing it in 1916, they were doing it in 1940 and they’re still doing it now. But why do they feel the need to cover up, what could simply be legitimate accidents? These are the sorts of questions historians and journalists alike have to face down and answer before we blindly indict or defend any group of people because of some political or emotional response. The question is do people really want to, or would that require them to challenge their own views on politics and the military? Not a question I can answer.

2 responses to “History and Wikileaks

  1. The great irony of all this is that the people who will reap the greatest wind fall from all this are the journalists, the ones who failed to educate the masses properly as this stuff was going on because it simply wasn’t sexy enough. Any journalist worth his salt knew all of this years ago, however they passed on many of these stories from ’04-’07 because it was a tough sell to pile more depressing facts about the war in Afghanistan to a populace (the world over) that was already growing weary over the conflict in Iraq. However now with the benefit of hindsight and staggering quantity the mass of stories they can sell it as a Pentagon Papers-esque scandal which is much more sexy and marketable.

    As far as Assange he is quickly moving up my list of people I loath, his ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to governmental transparency (but heaven forbid we get journalistic transparency!!) appraoch is reckless bordering on dangerous for both journalists and soldiers in the field. In the wake of the McChrystal-Rolling Stone fiasco there were serious concerns in this country about the state of the working relationship between the media and the military. Throwing this debacle in so quickly may have serious ramifications, both in the way the media is allowed access to those handling information with strategic value and journalists hoping to go about their business in warzones without much in the way of scrutiny.

    Yet another irony is that Assagne’s zealous approach to 100% transparency has in my opinion shown that the U.S. military of today is much, much more transparent than it was in the Vietnam days. If one is to glance down the list of headlines from each of the articles exploring these documents one will see that even the stuff that might be on the more scandalous side has been widely acknowledged (with a degree of subtlety that Assagne has no concept of). Things like the ISI double dealing, Iran’s subversive involvement, drone attacks, PMC/SOF targeted insurgent killings and even some major incidents of large civilian collateral damage have all being easily accessible to anyone with an interest and access to google.

  2. Pingback: History and Wikileaks « Birmingham "On War" college university·

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