This week the controversial website Wikileaks published 391,832 secret documents concerning military activities in Iraq, drawing wide criticism from governmental sources in both America and the UK who claim these releases endanger lives. It was claimed to be the largest leak of classified documents in the history of the Pentagon. The documents include a record of ‘sigacts’ – significant actions documented by the US army from 2004 to 2009 totaling 109,032 deaths within civilian and insurgent populations and both coalition and Iraqi forces. The leaks also suggest the US Army were aware of torture including mutilations, acid attacks, use of electric drills and extra judicial executions. Not only were soldiers on the ground aware of these activities, these reports were regularly and systematically ignored by officials. Wikileaks and it’s director, Julian Assange have been accused of a range of things from being “culpably heedless of human life” and a “propagandist for violent jihad everywhere”.
Wikileaks is an organisation dedicated to publishing documents from leaked or anonymous sources that would be unavailable elsewhere. It was launched in 2006 and is the brainchild of a ragtag international group including Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and technologists from all over the world. It boasted 1.2 million documents within its first year of operations and has grown exponentially since then. Much of the furore around Wikileaks concerns leaked documents relevant to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the organisation is heavily opposed by the United States government.
But does it have any real effect? According to commentators these leaks hold very few real revelations, more confirmations of what we knew or suspected up until now. Despite the Pentagon’s insistence that the documents will endanger lives, this claim has been made before over similar documents relating to Afghanistan. Within weeks of the Afghanistan leak, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates admitted that the release had not actually compromised security or endangered lives. It is thought he will soon make the same declaration about the Iraq documents.
More importantly, Wikileaks has begun the challenging task of unraveling the details of the war, a war the American government has attempted to present as a clean and satisfying narrative. The reports paint a picture of chaos: contractor mercenaries, “panicky and trigger-happy” US soldiers, systematic torture and the countless murders of generally unarmed Iraqi civilians. Critics have accused Julian Assange of having no combat experience or understanding of the “universal horrors” of warfare. Others claim the most important reason for releasing these documents is so that we do understand: that a war being fought in our names – yet which we have no direct experience of – is a brutal and bloody story. Wikileaks makes sure we are confronted with that reality and take responsibility for it.