Wikileaks: War Is (Misbegotten) Hell

The flood of data from Wikileaks makes it harder, not easier, to see the patterns that we still need to learn from this misbegotten war.
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This afternoon's new tranche of Wikileaks seems to add a numbing amount of new, awful detail to what we already knew about the Iraq war. They are a flood on top of a steady, if less headline-grabbing, drip from other sources: Salon's report that an originator of the military's coercive interrogation program was rewarded with a no-bid Pentagon contract, Truthout's reporting on the legal directive intended to cover experimentation or testing of the program on detainees.

The Wikileaks "model" has two major demerits: first, it's still wrong to put Iraqi lives at risk and/or release personal details about soldiers and civilians who fought, informed, died or just had the misfortune to live in Iraq over this period. But second, the flood of data makes it harder, not easier, to see the patterns that we still need to learn from this misbegotten war. And the sheer, accumulated horror of it will accelerate the pace at which some Americans will turn away from wanting to learn anything at all.

So, what are the larger lessons to draw - again?

War is always hell. War with unclear objectives poorly prepared by civilian commanders with little useful oversight is a lower circle of hell. Some readers will be eager to vent their anger on individual soldiers - and who wouldn't want to, with vignettes like the base lawyer who told pilots that insurgents "cannot surrender to an aircraft," so the crew shot them all? But what the documents don't show is why: the failure to prepare, anticipate, put civilian authorities in place, and draw clear lines put Americans and Iraqis, again and again, in positions of power and responsibility they weren't ready for.

Under that stress, some made terrible decisions, the consequences of which are documented here: gross human rights abuses, more deaths for Iraqis, civilian and military, and more death for US servicemembers. Even more horrifying levels of abuse by Iraqis were, until 2009, meticulously documented but not investigated.

The Wikileaks show the short-term consequences of this. But we are still reeling from the longer-term consequences. Jihadist recruiters and authoritarian governments alike mock our commitment to human rights, and this leak will give them a new trove with which to buttress their arguments.

Our desire to fight beyond our means led to an over-reliance on contractors, which by itself led to terrible consequences and now threatens to unravel aspects of our training and aid program in Afghanistan.

Our insistence on seeing Iran as a super-bogeyman instead of one problematic Middle Eastern power center among many apparently meant that we "spent an inordinate amount of time fighting Hezbollah and Iranian proxies and got distracted from fighting Shiite militias and Al Qaeda before the Surge," per Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic.

This release is going to be an unpleasant reminder of a lot of things that Americans were - understandably - eager to get past. But perhaps it can help make clear that these grim consequences - torture, civilian casualties, murderous allies - were not side effects but inevitable consequences of what Marc Ambinder called "war, poorly executed and planned."

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