The Wikileaks Iraq War Logs: What Do They Mean?

I’ve had an opportunity to spend some time on the Iraq War Logs (I’ll refer to them as “the IZ Logs” or “the Logs” from here forward) and I’ve a few conclusions to share.

Diving into the Logs was surreal, in a way.  I was able to scour the SIGACTs from my second deployment and locate the corresponding reports for a whole host of incidents of which I have some memory.  I was reminded of the Fourth of July rocket attack, when a single enemy rocket sailed over my company outpost and landed harmlessly in the desert beyond.  I remember sitting in the tiny internet center when I first heard the rocket go over and then heard my platoonmates, who were outside playing volleyball, cheer as if to spite the insurgents. For other memories that had been floating around in the back of my head, it was the first time I’ve been able to pin an exact date on them.  I also saw the death of comrades in a whole day’s worth of action reduced to a blurb.

There were other events in my memory that did not make the SIGACTs.  Before I go further on this point, I’ll take a moment to explain to the layreader just what you are looking at when you browse the Logs:

When an event of military interest occurs, the unit(s) involved submit a detailed After Action Report (AAR) up their chain(s) of command.  AARs of any significance are reported from the on-scene commander through every step of the chain all the way to higher headquarters (Multinational Forces – Iraq [MNF-I], in the case of Iraq before Mission Accomplished-Part Two).  HQ then distills the AAR down into a Significant Activity (SIGACT) report, which it disseminates to all subordinate units so that they are aware of what is going on in theater.

SIGACTs aren’t meant to be detailed analyses of the action because the battalion and company commanders who browse them are usually pressed for time and don’t have much use for the details unless the event directly relates to their Area of Operations (AO).  Wikileaks’ somewhat haphazard redaction of units, weapons and quantities makes the Logs even more ambiguous to those who lack prior knowledge of the described events. On a side note, I think Wiki has room for improvement in this regard.  It was definitely right for them to filter certain actionable information.  However, they overlooked a few risky details while needlessly redacting others that were no danger to the innocent.

There are two points here: First, SIGACTs are based on information that is reported from field units through lots of intermediate commands up to the highest headquarters, then analyzed and sent back down in a variant of the “telephone” game. Second, SIGACTs are meant to provide a quick update rather than to be especially informative.

The latter point means that there are obvious limitations to what the untrained reader can take away from the Logs.  I want to stress the former point because it means that information on any single incident can only be obtained from a SIGACT if that information was reported up the chain in the first place.

The decentralized nature of counterinsurgency involves the spreading of small infantry units, sometimes no more than six Marines, throughout populated areas to protect the native population from insurgents.  These small units will, more often than not, have developed a high degree of cohesion and camaraderie after several months of combat. They may have sustained many casualties from the actions of a maddeningly elusive enemy.

They are deployed to a combat zone under an ambiguous mission and surrounded by potential enemies whose language they cannot understand.  They are vulnerable and have only each other to protect themselves. They are young and want more than anything to bring each other home to live normal, productive lives. It is not uncommon for units in this situation to prioritize the welfare of the unit above almost everything else.

The first thing you need to understand about these 400,000 secret Iraq War documents, then, is not just that they lack detail. It’s that the worst details from many incidents cannot be found by scouring the Logs, for they are known only to soldiers and Marines whose every incentive was, and remains, not to report them.


  1. echthrophiliac says:

    you cant search by unit, it seems. also, they do not list “infantry” as one of the pre-defined search terms on the left column…

  2. jaylemeux says:

    Yeah, it takes a bit of trial and error to make the most of the search options. Unfortunately (and unnecessarily, in my opinion), Wiki’s hit-or-miss redaction included unit names in most places. I was able to figure out when we arrived in Husaybah by checking when the SIGACTs stopped saying __ACR (Wiki redacted “3rd”) and started saying __ MAR (Wiki redacted “3/7”).

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