Welcome back, President Obama. Welcome back to Earth. Now that your tour through the clouds is over, it’s time for the real work to begin. Last Tuesday, Americans turned out en masse to demonstrate their disappointment with the recent turn of Democratic leadership. Many had voted blue just two years before, hoping that “change” was on its way. They’re still waiting. Indeed, if the Obama administration is looking to explain the recent embarrassment at the polls, it should reconsider the promises it made when it first assumed office, promises that largely remain unfulfilled: increased transparency, accountability and moral responsibility on behalf of our government. If progress has been made in these areas, it hasn’t been obvious. In fact, classified Iraq War documents and combat logs recently leaked show that, in fact, we’re going backwards.
The almost 400,000 documents appeared a little over two weeks ago through the controversial media outlet WikiLeaks and present an incriminating snapshot of conditions in Iraq: private contractors act recklessly, civilian deaths are a daily reality, and our Iraqi allies are among the worst perpetrators of abuse in the region. American troops release prisoners to torture at the hands of brutal Iraqi jailers and on occasion, they take torture into their own hands. There are six or seven civilians killed each day; sometimes even those trying to surrender are shot. Within the military, these unsavory realities are understood and tolerated — perhaps even encouraged.
In short, nothing has changed since Abu Ghraib. Nothing, that is, except the secrecy with which these abuses are conducted. Then, it was American troops who were enacting these abuses; now, the dirty work is passed off to others. Let’s not beat about the bush: these are crimes. By the estimation of University of California, Irvine professor Mark LeVine, the actions attributed to American forces in the recently released documents violate more than a dozen of the articles of the Geneva Convention, not to mention the United Nations Convention against Torture and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
This has all happened — or rather, continued to happen — under a president who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.
Yet, perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the War Logs debacle has been the efforts of Obama and his cohorts to shut down the organization behind the release and cover up all traces. The front has been united: from Clinton to Gates to Mullen, Obama officials have publically castigated Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Some have demanded the “return” of the documents while others have less than subtly insisted that he cease further operations. The Pentagon and the Justice department are considering prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, a drastic step that this administration has already taken more times than all previous administrations combined. Assange is, in his own words, “on the run.”
It looks like transparency isn’t so important after all.
Indeed, for years, the US government has denied that it keeps records of civilian casualties in the Iraq War. It turns out that it does. The recent documents show that there have been 109,000 violent deaths between 2004 and the end of 2009, of which 66,081 were civilians. In other words, noncombatants account for over 60 percent of all deaths in the conflict. That is a statistic worth covering up.
I understand there are justifiable safety concerns over the release of the documents. It’s true that despite the significant steps that have been taken to eliminate personal information from the logs, the lives of soldiers and especially informants could be placed at increased risk. Nonetheless, release of these documents serves a greater good. Just as the Pentagon Papers did in 1971, these War Logs have brought much-needed scrutiny to American combat operations overseas; hopefully, they will play a similar role in ending this war.
It’s worth noting that in Iraq, the reaction to the release was almost nonexistent. “It’s become normal here to be tortured in prison, to die in prison, or to disappear without trace in prison,” said one Iraqi man. When asked if the Americans knew about the abuses, another woman added, “Of course they knew about it; they’re in control of everything.”
Sadly, this is how the United States is perceived by a good majority of the world. Our reputation is not improving. It’s time for our leaders to wake up and act upon the ideals they espouse. It’s time that the Obama administration took its own platforms seriously. Here, at least, actual change can be made.
Rory Marsh is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.