Wikileaks Reveal Cover-Ups and Under-Reported Cases of Civilian Losses in Afghanistan

07/28/2010 12:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Wikileaks documents, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper, numbering some 92,000 separate military logs covering the period from 2004 to 2009 are too numerous to make an objective independent assessment of them, but there are several things emerging which are both troubling yet unsurprising.

First, the cover-ups and under-reported cases of civilian losses in Afghanistan. The Wikileaks appear to identify no less than 150 different incidents involving the loss of such innocent lives, including one in which ten children were killed. Could the coalition forces take more care over their operations? I'm certainly not competent to make that judgment. They've been given an extremely tough mission, both physically and psychologically. Quite apart from errant missiles and bombs, every festering conflict will also ultimately have its "My Lai's." In the absence of pinpoint assassinations of opponents (the "surgical strike" of modern mythology), "civilian" losses are inevitable. There is no way around this issue in any war. Those who justify it proclaim its inevitability in any war of necessity. Those who would have the US leave, use the fact as another reason.

But in a very real sense, the question raises yet another fundamentally more important one of what anyone means when they use the word "necessity," and, I suspect, the identity of the victims is inescapably a factor. The more "they" are seen as "them" and not "us" the lower our threshold becomes for declaring necessity. If a stray Hellfire missile were to knock out a subdivision in Michigan, for example, while in pursuit of the very same terrorists that we appear to be after in Afghanistan, how would that color our choice of weapon and where would we draw the line of necessity?

Let's make the example more realistic. Let's suppose the subdivision is really well defended by armed enemy militia, making it risky to take ground forces into the place. If, as I firmly believe, the line would be in a different place, then the true perspective of those who argue that the deaths of innocents are a necessary evil, disingenuously fails to acknowledge their different standard of humanity toward certain innocents ("them") over others ("us"). In a perhaps unrealistically ideal world, this would not be the case and while we might all buy into a notion of a war of necessity and its collateral damage, at least we'd see the damage as of the same calamitous nature regardless of the innocent victims' national or ethnic identity.

Beyond these questions, since there are occasions when civilian fatalities arising from US or coalition attacks get publicized, we should surely be interested to know what governs the choice of publicizing or not publicizing. Though the answer can never be known for certain a perhaps cynical perspective might be that those who decide would do so out of consideration of what might, or might not, be capable of being kept a secret. It's easy to come clean when there's no hope of suppressing the facts. It's when it is possible to keep the event a secret that our objectivity and honesty are challenged and I expect nothing different from the decision-makers in the military. Abu Ghraib speaks eloquently to us of this. Moreover, the added blanket concepts of "national security" or "protecting soldiers' lives" are at the very least convenient ways of avoiding scrutiny.

Against such a backdrop of cover-ups we have to examine the practice of embedding. It certainly makes for a safer, more secure environment where journalists can obtain plenty of media-fodder while avoiding the often riskier pursuit of objective truth. Don't misunderstand me. There are plenty of journalists who put their lives on the line, simply that we might be informed with the facts, and several who've lost their lives in the process. I stand in awe of them and humbled by their courage. But there is the inevitable bonding that duress will create from among strangers forced to share the same arduous experiences and journalists are no less human in that regard and enforcing a model of embedding will always result in under-reporting of objective fact as there will always be events that "shouldn't be seen."