With the latest massive release of documents via WIkiLeaks, the media is abuzz with shocked reactions to the new revelations about the civilian death toll in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, now revised upward to over 115,000 (and that’s just the documented number). But no one paying even casual attention to this long-running catastrophe should have been surprised, let alone shocked.
It’s true that numbers and incident reports have been hard to get—and that’s the value of that aspect of the latest from WikiLeaks—but details about tragic incidents have filtered out before, most notably in releases forced out by legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. Many of the earlier reports only emerged out because of probes into the massive cash payments (some of it from sachels lugged around Iraq for just this purpose) to victims’ families by the US military, a custom known as "solatia."
I’ve followed the solatia angle for years, and in wake of the WikiLeaks release on Friday, you may find my report for Editor & Publisher back in April, 2007, highly relevant. It addresses questions, based on incident reports, such as: What price do we place on the life of a 9-year-old boy, shot by one of our soldiers who mistook his book bag for a bomb satchel? Would you believe $500? And when we shoot an Iraqi journalist on a bridge we shell out $2500 to his widow—but why not the measly $5000 she had requested?
The WikiLeaks documents present an opportunity to fact-check some of the many solatia claims denied for lack of evidence or our claim that we were not at fault. For example, here’s one case from the solatia papers that I previously cited:
"Claimant alleges that on or about 24 February 2005, he was riding in a mini-bus with his nine-year-old son on his lap when Coalition Forces fired a round into the bus. The round allegedly hit his son in the head, causing the son’s death. Xxxxx alleges that some Americans came to the hospital and apologized. He also states that one of the HMMWV’s had "32" on the side. Claimant has enclosed an autopsy report.
"Allow me to express my sympathy for your loss, however, in accordance with the cited references and after investigating your claim, I find that your claim is not compensable for the following reason: In your claim you failed to provide suflicient evidence that US Forces and not someone else is responsible for your damages. Accordingly, your claim must be denied."
Now I’ve found this incident report in the new WikiLeaks report for that same date in Baghdad and listed as "friendly" fire (meaning in this case on civilians). It sounds something like the incident above, and if a match clearly gives lie to our claim to not be involved.
Here’s my 2007 article with more.
The most revealing new information on Iraq—guaranteed to make readers sad or angry, or both—is found not in any press dispatch but in a collection of several hundred PDFs posted on the Web this week.