Bridging the Gap: Using Technology to Fill in the Blank Spaces of the Iraq War

Over thirteen years have passed since the start of the Iraq war. While it has become one of the more polarizing conflicts in the United States’ relatively youthful history, to this point the development of comprehensive historical accounts has been sidelined by several factors: the influx of former war cabinet member memoirs, active legacy events linked to the war, and perhaps most importantly the institutional barrier of document classification imposed by the United States government. While journalistic accounts are available, their assistance in clarifying a highly politicized and oft distorted event is somewhat limited. Although books like Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Peter Baker’s Days of Fire, provide colorful, detailed, and accurate descriptions of the climate of the Executive branch after the September 11th attacks and during the lead up to the Iraq War, these accounts are limited by the resources available to authors at the time of their development. These limitations have left historians, students, and enthusiasts searching for a comprehensive explanation that may not currently be achievable through the use of traditional methods of scholarship.

Today Iraq remains in turmoil as it works to fight ISIS (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria), a fundamentalist group whose rise is often linked to United States’ early strategic failures during the Iraq War.[1] As time passes the legacy of the Iraq War continues to shift, however the continued instability of Iraq can be seen as a magnifying lens through which the extent of the Bush cabinet’s failures in the region are judged by.

Through a consultation of Google Books, of the fourteen official members George W. Bush’s war cabinet during the lead up to Iraq only four members have not written a memoir or been a biographical feature. While many of these sources, particularly memoirs provide valuable insight into the off-record comings and goings inside of the White House, they have also been known to represent the opinions (and biases) of their subject.[2] Within a cabinet that has been described as contentious,[3] these indiscretions and the impact of inter-cabinet politics on the impressions of each writer’s fellow members injures the ability of these accounts to aid in developing a better understanding of the situation. As with the legacy of Iraq and the declassification period, time is key to extracting veritable accounts of the events leading to the Iraq War.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the overwhelming majority of documents regarding the United States pre-war intelligence as well as inter-cabinet correspondences are still marked as classified, meaning that they are not publicly accessible, and will not be until at least 2027 (in the case of early intelligence) as the United States government has set the classification limit on secret documents at twenty-five years.[4]

These three factors may very well result in a “floodgates” style rush to develop content as the institutional as well as political and social barriers begin to dissolve, however in the meantime students are stuck in a difficult scenario of attempting to learn about a major world event without the help of the vast banks of content they would be able to draw upon when studying older, less contemporary conflicts and the key events that inspired them.

The dilemma of learning using limited available information regarding the Iraq War is further complicated by the war’s origins in watershed moments. One of these iconic moments was Colin Powell’s testimony regarding the presence of Iraqi weapons in front of the United Nations, six weeks prior to the invasion of Iraq. While the intricacies of this turning point in the trajectory of the Global War on Terror may initially appear to obfuscate the progress in understanding the Iraq War as a whole, the potential to expand the understanding of the Iraq War as well as the legacies of not only Powell but also the peers that surrounded him is immense. Of course, given the aforementioned obstacles to the development of material regarding the Iraq War and Powell’s role, the opportunities for additional scholarly literary work are limited given the scattered and at times conflicting accounts of the war. However, this does not mean that progress in understanding Colin Powell’s tenure as Secretary of State is not achievable. Considering the pitfalls of contemporary Powell scholarship, by hosting several different technological platforms used analyze, organize, and display available information on Powell on a singular web page, the aim of this digital history project is to become a leading informational hub through which a better understanding of one of the very few blemishes on Colin Powell’s career.

Given the journalistic nature of many of the works surrounding Powell’s tenure as Secretary of State and his involvement in the Iraq War, there are bound to be discrepancies, missed details, and ultimately differing interpretations. Further complicating the analysis of literary trends in the coverage of Powell is the compact time frame under which materials have been generated; the lack of comprehensive new evidence makes it difficult for authors to formulate strong original claims. One could read bookshelves worth of material on Powell’s role in the Global War on Terror without gaining a comprehensive understanding as to why Powell testified in front of the U.N. using the information that he did. While there may not be fully effective print method of organizing and addressing conflicting these narratives, understandings, and evidence, the digital format and some of its associated tools provide an excellent alternative to an otherwise complicated sequence. Given the nature of the Powell saga and the current obstacles it faces, three tools that I have used to assist in explaining Colin Powell’s role in the Iraq War are Genius, Northwestern University’s Timeline JS3, and Apple iMovie.

Originally tasked with decoding lyrics in an online community format, Genius has expanded vastly since its launch in 2009.[5] It has become one of the premier, if not the premier social annotation technology. Genius is now used to annotate anything from Shakespearean literature to Democratic Primary debates and everything in between.[6] While critics may be quick to point out that due to its community friendly nature, anyone is capable of creating an annotation and that there are little to no intellectual or credential barriers to restrict inaccurate annotations from occurring, Genius is not without quality control barriers.[7] A points rating system allows for community members to vote up or down specific annotations based on their merit as well as provide commentary on annotations affixed to a specific document.[8] Within this points system, members can grow their reputations by providing strong and accurate commentary; likewise members who fail to meet analytic expectations will see their reputation dwindling.[9] Annotations generated by a member with a strong reputation within a certain subject will generally be featured at the top of the sidebar viewing area.[10]

In the context of understanding the Iraq War through Colin Powell’s behaviors as Secretary of State, I have used Genius to annotate Powell’s February 5, 2003 presentation at the United Nations. I have annotated various aspects of the speech to provide background and anecdotes regarding the development of the presentation but worked to primarily provide a communal “fact-check” of sorts. By loading the transcript of the presentation into the Genius engine, scholars and students alike can now highlight specific claims made by Powell and either affirm or reject them by using supporting documents and literature, allowing for a more rounded out view of the testimony than any one book could provide. Philosophical or existential claims made by Powell could be better understood by the addition of summarized excerpts from journalistic accounts, memoirs, and biographies. In short, in this setting I have been able to use Genius as a factual aggregator for an event where facts and fiction often blend together.

Developed by the Knight Lab at Northwestern University, Timeline JS3 is a web-based timeline development program that provides a clean-cut approach to chronological organization, and is fully customizable in terms of time frame as well as events.[11] Developing timelines is relatively simple as the application relies on inputs entered into a custom-built Google Sheet (spreadsheet) by the creator, Knight Lab’s engine then processes the inputs providing the creator with the option to share their work via embedment on a site or a URL link. Events show up as flagged points on a sliding timeline and the customizable time frame allows for events to be mapped in a time frame ranging from a singular day to a series of decades.[12] When dealing with a highly time-specific sequence such as the planning of the Iraq War, Timeline allows students and teachers alike a convenient way to learn about a large or highly detailed event in an expedited manner. Timeline can be used simply as a means of benchmarking a sequence of events and it is very effective as a simple visual aid, or it can be used as an explorable element where multimedia or supplementary commentary is embedded within each point of a timeline. Beyond its visual display features, developing a Timeline challenges students not only to analyze what aspects of an event are integral to its comprehension, but also to discover how to effectively display information as part of a narrative in an accessible format. Regardless of the extent of its application, it is without a doubt very useful in tracking a convoluted sequence of events. Furthermore, in the case of contextual events (Powell’s testimony in the context of the Iraq War), individual Timelines can be used to track overarching or alternate sequences of events.[13] By using Timeline on this site, I have developed two series of data. The first takes a more general look at the series of events leading up to the invasion of Iraq, while the other focuses on documents and correspondences which in the context of available literature indicate how the political climate of George Bush’s war cabinet may have affected Powell’s decision. My goal in developing two separate timelines is to help facilitate an understanding of Powell’s experience within the larger context of the Bush administration’s first term.

 

With the use of technology becoming increasingly prominent in many academic disciplines, short films have started to be a popular form of assignment, challenging students to present research in a way that allows less familiar audiences to be engaged.[14]Widely used at both the high school and college level, Apple’s iMovie is one of, if not the most popular video editing and production software currently available.[15] Coming pre-loaded onto every Apple computer, iMovie is seen as the most robust piece of included proprietary software.[16] This is due to its wealth of pre-constructed design elements as well as iMovie’s all-in-one functionality. Both of these features contribute to the programs popularity as its built-in components and design presets help users save time on formatting, allowing for more time to be used on research and content development.[17] Furthermore, iMovie’s capacity to support editing, narration, visual effects, and publishing, as well as its ease of use and the large wealth of available tutorials all make it very convenient for teachers and professors to assign projects using iMovie.

For this site, I chose to use iMovie to create a short video providing background information on the Iraq War and explaining the question that my site works to answer, “Why did Powell willingly include information that he knew to be questionable or false in his presentation at the United Nations?”. Having little experience with video content development, iMovie’s simple and intuitive design allowed for me to develop professional looking content within an hour of use and seamlessly publish my work on a personal YouTube channel. Again, the simplicity of the software allowed for more time to be spent on developing an attention grabbing and informative content element.

 

In conclusion, although the barriers to both Iraq War and modern Powell scholarship are formidable, they are by no means absolute. While the red tape of classified documents and the egos of key actors injure the possibility of understanding an already complicated series of events, digital tools such as Genius and Timeline JS3 can help to make learning, teaching, and researching the Iraq War markedly less complicated. With that in mind, the vision for this site is not for it to become comprehensive, but to help bridge the gaps in the history of the Iraq War and Powell’s presentation at the United Nations.

[1] Dexter Filkins, “Did George W. Bush Create ISIS?” The New Yorker, Last modified May 15, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/did-george-w-bush-create-isis

[2] Jennifer Rubin, “Colin Powell’s Cheap Shot,” The Washington Post, Last modified August 29, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/post/colin-powells-cheap-shot/2011/03/29/gIQA2Q0smJ_blog.html

[3] James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 340.

[4] Scott Shane, “U.S. to Declassify Secrets at Age 25,” The New York Times, Last modified December 21, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/21/washington/21declassify.html

[5] Genius, “Web Annotator,” Genius, last updated 2016, http://genius.com/web-annotator

[6] Genius, “Genius Home Page,” Genius, last updated 2016, http://genius.com/web-annotator

[7] Pinsker, Matthew. “Social Annotation.” Class Lecture, Dickinson College, Carlisle, February 9, 2016.

[8] Genius, “Become a Genius,” Genius, Last updated 2016, http://genius.com/Genius-become-a-genius-annotated

[9] Pinsker, Matthew. “Social Annotation.” Class Lecture, Dickinson College, Carlisle, February 9, 2016.

[10] Genius, “Become a Genius,” Genius, Last updated 2016, http://genius.com/Genius-become-a-genius-annotated

[11] Northwestern University Knight Lab, “Overview,” Timeline JS, Last updated 2016, https://timeline.knightlab.com/

[12] Northwestern University Knight Lab, “Overview,” Timeline JS, Last updated 2016, https://timeline.knightlab.com/

[13] Pinsker, Matthew. “Individual Projects (Part II).” Class Lecture, Dickinson College, Carlisle, April 28, 2016.

[14] Landis, Brenda. “iMovie and Video Production in Academia.” Interview by author. May 16, 2016.

[15] Landis, Brenda. “iMovie and Video Production in Academia.” Interview by author. May 16, 2016.

[16] Landis, Brenda. “iMovie and Video Production in Academia.” Interview by author. May 16, 2016.

[17] Landis, Brenda. “iMovie and Video Production in Academia.” Interview by author. May 16, 2016.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *