The Docs of War

The political world is buzzing today about thousands of classified documents released to the press by Wikileaks, the secretive whistle-blower website, that give a harrowing and detailed look at the war in Afghanistan. It’s a long, hard slog, reading through the dump, which consist of memos, chat transcripts, e-mails, and other communications from 2004 to 2009. The White House has come out swinging in its denouncement of the leaks while Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, defends his decision to release them. Among the sea of documents are tales of special forces “assassination squads” meant to hunt Al Quaeda leaders, civilian deaths at the hands of Reaper Drones, riveting accounts of out-manned NATO forces facing Taliban fighters, revelations that Taliban forces have acquired surface-to-air missiles, and the barely surprising news that Pakistan’s intelligence service has been coordinating with the Taliban for some time. All in all, it’s a detailed, tedious look at how the war in Afghanistan has been prosecuted (notably, it must be said, under the Bush administration). However, the most shocking part of the release is exactly how not shocking it is.

Now, when I say not shocking, I mean it in the sense that the communications show exactly what many people know: war is ugly, brutal, criminal, and generally a horrible business. In this sense, the documents merely put the inner workings on display. Assange pointed out that, despite the White House criticism, the newest material is seven months old which absolves it from affecting current operations and personnel. Therefore, the impact they will have is mostly lifting a curtain on the day-to-day operations of war. As I said, for most people, the reaction is likely, “yes, and?” As to why the leak is important culturally and historically, well, that’s a different matter.

For nearly a decade, we have been fighting in Afghanistan. Surely, the initial reasons were just: we were retaliating for a terrorist attack on our home soil. It soon became clear, however, that the prosecution of the war would be handled by a corrupt and deceitful group of people, bent on manipulating data and public opinion to their own ends. What should have been a straight-forward law enforcement mission has turned into a bloody, needless military occupation with no end in sight. And, in keeping with the general tenor of the previous administration, they soon abandoned Afghanistan, declaring the war over, and turned their sights on Iraq. The death toll, civilian and military, continued to mount and the public mood turned sour (among the small percentage that vocally supported it from the beginning).

In that time, we have seen countless reports of inexcusable behavior. From contractors not subject to military oversight, to un-armored men and vehicles, to inept diplomacy in the region, to the millions of dead Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians not counted by the US government, the entire debacle has been like the Titanic hitting an iceberg in slow motion. Yet even in the face of all this bungling and bloodshed, the American people have largely pushed the war out of their minds. As far as polling is concerned, it’s certainly not popular. But when was the last time you spoke to a reasonably informed person about it? I’d be willing to bet that the conversations have been leaning more towards topics in this hemisphere: oil spills, the economy, and the elections. I admit, I’m guilty of it too. And part of the problem is that we have been indoctrinated, either by design or by nature, into accepting that we are at war ad infinitum et nauseum.

I’m not going to throw blame at the usual suspects (cable news media, corporate masters, dysfunctional politics) because that’s too easy. If it were up to the media to keep me informed about the world, I’d likely be a teabagger. The same goes for big business interests and politicians. I think the problem is more a world that we increasingly see in the abstract, serious though it may be. With the exception of military families, the war doesn’t affect us. Much like the BP oil spill doesn’t affect us directly unless we’re shrimp boat captains. There’s simply too much information out there for us to parse it into actual experience. We only see these things as pixels and light. Again, the blame is easy to pass around. But our environment is an important factor; we are surrounded by momentous information every day, every hour, every second. Why should the digital news of another ten dead civilians or another dead sea turtle touch us when it is contained in the same informational tsunami that informs us of Lindsey Lohan’s jail sentence or the Mad Men season premiere or even the election of our nation’s leaders?

From this standpoint, the leak (the largest in US military history, with more on the way according to Assange) could serve as the straw that broke the camel’s back. These digital documents are written in the language of our everyday lives: chats, e-mails, and memos. They stand out in their banality, not their sensationalism. The ugly face of war has been revealed as just another day at the office. Perhaps when (and if) people realize just how ingrained the brutality is in our current character, then voices will be raised to ask why and what for. War, no matter the reasoning, is simply a matter of killing people until it ends. The further we push this reality into the digital ether, the more willing we are to accept it as never-ending fact. I’m not asking for a wholesale renunciation of the conflict. But what does it say about us that our military communication is no different than our Skype messages, our daily e-mail or our TPS reports? When do we realize that behind the paperwork, there are bodies piling up? These documents could serve that purpose, if we know how to read them.

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