This is a ‘digital deluge’, not the Pentagon Papers

Some are comparing Wikileaks’ 92,000 Afghan documents to the internal US study of Vietnam leaked in 1971. But the differences are striking.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics Politics

The release of classified documents on the Afghan War by Wikileaks to three major newspapers has been compared to the ‘Pentagon Papers’, the top-secret study of America’s war in Vietnam which was leaked in 1971. But this is an inaccurate comparison. In fact, the differences between the two whistleblowing incidents highlight how today’s Wikileaks story is much less meaningful in political terms, and less likely to shift views on America’s military venture in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon Papers was the unofficial name given to United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. The report was commissioned by the US secretary of defence in 1967, Robert McNamara, and it was published internally the following year. Daniel Ellsberg, a contributor to the study, leaked its contents to the New York Times in 1971.

The first major difference between the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks Afghanistan documents is given away by a word in the official title of that 1967 document: ‘study’. The papers are a historical study of US political and military involvement in Vietnam. They are an analytical work of synthesis, reflecting the views of senior officials and policymakers.

In contrast, the Wikileaks documents are a massive dump of undigested, raw reports – a ‘digital deluge’, as the Financial Times called it. They are from the field, generally from low-level military operatives. As Anne Applebaum noted in the Washington Post, it is hard to make anything out in these documents. They say things like: ‘At 1850Z, TF 2-2 using PREDATOR (UAV) PID insurgents emplacing IEDs at 41R PR 9243 0202, 2.7km NW of FOB Hutal, Kandahar. TF 2-2 using PREDATOR engaged with 1x Hellfire missile resulting in 1x INS KIA and 1x INS WIA. ISAF tracking #12-374.’ Applebaum says that Wikileaks inadvertently has proven the need for the mainstream media, in order to interpret this gobbledygook. But even when we learn from the New York Times that the words cited above mean ‘Predator drone firing a missile at men who were planting roadside bombs’, it still remains a fragment of information.

Wikileaks’ Julian Assange argues that the scale of the releases – some 92,000 documents – is impressive evidence of their importance. By that yardstick, the Pentagon Papers were unworthy, given that, running to 7,000 pages, they were less than a tenth of the Wikileaks haul. But the size of the Wikileaks pile is actually an indication of how potentially insignificant it is, because it is simply a mass of information tidbits. These documents are no more than the sum of their parts.

Ellsberg himself has recently said that there are important differences between the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks documents, but both show ‘the absence of any good reason for why we’re there, what this war is being fought for’. Yet even on this point about the justification for war, there is more to separate than unite the Pentagon Papers and Wikileaks.

The Pentagon Papers directly addressed the question of the rationale for the war in Vietnam, based on input from people who were actual decision-makers. When a Defense Department memo in the papers revealed that 70 per cent of the reason for continuing the presence in Vietnam was in order ‘to avoid a humiliating US defeat’ and not ‘to help a friend’, it ran directly counter to the reason given publicly by the White House. Indeed, the papers exposed President Lyndon Johnson as a liar, as he was secretly expanding the war while telling US Congress and the public that he was seeking to wind it down.

The Wikileaks-revealed Afghan documents do the opposite. Ellsberg is right that they do not provide any rational reason for America’s occupation of Afghanistan but he’s ultimately wrong on the bigger picture – because the Wikileaks documents don’t even attempt to provide a justification. Reading about the killing of civilians by NATO forces in the Wikileaks documents may lead someone to question why the US and other Western powers are there, but these reports were never intended to answer that question in the first place.

Another key difference between the two document hauls is their originality, or lack of. The Pentagon Papers were a true revelation, because such information was Top Secret and had not been aired previously. In contrast, the Wikileaks material is old news: it covers the 2004-2009 period, and at best it is confirmation of what has long been discussed. This fact has made it relatively easy for the Obama administration to dismiss the Wikileaks documents as out-of-date.

More importantly, as Brendan O’Neill has already pointed out on spiked, the nature of the Wikileaks reports means that they do not pose a political challenge to the war. Just highlighting how the war is not going well for the West is not a reason in itself to stop it. If the war is just and the ends are worth fighting for, then the logical conclusion would be to improve the prosecution of it, not simply to withdraw. And indeed, that is the Obama administration’s easy deflection: it now argues that its revised strategy, announced in late 2009, came after the events described in the Wikileaks documents, and is precisely intended to deal with such issues. Wikileaks, in fact, is implicitly hoping that the American establishment will take a defeatist view; that if Wikileaks and others simply highlight how badly the war is proceeding, then Western governments will just surrender and go home.

Wikileaks’ lack of a political challenge to the Afghanistan conflict is in tune with the general lack of opposition or even interest in this war. American liberals in particular have not got worked up about opposing the Afghan War the way they did about Iraq: it turns out that their principles extend only to complaining about wars prosecuted by Republicans. During the 2008 presidential election they were quite willing to overlook Obama’s warmongering rhetoric on Afghanistan in all their excitement about electing him.

This depoliticised environment means that the Wikileaks revelations will not have the same impact as the Pentagon Papers. The papers are rightly credited with being a major turning point regarding support for the war in Vietnam and were followed by street protests and Congressional hearings. That response is quite understandable, given that the papers revealed that the war’s executors were lying about the reason for the war. Moreover, the papers were disclosed in the midst of a strong anti-war current.

Announced with a big bang internationally, the Wikileaks materials are already starting to be understood in a more sober way, as most come to recognise that there’s no real news, and the public remains largely uninterested in the war. Don’t hold your breath for street protests. Some have noted that Afghanistan has not had the same public reaction as Vietnam because the direct impact and scale of the two wars differ: for example, 1,000 American troops have died in Afghanistan versus 58,000 in Vietnam at the time that the papers were publicised. In truth, the varying responses have more to do with vastly different political contexts: Wikileaks is not a direct challenge to the war, and there is not a strong anti-war current in the West today.

We should have a debate about the rationale for fighting the war in Afghanistan. The Wikileaks documents are not a bombshell akin to the Pentagon Papers that will force the kind of discussion we need; they are, in fact, a distraction from that kind of fundamental review. Moreover, the defeatism inherent in the Wikileaks approach is not a strong basis for arguing against the war in Afghanistan – or wars anywhere else.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here

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