Kiss This War Goodbye?

Frank Rich, of the New York Times, writes:

No, the logs won’t change the course of our very long war in Afghanistan, but neither did the Pentagon Papers alter the course of Vietnam. What Ellsberg’s leak did do was ratify the downward trend-line of the war’s narrative. The WikiLeaks legacy may echo that. We may look back at the war logs as a herald of the end of America’s engagement in Afghanistan just as the Pentagon Papers are now a milestone in our slo-mo exit from Vietnam.

The public’s reaction to the Afghanistan war logs has largely been a shrug — and not just because they shared their Times front page with an article about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. President Obama is, to put it mildly, no Nixon, and his no-drama reaction to the leaks robbed their publication of the constitutional cliffhanger of their historical antecedent. Another factor in the logs’ shortfall as public spectacle is the fractionalization of the news media, to the point where even a stunt packaged as “news” can trump journalistic enterprise. (Witness how the bogus Shirley Sherrod video upstaged The Washington Post’s blockbuster investigation of the American intelligence bureaucracy two weeks ago.) The logs also suffer stylistically: they’re often impenetrable dispatches from the ground, in contrast to the Pentagon Papers’ anonymously and lucidly team-written epic of policy-making on high.

Yet the national yawn that largely greeted the war logs is most of all an indicator of the country’s verdict on the Afghan war itself, now that it’s nine years on and has reached its highest monthly casualty rate for American troops. Many Americans at home have lost faith and checked out. The war places way down the list of pressing issues in every poll. Nearly two-thirds of those asked recently by CBS News think it’s going badly; the latest Post-ABC News survey finds support of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan at a low (45 percent), with only 43 percent deeming the war worth fighting.

Then on the Huffington Post, Dan Abrams attempts to dispute Frank Rich, by writing:

It is a nice narrative and an interesting read, but when Rich leaps on the rhetorical springboard here, the dive becomes somewhat disastrous. About Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971), Rich writes: “What Ellsberg’s leak did do was ratify the downward trend-line of the war’s narrative. The WikiLeaks legacy may echo that. We may look back at the war logs as a herald of the end of America’s engagement in Afghanistan just as the Pentagon Papers are now a milestone in our slo-mo exit from Vietnam.” This hardly veiled effort by Rich to piggyback on Ellsberg’s widely lauded efforts fall flat after even a cursory examination of the two situations.

Sure, both were about wars, and both revealed information that administrations did not want made public. But its obvious why both sides of the political spectrum have, in Rich’s words, reached a “rare consensus.” Because, unless one is seeking to use this leak as a sword to end all American military involvement in Afghanistan, as Rich clearly is, the comparison fails. Think about comparing a dossier of private emails to a researched essay. While they are ostensibly both written documents, they hold very different reasons for being and play very different roles in the communication of ideas.

The Pentagon Papers were drafted in response to a request from the Secretary of Defense seeking definitive conclusions about the war he was overseeing. The Vietnamese conflict was dragging on and secretary Robert S. McNamara wanted answers to the most fundamental of questions: how did we get here and why are we there at all? The answers, provided in the form of the Pentagon Papers, demonstrated that five administrations had at best shaded the truth, and at worst completely obscured it. The Wikileaks documents, on the other hand, were military documents written by those in the field describing primarily military assessments and sometimes embarrassing setbacks that both the Bush and Obama administrations had not made public. They provide specifics as to certain failures, what can be best characterized as anecdotes. The Pentagon Papers, on the contrary, offered a historically rooted response to the ultimate question: Should we be there at all?

While both authors make valid points, Dan Adrams is misguided in thinking that the 92,000 pages of war logs leaked by Wikileaks will have no bearing on the ultimate question–Should we be there at all?–, as he calls it. Frank Rich’s argument is not that the Afghanistan 92,000 pages leaked by  Wikileaks will have this enormous effect and end the Afghan war. In fact Rich writes:

No, the logs won’t change the course of our very long war in Afghanistan, but neither did the Pentagon Papers alter the course of Vietnam. What Ellsberg’s leak did do was ratify the downward trend-line of the war’s narrative. The WikiLeaks legacy may echo that. We may look back at the war logs as a herald of the end of America’s engagement in Afghanistan just as the Pentagon Papers are now a milestone in our slo-mo exit from Vietnam.

Rich continues by writing:

Americans know that our counterinsurgency partner, Hamid Karzai, is untrustworthy. They know that the terrorists out to attack us are more likely to be found in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than Afghanistan. And they are starting to focus on the morbid reality, highlighted in the logs, of the de facto money-laundering scheme that siphons American taxpayers’ money through the Pakistan government to the Taliban, who then disperse it to kill Americans.

All Frank Rich was saying was that the leaked pages ratify the peoples disapproval of the Afghan war. Now anti-war advocates have actual facts, from the ground–the trenches–to back up their claim that this is a never-ending war. While Dan Abrams was focused on Frank Rich and how he failed at comparing the two documents, others were debating the ultimate question–Should we be there at all?

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Published in: on August 2, 2010 at 9:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

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