Iraq War Logs Support Pre-existing Narratives

Journalistic retellings of material from the Iraq War Logs focus not simply on “sensation,” as what immediately necessary story from an ongoing war wouldn’t be sensational?  Rather, the first wave of coverage following the Log’s release on Friday, October 21, has foregrounded reports of the routine catastrophe of collateral victims, of the scope of casualties revealed by the tabulated numeric data, of the low-tech arms race of IED and counter-measures, of contractor’s exacerbation of potentially violent situations.  Essentially, the Logs provide journalists with new information on narratives established throughout the conflict’s seven years.  In coming days, as the weight settles of 400,000 new rows of low-level details on the specific events that combined comprise a documentary description of the conduct of the war, a second set of narratives will return to the fore: ground-level reports of individual sacrifice, of actions that led to medals and honor, of intense collaboration among local and international forces: essentially, stories of resilience, valor, and loss that parallel another wave of narratives told by journalists about the war.  These current waves of reporting based on the Logs rely on a retelling of the brief contents of individual reports.  That retelling is empowered by a method of searching for keywords or phrases in documents, and aggregating reports across a term such as “contractor,” “IED,” or “KIA.”  Often, the military classification scheme itself offers the keywords of interest.  One can, with patience, sort the tabulated data of the reports according to categories of events such as, “Ambush,” “Indirect Fire,” or “Medevac.”  In essence, journalists are following the trails of interest and importance built by the organization conducting the war into the categorical reporting methods and structures.  This focus on available signposts and structures is not a failing, but a sign that the reports, in the jargon, detail, essentialism, and collective scale, are profoundly difficult material.

A potential third wave of stories based on the Logs has yet to be released, or even written.  It’s questionable if they even can be written.  Computational methods exist to mine the available material for motifs present but unarticulated in the phrases of the report summaries.  What does it mean when a report on the assassination of an Afghani mayor includes, along with the “normal” material of date, time, place, and event details, two additional paragraphs that read like a eulogy?  How can one find the reports revealing of emotion, or a change in emotion over time when the collection surpasses 20 million words?  Additionally, writing these stories might draw together material across a wide swath of reports to tell stories that we are unprepared to find because they don’t adhere to prior media narratives of the war, because they aren’t made apparent by structures of classification required by the military in the construction of an event report.

Familiar stories supported by the detailed accounts contained in the War Logs are not the only ones they tell, but for now, they are the only ones we are capable of seeing.

About Ben M.

Assistant Professor of English and Communication at Georgia State University New and Emerging Media Lab
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