Are the Wikileaks Afghanistan “war logs” as big as the Pentagon Papers leak about the war in Vietnam in 1971? At first sight, clearly not.
As the Pentagon Paper leaker himself, Daniel Ellsberg, gently pointed out, the Pentagon study had been a high-level, candid history which revealed the extent of government dishonesty about the war. Some analysts of that period concluded that the impact of the Pentagon Papers on public opinion at the time was in the damage the documents did to the government’s credibility, rather than in changing opinions about the war itself. The fact that the documents tended to support the view that the war was unwinnable had less effect than the revelations of large-scale lying to the public: people had already mostly made up their mind about whether the war was winnable or not.
Little of this applies the 92,000 documents in the war logs – as far as we know so far. The picture painted by the logs is rich in detail, but short on surprise. Civilians get killed and the military are reluctant to acknowledge it, secret military units try to kill Taleban leaders (and often fail), Pakistani spooks help the Taleban, the Taleban seem to have surface-to-air missiles (not clear how many or how effective) and, generally, the armies involved don’t give the public the full picture. War is ugly and messy; innocent people are killed. It may be useful for the record to have this confirmed in detail and that detail may well shift opinion further against the war, but it’s hard to describe these as revelations.
Not least because ordinary reporting has already set out most of this and in some detail. There’s a note here from the people at investigative non-profit ProPublica with a quick retrospective “reading list” on the earlier reporting of the main storylines to have emerged from the Wikileaks documents so far. This is Fred Kaplan in Slate ridiculing the hype demolishing the idea that anyone should be surprised by any of this. He rightly takes aim at the claim made by one of the three papers (The Guardian) given early access to the Wikileaks material that the documents “shatter the illusion that conflicts could be meticulously planned and executed”. Quite apart from anything else, the very length of the Afghan war has helped to ensure that no one still harbours that kind of illusion.
This post being already quite long enough, I aim to post tomorrow on the shifts in journalism being brought about by industrial-scale leaks like the war logs.