There is much to be said about the release of what is being referred to as the Kabul/Afghan War Diary or Afghanistan War Logs. Originally delivered to Wikileaks and simultaneously published by The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel.
The logs are a vast resource for those seeking to track the conduct of operations in Afghanistan. Of most concern will be those individual reports that could be interpreted as offering evidence of violations of the laws of war. Many activists have been seeking a smoking gun to confirm their allegations of the unlawful conduct of this conflict and no doubt there will be claims that they have found it in these documents. Of particular interest will be the activities of special forces in Afghanistan, whose activities have been opaque – and thus sometimes of concern – to observers. The Guardian hints that reports concerning the activities of Task Force 373 raise concerns such as the use of extrajudicial killing and detention without trial.
For my part I am unlikely to have the time to do anything other than surf the tip of the database presented in the papers (which itself is only part of the leaked material). This is, of course, one of the problems of the information age. Noted by Jean-Francois Lyotard back in 1979, the era of the internet has given rise to vast databases that contain more information that can be sensibly comprehended. Faced with this problem we give responsibility to search algorithms that can pull some information out of the data, but only according to pre-established rules. And, as such, we do not get to the information in itself, but merely how it answers the questions we ask. It is hard, therefore, to get an overview that might give rise to a narrative that contradicts our already existing understandings of the conflict. As such then, this data is only as good as the questions we ask. If we ask the data to confirm an existing narrative, there is a good chance we will find some evidence of interest. Overall, then, it is interesting how the leaks have not been interpreted – by The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel – to say anything very surprising. Attentive observers of the war would know the general drift of the assertions that have been printed so far. Perhaps the problem is that, as Adam Weinstein noted, what the documents do provide is details. What we find then is a tension between grand narratives (which, according to Lyotard are a thing of the past) and details. The problem for me is that we tend to be obsessed by the details to the detriment of the wider narrative. To put it another way: while it is important to bring individuals to justice for specific episodes, we must not lose sight of the bigger context that gave rise to these episodes in the first place. To fail to understand this would be akin to policing individual crimes without pausing to ask how crime itself might be tackled.
That said, the leak is evidence of a very interesting trend in our contemporary relation to war – namely the extension of what is being called ‘battlespace’ to encompass the media. War is fought out on the internet, TV and in newspapers. This is not simply a case of activists using these channels for critique. Rather the very struggle for legitimacy of combat operations occurs in these venues. As such the leaks are a direct contribution to the extension of battlespace. Undoubtedly for many this will be a good thing. But it poses the question as to how battlespaces will be rolled back and how daily life will be reinvented in non-martial/non-conflictual terms. Or perhaps it poses the question of how we will escape a seemingly permanent state of war that has enveloped – albeit in a far less violent way than it has destroyed the lives of Afghans and Iraqis – almost all the arenas in which we live our lives.
Two stories that have appeared on this topic are worth noting for the way that they capture opposing poles of the spectrum of opinion regarding the war logs. Bubble Boys from the Columbia Journalism Review (thanks to David Campbell for this via twitter) makes the case for seeing the mass of detail released in these leaks as politically significant. For the CJR the pronouncement by informed observers that there is nothing new in the leaks is considered problematic because it gives the impression that they do not demand our attention in the way that new material might. I’m not convinced by the argument that this mass of detail provides a tool for keeping the war in people’s minds – especially as the one case the CJR talks about is one in which details have been narrativised for readers – thus stressing the notion that detail itself is not politically significant, rather is it the way in which stories or ‘[v]ignettes…help readers navigate that “fog of war”’. That said, it is a cogent argument against the informed few declaring the leaks to be nothing new. On the other hand Michael Barthel at Salon wrote a good piece indicating why it is hard for masses of detail to gain political traction. I find this a more compelling argument – and a good explanation for why, despite CJR’s protestations, there has been an underwhelming response to these leaks.