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.