To hear everyone from President Obama to GOP Senators talk, the leaking of documents about US activity (as well as Pakistani and Afghan) during the on going Afghan war is horrible. But while they complain that individuals or operations may be put in jeopardy, that’s not really the cause of their ire. The real reason the US military is “disgusted” with the leaks is that it shows the truth of US operations in Afghanistan, and the truth is not pretty.
For my part, I applaud the leaks and the leakers, and believe that secrecy about what is done in our name is the most dangerous thing for a democracy. Short term secrecy is necessary at times, but clearly the documents detail aspects of the war that have been on going, and which we should know about. When a government fears the truth, then it’s more important than ever to get the truth out. Video of slaughters of civilians by US soldiers, documents about civilian deaths and cover ups will no doubt be a source of information and discussion in coming months, both here and abroad. Arguably this hurts the US military and embarrasses policy makers (even if most leaks involve information from the last Administration). Nonetheless, what’s good for the government isn’t necessarily what’s good for the country.
Americans often believe that what our military is doing overseas is always good and noble. That’s because most military personnel are good and noble. Yet war changes people, as recent statistics about high rates of mental illness in war vets, broken families, and economic distress indicate. Civilians in both countries have suffered the most deaths, and their whole infrastructure and way of life has been altered. In Afghanistan this started with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and hasn’t really ever let up.
While it is easy to condemn individual soldiers for civilian murders, slaughters, and other incidents, that is misplaced blame. You put a young man or woman in that kind of stress, often with multiple deployments, having buddies killed, surrounded by death constantly, and afraid what could come next, the ability of any human to stay sane is threatened. Most manage to handle it, but everyone has a limit. Some due to the intensity of their experiences or their own personality hit that limit earlier than others. Some process the experience effectively. But you can’t have a war like this without war crimes.
In our society we like to think in terms of individual responsibility. That comes in handy for the government or military leaders who can prosecute soldiers for violating the stated orders — orders clearly prohibit the kinds of acts that are getting reported. A young eager 19 year old ready to sacrifice for his country ends up perhaps court-martialed for some act against civilians. Focusing on what was done to him by placing him in such circumstances and stressing his young mind is not seen as a legitimate defense. We like to think of our soldiers as heroic by nature, those who violate the rules are ‘bad apples,’ a disgrace to our otherwise gallant fighters.
Yet that is a very convenient excuse for Presidents and Generals. They don’t have to endure the trauma, and Presidents like Obama and Bush don’t really know what life in war is like. Indeed, it’s a known fact that civilian politicians are more likely to choose military action than former military personnel — to civilians like me, war is an abstraction. Yet by reading people like Chris Hedges or other accounts of what war is like, it is possible to get a sense of what this does to people. To look at statistics about broken families and mental illness tells a story as well. Moreover, we know from past experience that despite all the hero’s welcomes and flowery rhetoric, it’s very likely that today’s war vets will be forgotten, experiencing higher unemployment, homelessness and poverty than others.
The damage done by our government to those sworn to protect our way of life is tremendous. As well intentioned as overthrowing the Taliban may have been, how understandable the rage at Bin Laden and desire to strike back certainly was, we’ve now been through nearly nine years of war that has veered so far from that initial anti-terrorist strike that it’s hard to even explain what we’re fighting for. It’s not to get Bin Laden. It’s not even to stop terrorism. It’s to have a way to leave while saving face, something Nixon called ‘peace with honor.’ Yet that honor is abstract, it’s simply a desire to avoid too much embarrassment. Is that really worth destroying lives?
I’m not trying to downplay the civilian suffering over there by focusing on what’s done to our soldiers; rather, I’m arguing that the only way to really think clearly about what we should do in Afghanistan and Iraq is to have the public know the reality of what the war is like, the actions being done in our name, and the impact this is having on those we send over there to fight. Only by having the “secrets” of the war revealed can we truly understand the nature of the acts being undertaken in our name. Only by deflating the myth of the ‘heroic American’ honorably defending democracy’ can we see how politicians use that myth to hide their true motives.
President Obama, pragmatist that he is, won’t do what I think he should do. He won’t welcome the release and call for a national conversation on the reality of the war. He won’t talk to the country about the details of the material, openly discussing issues that embarrass him or the country. That’s OK — his pragmatism probably has allowed him to accomplish more than people thought possible. But the wiki-leaks may put enough pressure on the White House and government to shift the terrain a little, and make it a pragmatic necessity to fundamentally rethink US policy. And perhaps Obama will find the courage to point the blame not at the soldiers who crack, but at the policy makers who put young people in such horrific situations. Perhaps we might even rethink the militarism of our policies; do our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq really reflect who we are as a nation?