Raw and Cooked Facts in Wikileaks’ “Afghan War Diaries, 2004-2010”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (where you probably don’t get WiFi and won’t be reading this), you’ve heard something about the release on Sunday of 92,000 primary documents culled from classified US military field reports from Afghanistan compiled by Wikileaks.org and given in advance to the New York Times , Der Spiegel, and The Guardian.

There is much think and say about this event and these documents. Apropos recent conversations at SM, I’d like to point out that there are probably better places to say some of these things.

One thing that strikes me as relevant for comment here is the way that ‘facticity’ and authority based in being there are at the heart of some discussions.

Take for example this interview from NPR’s All Things Considered between co-host Robert Segal and Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange.

Here are the most relevant bits:

Julian Assange: The full story is only going to emerge over the coming weeks as that material is correlated to the witnesses who are on the ground, both the US soldiers and Afghanis

Robert Segal: [Challenging Assange’s comparison of The Afghan War Diaries to the Pentagon Papers] These are raw reports that are not confirmed and edited

JA: This material has its strength in that it is not an analysis, not written at the higher levels so it can be publicly massaged, it is in fact the raw facts of the war

RS: Some people would dispute your use of the word ‘facts,’ or indeed there might be something oxymoronic in ‘raw facts’

JA: The majority of reports are immediate reporting from the field from US military operations

What I see emerging here is an interesting conversation about textual authority, and one that resonates with our own disciplinary claims to authority based on ethnographic experience (see Clifford, Marcus, Gupta and Ferguson, etc. for some classic wailing on that old chestnut).

Assange begins by saying that these raw facts will only be fully cooked into a truthy pie once they are compared to the testimony of “witnesses who are on the ground.” And yet, when Segal notes the criticism that these raw facts are, in fact, too raw to be facts—that they need a little correlation before they can be safely consumed—Assange suggests that it is their very rawness that makes them good: Instead of truthy pie, he changes his order to sashimi.

The thing is, be they raw or cooked, pie or sashimi, these documents are not unadulterated. They are not like snapshots of the war, with all the claims to verisimilitude that visual medium implies (it’s worth mentioning that this connection between verisimilitude and the visual is also one way that witnessing stakes its authoritative claims). So, they are not like photographs. They are documents written within the generic constraints of military field reporting for a particular intended audience of surveilling authorities as official archival records.

Drop weapons are a concrete example of the things that are written out of these kinds of documents. Drop weapons are enemy weapons (like AK 47s) that US forces carry with them so that if they accidentally kill a civilian, they can ‘drop’ them by the body and have documentable proof that the civilian was actually an insurgent.

Drop weapons are useful because they alibi omissions (of the killing of civilians) from the After Action Report (AAR) which is part of the official record. But they are also useful because they enable the inscription of other things (the killing of insurgents) in the official record.

For a different and very interesting example directly from the Wikileaks docs, check out this corrective by Noah Shachtman, one of those on the ground witnesses.

The point is, however we choose to digest these documents, we need to consider them within the institutional and social context of their production, and whatever they are, they are not a diary.

15 thoughts on “Raw and Cooked Facts in Wikileaks’ “Afghan War Diaries, 2004-2010”

  1. Thanks for the (attempted) link Zoe, although it seems there is a problem with the coding of each of the links. I will have more to come in the next few days.



  2. Anthropoligists and historians are in a position to deal with and judge these documents. More important and useful it would be to expand Zoe’s contribution towards a valid and useful ‘How to read and interprete’ manual for average citizens and internet explorers.

    Yes, Assange seems to contradict himself, then again, he is the provider not the one who can or should describe the importance and a ‘how to’. Both he and the media should have considered involvement of expert to demystify and explain the meaning and context of the Afghan WarLogs.

    Go for it Savage Minds.

  3. Great analysis of the situation. I checked out that link for the essay in ZeroAnth, and I was truly amazed that it was a thoughtful and nuanced essay, not just another radical polemic. I especially liked the idea of this being like someone looking at an ethnographer’s raw field notes.

    It’s hard to imagine that most of these documents are written by tired sergeants and low level officers after each mission. Some written everyday or every couple of days of a mission from memory. A big complaint from soldiers is how disconnected the General staff is from the actual battle space, and they have hundreds of people sifting through all of this stuff and putting it together in more refined reports with higher security classifications. With all the noise this data dump has made, a person could probably learn more about what they want to concerning day-to-day life in the war with a documentary like Restrepo.

  4. Why is it that anthropology grad students can not escape reading Bourdieu but almost always seem to escape learning about the authenticy/credibility/corroboration triad?

    I feel almost dirty for even asking this, but what ultimately happens to soldiers’ and Marines’ GPS tracks? If I were looking for a nice verifiable document I would go looking for one which had created its own metadata.

    Unless you’ve been living under a rock (where you probably don’t get WiFi and won’t be reading this)

    False dichotomy! OBL lives under a rock and I betcha he gets WiFi.

  5. Well, I think that there is such a thing as ‘raw facts’ it is just that it takes a tremendous amount of time and resources to make them — elaborate congeries of experts, machinery, etc. needed to purify, stabilize, and unproblematize them. They are the results of a complex social/semiotic process — not what you get when this process is minimized.

    I think Assange is trying to make a point about the natural history of the texts he’s provided: There are less steps of translation and representation between them and the events they (re)describe then there are between, say, a press conference on the the subject which relies on a briefing provided by someone who has read a summary of a report which uses thee documents as its primary material.

    Also — to expand on Zoe’s point about how to carefully contextualize sources — because the texts are written in military genres for a military audience, the idea is that the military will have more trouble disagreeing with or questioning these documents than they would, say, the accounts of ‘uncredible’ activist witnesses to the same events. Indeed, as far as I can tell this has been the strategy of the Obama administration: to accept — and thus trivialize — the veracity of the truth claims raised in the text.

    To a certain extent, this is an old rhetorical trick — you score more points when you graciously accept your opponents claims and then demonstrate that even on the basis of the most charitable reading of the facts what they have done is monstrous. Representation is always translation/reentextualization — diaries and snapshots are not unproblematically unmediated representations of Direct Experience.

    But all of that is different from Zoe’s point (I think) which not merely that we need a critical reading of _all_ documents, including these, but a stronger one: that the circumstances of their composition is such that their accounts of what was the case is not merely mediated, but downright implausible.

    Ok I’m done now.

  6. I think Rex’ point about steps of translation and reentextualization is a really important one and would agree that, for example, the discourse of ‘transparency’ Wikileaks mobilizes is certainly a comment on this natural history of their texts; I think the Apache footage is a prime example.

    But I think Assange’s mobilization of the facticity of these docs might undermine this archeological approach: he seems to be (strategically) invoking a binary between real raw facts (i.e. field reports) and cooked unreal ones (e.g. DoD press releases) and in so doing entrenches the erasure of both context and undocumented events.

    I also really like Rex’ points about how these doc.s might function within the linguistic and rhetorical environment of the debates around the war, though I wonder if those who speak Militarese–to whose ears these doc.s’ register might sound self-authorizing–might also know more about the context of production, be more skeptical of them, and might also be more persuasive and authoritative critics (their authority being based both in linguistic performance and, in some cases, claims of ‘being there’)?

    Also, funny Rick should mention Restrepo: I got to see it last night (I *highly* recommend) followed by a Q&A with Tim Hetherington and Major (formerly Capt.) Dan Kearny. In the Q&A Hetherington said essentially the same thing as Rick: as he was combing through the Wikileaks docs, he thought to himself, why bother, since most of it (including the killing of civilians, FYI) is in the film and is there *in context*.

    There are also a lot of soldiers taking notes in the film, and some footage of them phoning their notes in (to what post or base they’re speaking is not exactly clear); sitting in their outpost (and trust me, that OP ain’t no FOB) reading out of their notebooks into the field phone. These scenes strike me as powerful rejoinders to any claims of unmediated, unadulterated, rawness.

    Lastly, if you take my point, you’ll see how these docs are actually not like ethnographic fieldnotes…but maybe that’s a comment for ZeroAnth.

    Okay I’m done now.

  7. BUMP my inquiry regarding GPS tracks. Is there even a protocol in place for their ultimate disposition? I don’t know if the Rangers were using GPS units in 2005, but if they were wouldn’t their tracks be germane to the investigation of Pat Tillman’s death?

  8. “as he was combing through the Wikileaks docs, he thought to himself, why bother, since most of it (including the killing of civilians, FYI) is in the film and is there *in context*.”

    Right, or just ask a soldier that has lived 2, 3, 4, or more years of his life there. I’ve heard far more cynical and negative things about war from them. I’ve written the types of reports that were leaked, and I’ve known guys up the chain-of-command to the pentagon that read them. From what I understand, some guys in the field at the the squad, or team, level who write these daily or weekly reports are known by intell folks all the way to the pentagon, because the quality of observations, data, detail, thoughtfulness, etc… are pretty rare. Some guys get known for writing garbage and people don’t even read what they write. So, there’s a selective process that’s not available.
    There’s a saying that you hear among soldiers: “Everyone goes home.” In the actual process of war there’s very little idealism among many of the soldiers. The COIN strategy ignores this reality. So, you have a formal mission and message going from the top-down, and you have a massive informal culture from the bottom-up, which are usually at odds and disconnected from each other. In organizational studies with any large company or gov’t, or even a business of 150 people, you start to see this process. Success can only happen if you are able to get the informal culture to either support the formal one, or stop countering it. These “official” documents are largely documenting a formal way of reporting.

    “you’ll see how these docs are actually not like ethnographic fieldnotes…but maybe that’s a comment for ZeroAnth.”

    Yes, that was from the ZeroAnth essay that was linked.

    There was a program to publish the essays, stories and poems of soldiers, which is quite powerful. PBS made a series of short visual clips for these stories called, “Operation Homecoming.” It adds an emic layer onto what other documentary Restrepo was trying to do. I recommend watching the clip Road Work, but here’s the whole thing. All the clips are different:


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