The Iraq war logs released by Wikileaks over the weekend do not, as far as we can tell so far, contain much evidence of things we didn’t already know. The revelations are not surprising – but they are shocking nonetheless. Partly because of the scale – 15,000 more civilian casualties than we had known about before. (And remember, this is the very narrow definition of war casualties – including only those killed directly by weapons of war, not the hundreds of thousands more killed by the effects of the war – those unable to find treatment because hospitals had been destroyed, those children dying of once-vanquished diseases because the water treatment systems had been destroyed, and so much more.)
This latest trove of Wikileaks war documents is important not because it holds any new revelations of how the U.S. has and continued to wage war against Iraq, but rather because it reminds us of exactly how that war was and is being waged, and crucially, who is responsible. The significance has everything to do with accountability.
It is unlikely that this latest exposé will have much impact in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East – the brutality, illegality, immorality and inhumanity of the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq are already all too well known there. (Despite fevered Washington outrage, the “revelation” that Iran is paying huge amounts of money to buy influence in Baghdad should come as no surprise – isn’t that what the U.S. has been doing since 2003? Except Iran isn’t also militarily occupying and bombing its neighbor.) The impact of the documents will be much more important here in the U.S., where economic crisis and intractable joblessness have, however understandably, diverted public attention from the horrors of war. It is much more important here because despite a partial reduction of troops, there are still 50,000 re-named combat troops and 75,000 U.S.-paid military contractors occupying Iraq. The war continues.
The actions recounted in the Wikileaks seemingly endless list of documents – attacks on civilians, airstrikes ordered by Pentagon legal advisers on Iraqis trying to surrender, attacks at checkpoints against Iraqi families who had no reason to understand the language or handmotions of occupying soldiers – represent war crimes. And as long as there is no accountability – at the highest levels – for the policies that put these potential war crimes in motion, there is no reason to believe they will stop. These documents do not tell us anything we didn’t already know – except for the details of who did what, who died, and crucially, who gave the orders.
It will not be enough to hold accountable those individuals at the end of the chain of command who pulled the trigger. First we must hold accountable all of those – in the Pentagon, the White House, the Justice Department and beyond – who gave the orders, who wrote the policies, who approved the airstrikes. Then, and only then, we might be in a position to claim that we are trying to end the war.