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Plucking Learning From the WikiDeluge

• October 21, 2010 • 10:12 AM

After journalists swept over the trove of WikiLeaked documents from the Afghan war with a broad-toothed comb, historians and social scientists consider what might be of more lasting value there.

The Pentagon has been bracing all week for the next big release of WikiLeaks secrets, a haul expected to contain as many as 400,000 classified documents from the Iraq conflict that would dwarf this summer’s Afghan “war logs.” The Pentagon has a 120-person damage-control team at the ready, and it has already begun begging news outlets not to publish the material. (WikiLeaks, which runs better interference than the Pentagon itself, maintains on its Wikileaks Twitter feed that it has no idea why everyone thinks these files are about Iraq.)

Whenever they are released — and whatever is released — the latest documents will undoubtedly be followed by the same media handwringing and contradictory government pronouncements that ensued over the summer. Then, some government officials chided the whistleblower site for endangering lives, even as others insisted there was nothing new to see here. The three media outlets coordinating with WikiLeaks on the Afghan material played up their significance, while everyone not in on the secret moaned that the files were a waste of time.

If there is a more lasting public value in any of these records — be they from Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere — we would likely expect that context to be unearthed by a group with neither deadline nor agenda: historians. So what do they make of all this? Are the WikiLeaks documents a trove of historic insight, or a landmine of unsubstantiated sources?

“Historians tend to want to collect everything and then go through it slowly,” said Adrian Lewis, a military historian at the University of Kansas. “So the question of would they be interested in collecting this stuff — yes, they would. And later on, they can always go back and verify certain pieces of it.”

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[/class] Lewis has already downloaded the first set of WikiLeaks war diaries to consider in updating his second edition of The American Culture of War, a history that runs from World War II through the Iraq invasion. He expects that when the next set is published, he will collect that too. As a historian, he said he will approach the material much differently from how it has been vetted by journalists.

“Journalists tend to use the ‘I-got-you approach,’ they’re looking for something that’s startling, they’re looking for something they can get a headline out of, they’re looking for something spectacular,” he said. “What I’m looking for — I already have a thesis in my mind about the war, why we’re doing what we’re doing, how the enemy is doing, why they’re doing what they’re doing — and this will either confirm or challenge my thesis.”

Brian Linn, a military historian at Texas A&M and the president of the Society for Military History, takes a much wearier view of WikiLeaks.

“When someone comes to me saying, ‘There’s 20,000 documents on the Afghan war,’ I’ll say, ‘Great, if I live another 50 years, I’ll get to that,’” he said. “Right now, I’m 57, and I’m booked up ’til I’m 60.”

Historians typically leave the first cut of history to journalists, participants and those authors with an angle (Gen. Tommy Franks, for one, inked his book deal in the first year of the Iraq War). Linn said historians then don’t tend to roll up their sleeves until much later — and for that reason, he doesn’t expect many of them to go dashing onto WikiLeaks.

“I think it’s somewhat valuable,” he said. “But that is going to be brutally and bluntly the reaction of most scholars to this. That’s why the journalists are the first ones to go in, and the agenda people. And then, maybe right now, at this time some 25-year-old grad student is saying ‘This is what I want to make my life’s work.’ And that’s going to be the person in 10 years who does this.”

The documents may help provide a sense of the color of the moment — the way soldiers speak, their more mundane daily concerns and routines at war. But for the big-picture details, Linn expects that historians simply won’t be able to shake suspicion over the documents’ origins. The very protections WikiLeaks uses to obscure the identity of its sources, in other words, may make it harder for researchers to use the material.

“The problem with WikiLeaks is you don’t know where it came form; it’s like Glenn Beck,” Linn said. “Is this a legitimate document, or is it a forgery? Because it’s very easy to forge things now.”

Historians of all people ought to be able to tell the difference, though, right?

“How could you?” Linn asked. “Historians are really aware of this. Teddy Roosevelt used to write letters that he would never mail. He would put them in his files, and historians would go back in and say, ‘Oh look, Teddy’s taking on big corporations!’ But he never actually sent them.”

Lewis, however, disagrees. The WikiLeaks files are living documents in one very literal sense — the people who can verify or disavow them are still living, and that’s a luxury historians don’t have with many primary-source documents. (In insisting that the leaks are irresponsible, the Pentagon may also be inadvertently acknowledging their legitimacy.)

“Keep in mind, you have a great deal of people who were there, who are now back here,” Lewis said. “And they are in places like the Army War College, or the Navy War College.”

Lewis and Linn agree that historians should have no ethical qualms about using documents that were illegally obtained. The stolen Pentagon Papers, for example, have frequently been studied as one view of the history of Vietnam. Similarly, once the WikiLeaks documents are out in the open, Lewis said, they’re fair game for researchers.

Julian Assange, the site’s founder, has repeatedly maintained that he doesn’t just want to unload secrets into cyberspace — he wants people to actually do something with them, to curate them and disseminate the findings for maximum impact.

In the long run, historians may be the best equipped to do that. But from his point of view, Linn cautioned that a massive data dump is not necessarily a valuable one.

“We tend to be somewhat skeptical about big collections of data that are coming in from hundreds of different places,” he said of historians. “How do you get any context on that?”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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