The leak will permanently alter how the Iraq war is seen: take this striking example from the Daily Telegraph. It may not shift the opinion figures on whether or not the war was worth starting in the first place. The detailed revelations are, I’d guess, less important than the massive accumulation of hard detail. Despite being reported in machine-prose, the logs paint an appallingly vivid picture of the careless brutality which flourishes not only in any war but particularly when an army is trying to work out counter-insurgency as it goes along.
Fiction could not compete with the surreal dialogue in which a helicopter pilot asks what he should do about suspects on the ground who are trying to surrender. The lawyer says they can’t surrender to a chopper, comes the reply. The helicopter with the callsign “Crazyhorse” blows the men to pieces.
As the experienced military commentator Robert Fox says, the axis of the information war has shifted. The public can now see the war with a sharpness and depth not possible before. (For the wider context of cyberwar read Seymour Hersh here and on military classification culture a Stratfor analyst here.)
After the draining of American public support for the Vietnam war, military commanders all over the world created new systems for trying to control the story of what’s happening. The releases of the Afghan and Iraq warlogs are the first major reversals for those policies. Military calculations now have to be adjusted: a controversial and unpopular war will likely be fought with much greater transparency. Email, electronic databases and the internet have moved the balance of information power. Like it or not.
There are game-changes in journalism. What has been called the largest leak of military documents in history was a complex collaboration between an unprecedentedly large number of partners in the established media. Britain’s new Bureau of Investigative Journalism played an important part (declaration: I’m a BIJ trustee).
Both journalists and consumers of news have been, and still are, adjusting to the experience of reading about vast quantities of data. The best stories don’t always emerge first; new angles can appear days or weeks after the first release. New skills of data visualisation, handling and number-crunching are suddenly at a premium. Might coverage of such a huge cache of data numb the reactions and memory of those trying to make sense of it?
This blog has had some uncomplimentary things to say about the philosophy of Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange. (One of his furious supporters described me as a “supercilious weasel“.) I remain unconvinced by the general philosophy, the varied answers about redaction of the Afghan warlogs (more thorough redaction work appears to have been done on the Iraq ones) and Assange’s view of how raw data represents a morally superior kind of truth.
But on two points, I have to admit the importance of what Wikileaks has done. I thought that the Afghan leak was less significant that the Pentagon papers leak in 1971. But Pentagon leaker Daniel Ellsberg himself said of the Iraq warlogs that they will have an impact equal to his leak about Vietnam. More importantly, the warlogs have contributed to that “first rough draft of history.”