Over the Horizon: Wikileaks and the Information Battlefield

Over the Horizon: Wikileaks and the Information Battlefield

Last Friday, Wikileaks released a huge trove of documents on U.S. conduct of the war in Iraq. The release was conducted in collaboration with the New York Times, the Guardian, Channel 4, Al Jazeera, and Der Spiegel, and consisted mostly of U.S. military incident reports. Early reaction has concentrated much more on the substance of the material than on criticism of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. In part because of improvements in redaction policies, but also because negative revelations about the Iraq War are no longer as controversial as criticism of the ongoing Afghanistan conflict, attacks on Wikileaks have been more muted than in July, when Assange released a similar set of documents on Afghanistan.

The release reaffirmed much that we already knew, including the high incidence of civilian casualties in Iraq, the brutality of the Iraqi security services, and Iran's intervention in the Iraqi civil war. But if on the banal level the Wikileaks logs do not reveal anything new, the release of information in such a concentrated manner has a political impact, because it reopens a series of sometimes-bitter debates about the Iraq War. The Wikileaks release has brought the Iraq War back onto the front page, literally. And more important than questions about Assange's personality or ethics is that of the effect the Wikileaks Iraq logs will have on future policy.

At the most obvious level, both the Afghan and Iraqi document releases demonstrate that war remains messy and destructive, notwithstanding the professionalism and care of the military organizations conducting the fighting. In the hands of a well-trained, professional, and committed military, the modern weapons of war have the capability to substantially reduce harm to civilian populations. Carefully targeted precision-guided munitions (PGMs) can theoretically limit civilian casualties. In the Kosovo War, for example, civilian casualties were relatively low given the amount of ordnance dropped on Serbia. However, the limitations of intelligence and the stresses introduced by long-term occupation mean that the promise of such weapons is often not met.

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