Iraq, war and WikiLeaks: the real story

The tranche of American military documents released by the WikiLeaks project contains a wealth of detail about the coalition's indifference to civilian life. But the materials also tell a deeper story of “how” war has killed in Iraq, says Martin Shaw.

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
4 November 2010

The publication of a huge tranche of United States military-communications records in Iraq by the WikiLeaks project on 22 October 2010 has rightly been greeted as a major event. The 392,000 documents in the so-called “Iraq war logs” provide a wealth of information about the realities of the years since the war was launched in March 2003. The result is to promise a significant shift in understandings and perceptions of the war.

The logs come too late to ignite political upheaval in the two countries which were in the vanguard of the invasion. The United States has a president whose election owed much to his criticism from the war; the United Kingdom has a deputy prime minister (Nick Clegg) who calls it “illegal”, and even the new leader of the country’s Labour Party (Ed Miliband) says the war was “wrong”.

The scale

The logs confirm that General Tommy Franks’s notorious statement that “we don’t do body counts” (albeit made in relation to Afghanistan in 2002) is untrue. The United States did in fact keep meticulous “incident records” which counted civilian as well as military casualties: it had knowledge of well over 100,000 deaths in Iraq since 2003, over 66,000 of them identified as civilians.

Many opponents of the war believe that the true figures are far large (Noam Chomsky’s collaborators Edward Herman and David Peterson claim “more than one million" in their book The Politics of Genocide  [Monthly Review Press, 2010]. Such an assessment means that protagonists of such views will pay little attention to the detailed implications of the logs (see “The politics of genocide: Rwanda and DR Congo”, 16 September 2010).

Among serious students of events in Iraq, much attention has focused on how the war logs make possible a more reliable - and higher - estimate of total civilian deaths since 2003 (see Hamit Dargadan & John Sloboda, “Why Iraq has the right to know the full death toll”, Guardian, 23 October 2010). The voluminous new materials do not provide complete data on the conflicts in Iraq, but they do provide substantial new information as well as corroboration of what is already known (see “Greatest Data Leak in US Military History”, Der Spiegel, 22 October 2010).

Iraq Body Count has patiently and consistently tabulated recorded deaths since the invasion. It has now conducted a preliminary analysis of a sample of the incidents recorded in the documents (including all the larger ones) (see Paul Rogers, “The harvest of war: from pain to gain”, 28 October 2010).This concludes that the logs both confirm the majority of the deaths it has already recorded, and the need for a definite upward revision of the estimated toll. IBC’s existing, pre-logs total was a little over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, which has now been amended to 150,000, By comparison, fewer than 5,000 members of the US-led military coalition have died.

This ratio of more than thirty-to-one provides fuel for the argument that the US and British authorities systematically transferred the risks of their war from their own military to civilians (see Martin Shaw, The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq [Polity, 2005]).

The lessons

The documents’ chilling taxonomy of deaths is in one sense a “virtual memorial”  to the individual victims of the war. But perhaps even more important, the detailed information they contain enables a deeper understanding of how war has killed in Iraq: the different ways of killing, the different perpetrators, and the web of responsibility for the social disaster caused by armed conflict in the post-2003 period.

True, the kind of information that the logs provide has been documented in many other ways over the years. But the sheer quantity of new evidence opens the way to an expanded understanding of the war. That in turn will follow the more comprehensive analysis of the logs that is now needed. An initial reading of the documents suggest that three of its strands will influence this shift.

First, there is a great deal of evidence to confirm that the modus operandi of United States and coalition forces has directly contributed to the civilian death-toll. The initial devastating bombardment, the pursuit of insurgents from the air, the shoot-first-ask-questions-after policy at checkpoints - in these ways and more, coalition choices have directly produced civilian deaths. The processes involved have already been analysed carefully in a study a in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) (see "The Weapons That Kill Civilians - Deaths of Children and Noncombatants in Iraq, 2003-2008" (New England Journal of Medicine, 360/16, 16 April 2009).

Among the results are that: “in events with at least one Iraqi civilian victim, the methods that killed the most civilians per event were aerial bombings (seventeen per event), combined use of aerial and ground weapons (seventeen per event), and suicide-bombers on foot (sixteen per event). Aerial bombs killed, on average, nine more civilians per event than aerial missiles (seventeen vs eight per event). Indeed, if an aerial bomb killed civilians at all, it tended to kill many.” In short, two of the three most indiscriminately lethal methods used in Iraq have been specialities of the coalition forces; and women and children have been most likely to be victims of such methods. This makes a mockery of coalition claims to be “liberating” civilians in general and women in particular.

Second, the logs strikingly confirm the extent to which the overall death-toll is the product of executions and torture, many of them by official Iraqi forces with the direct or indirect complicity of the US-led coalition. This pattern may have been  “hardly secret”; but the logs make newly clear how much more widespread it was, and about the US licence to torture” - US order Frago 242 - which permitted it. Indeed, the widespread US involvement in torture in these logs reveals - even more than do Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo - the degenerate nature of the “war on terror”.

If the nature of the killing of civilians by the US’s coalition’s allies tended to be highly selective, the US’s own was mostly the result of its relatively indiscriminate methods. The aforementioned NEJM study found that a third of all victims “were killed by execution after abduction or capture”; 97% of the victims of execution with torture were male.

Third, and perhaps least commented on so far, the logs confirm that the cases in which official Iraqi forces can be clearly identified as the perpetrators are only a part of a much wider pattern of violence. A report by Iraq Body Count in 2008 on the effects of the US military “surge” found that “three-quarters of the reported civilian killings in Iraq since January 2006 have no clearly distinguishable perpetrator. This is particularly true in most instances of bodies being found after execution, or of attacks on what appear to be purely civilian targets, e.g. car-bombings of marketplaces and mosques (see “Post-surge violence: its extent and nature”, Iraq Body Count, 28 December 2008).

The messy, murky war in the mid-2000s between Sunni- and Shi’a-based militia (the latter supported or even constituted by official Iraqi forces) make it impossible to identify the perpetrators in every incident, nor will it ever be possible exactly to quantify the overall shares of direct blame applying to the different actors. But when the logs are fully analysed, greater clarity even over these difficult issues may be within reach. Moreover, it’s important to recall that the Iraq conflict was not just a vicious “war” between rival armed organisations, but included campaigns of genocidal violence against “enemy” civilian populations with the definite aim of removing particular communities from given neighbourhoods.

A story untold even after the shocking evidence of the war logs is how these murderous campaigns intimidated far larger populations, in which over 4 million Iraqis may have been internally displaced or become refugees. Some have returned home as violence has subsided in 2009-10; but a report by the United Nations refugee agency shows that 61% of returnees find conditions at home still too insecure and regret their return (see “UNHCR poll indicates Iraq refugees regret returning home”, UNHCR, 19 October 2010) 

The responsibility

At this stage, then, the war logs provide more comprehensive reasons to regard the Iraq war as variously wrong, illegal, or just plain disastrous. The aggression by the United States and Britain was in strict terms unnecessary, since Saddam Hussein lacked “weapons of mass destruction”; and illegitimate, since the United Nations Security Council had declined to authorise force against his regime.

But is now confirmed that the methods adopted by the leading coalition allies inflicted needless and avoidable civilian deaths (see Michel Thieren, "Deaths in Iraq: how many, and why it matters" [18 October 2006] and "Deaths in Iraq: the numbers game, revisited" [11 January 2008]).. More broadly, the US-UK invasion provoked a cycle of devastating events: a prolonged war that combined resistance against the occupiers, conflict among armed militia involving the US-backed Iraqi regime, genocidal violence from several sides against different sections of the civilian population and thus in turn mass displacement.

America and Britain must take direct responsibility for the initial aggression that exposed Iraqi society to the risk of a murderous civil war, and for their own civilian-killing methods of fighting. At the same time, 2003 is the only year of war (according to the IBC’s pre-logs estimates) that the coalition directly caused the majority of civilian deaths; and in each year since 2005, such casualties have been fewer than 10% of the total. This is not nearly the full extent of the coalition’s responsibility, however; the war logs underline how complicit the US was in the worst features of the continuing war, including often close-up permission of extensive torture and killing by their Iraqi allies.

The criticism of the war in Iraq made by leading politicians in the United States and Britain addresses little of this - for they continue to believe that the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan (in which many of the same issues are raised) is by contrast legitimate because of its origins in a campaign against al-Qaida “terrorism”. Yet in “AfPak” too, the US continues to kill civilians from the air via pilotless drones; and in light of the war-logs revelations, Britain’s defence ministry admitted on 27 October 2010 that three military units were involved in different clusters of civilian killings in Afghanistan in 2007.

After the war logs, no one can look at the experience of the last decade without realising that the west’s resort to war poses extensive risks to civilian life. By now, any idea that war can solve political problems without causing enormous harm should have fallen in face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. But America and Britain’s leaders are still far from grasping the lesson.  

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