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The Afghanistan WikiLeak, the Media, and the Future of Humanity

I’ve had some trouble figuring out how to approach this story. With over 90,000 previously classified documents from the war in Afghanistan having been posted on WikiLeaks, an online state-independent organization dedicated to fighting power through truth, most of the media coverage thus far has been either about WikiLeaks itself or about how there is nothing contained in these documents that we didn’t already know. I’ll touch briefly on what I see as the three main elements to the story—what it says about the wars, how the media has covered it, and the larger implications of the existence of an organization like WikiLeaks in terms of humanity’s future.

The War

I confess I haven’t read all 90,000 documents, so I can’t offer too much analysis of what they actually contain. What I do know from reading articles about the documents is that they contain details that basically confirm everything critics of the war have been saying for years—that it looks to be going very badly, that Pakistan’s interests aren’t exactly aligned with ours and they may be working against us in some cases, and that far too many innocent civilians have been killed by the U.S. military either through recklessness, carelessness, or honest errors of judgment.

Those of us who have been critical of the war from the very beginning can point to this and say it supports the arguments we’ve been making. Most importantly, these documents should highlight the fact that what we’re doing in Afghanistan (and Iraq as well) is not ‘warfare’ in the sense that most Americans still think of the term—two opposing armies meeting on the battlefield with the intention of doing as much damage to the other side as possible—but is more of an occupation. When you’re looking for historical precedents, this is far more like the British occupation of [insert name of third-world country here] than it is like either of the two World Wars.

Ironically, we may have Rush Limbaugh to thank for helping us drive this point home. His completely outrageous misunderstanding of the nature of this war, deliberate or otherwise, perfectly exemplifies the problem with the war hawks’ thinking:

“The documents cover some known aspects of the troubled nine-year conflict. US Special Operations Forces have targeted militants without trial.” Afghans have been killed by accident. Why, that is unheard of. That is unheard of, in any war, anywhere in the history of the world, that civilians have been killed by accident?

That’s unheard of! Do you realize what this says about us? How guilty, how rotten-to-the-core can this country be? Innocent Afghan citizens killed by accident! In the old days it used to be on purpose (i.e., Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden). In the old days the definition of winning a war was killing people and breaking things. In the old days, there was no such thing as a “surgical strike.” In the old days, you purposely killed innocent civilians. That’s what war was all about. That’s how you won it! But now all of a sudden these big WikiLeaks documents say that Afghans have been killed by accident. Whoa, the incompetence of the US military!

By completely missing the point, Rush has actually confirmed the point we’re making. This is not WWII, in which victory can be secured by carpet-bombing cities and devastating the enemy to the point where his will to fight is broken—in this kind of conflict ‘winning’ involves actually helping the civilians, providing them security and infrastructure in order to win their hearts and minds so that they would rather support their government and fight the Taliban instead of joining the Taliban to fight their government. If people like Rush Limbaugh—who seem to relish the idea of indiscriminate destruction—want that kind of war, they need to rethink their support of this one.

If we decided to do a Dresden-style carpet-bombing of Kabul, it would be like kicking the ball through our own goal-posts a thousand times over. Every last able-bodied Afghan civilian would take up arms against us, and the rest of the Muslim world would join them. The war would be over. The victory would belong to the Taliban, to Al Qaeda, and to every other militant or insurgent group that we’re supposedly waging ‘war’ against.

The fact is, ‘war’ as we know it seems to be coming to an end. This piece by Andrew Bacevich lays out this case perfectly, and it’s the biggest lesson that we could potentially learn from these leaked documents if our nation were to actually have a serious discussion about it.

The Media

Unfortunately we’re not going to have a serious discussion about the nature of war in the 21st century any time soon, thanks to the nature of the American mainstream media in the 21st century. The reaction to this leak has been every bit as pitiful as one would expect, and the media’s extreme deference to the established power-structure has seldom been more apparent. It’s as if every corporation within the military-industrial complex got together to feed their talking points not just to the White House but directly to the media organizations themselves.

“This is not news” was the headline from nearly every front. “Nothing to see here. No big revelations. This is only stuff we already know.” Jason Linkins and Ben Craw at the Huffington Post did a superb job of mashing together the reaction to the leaks from the White House and the media, which are barely distinguishable:

To be [extremely] fair to the White House and the media, this is a legitimate point. What has been revealed by the documents are merely the details behind the broader facts that we already knew if we’d been paying any attention.

But the best points are made right at the end of the clip, as Jon Stewart says “I’m not reacting to the newness of it, I’m reacting to the fucked-uppedness of it,” and Dennis Kucinich wonders why—if we already knew all of this—we haven’t been debating it for the last six years. This may not be new, but it’s fucked up stuff that calls for debate and frankly should have been debated every step of the way.

But these leaks don’t fit the proper time-table for the White House and the media. This is supposed to be election season, when everyone is talking about the economy and the impact it will have on the upcoming mid-terms. Afghanistan is not supposed to be among the election issues this year. The debate is supposed to happen next year when we approach the July 2011 deadline that Obama said would be when we begin our withdrawal.

But if things really are going as badly as the documents suggest, there’s no excuse not to have the debate right frickin now. This has been the single deadliest month of combat in Afghanistan since the war began. If we know the war is un-winnable, why let our soldiers continue to die for a lost cause? The sad truth is, our brave men and women overseas aren’t dying for national security or even for Afghan liberation anymore—they are dying for politics.

The Future

This is why organizations like WikiLeaks have such tremendous potential for the future of humanity on this planet. I’ve written extensively about the current precipice on which we stand, from which we can either sit idly by as civilization collapses and the human species faces extinction, or wake up and do what needs to be done to tear down the existing power structures and put something in their place that will allow for a peaceful, sustainable existence worldwide.

One of the biggest tools of the powerful is secrecy. The less the masses know about what the power-elites are doing, the less chance there is that we’ll be able to stop them. Certainly, as long as no one is held accountable, they won’t be afraid to make decisions that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Case-in-point—we’re just now learning about what was said in behind-closed-door meetings regarding the escalation of the Vietnam War 40 years ago. Because the transcripts of these meetings were classified and everyone in the room knew they would remain classified for the next four decades, they didn’t have to worry about making mistakes or doing the right thing. They needed only do what they wanted to do or what it was in their best short-term political or financial interests to do—by the time anyone found out they’d either be dead or too old to bother prosecuting. Currently, the White House can make any decisions it wants with impunity because they don’t have to worry about being held accountable for another forty years.

WikiLeaks has the potential to change that. Had the person who leaked these documents online gone to an actual mainstream news organization, it’s likely the editors would have sat on the story. By putting it on WikiLeaks, they guaranteed that the story would get out there. WikiLeaks itself can’t be prosecuted for leaking the documents because it doesn’t exist within the jurisdiction of a particular country.

As Janine R. Wedel and Linda Keenan write, WikiLeaks can serve as a counter-weapon to the “Shadow Elite” who direct the course of world events. The people who benefit from the existing power structures, who profit from war and by sucking money from the middle class, can only get away with it as long as nobody is paying attention. If somebody at the highest echelons of power suddenly develops a conscience, WikiLeaks will be waiting.

Yes, there is the potential for some innocents to be harmed if leaks are made irresponsibly, but it’s a small price to pay for a much greater good.

I keep saying that the internet is the best chance we have to come together as a species and really change the way the world works from the ground up. So far we haven’t even come close to realizing that potential, but sites like WikiLeaks could go a long way towards bringing us to that goal. It can be one of the most powerful tools we have to fight back against the powerful, and I hope its influence continues to grow.

At the very least, it can help make up for what the mainstream media is missing, and force us to examine facts that would not have otherwise been reported. The facts about the war in Afghanistan almost all lead to the conclusion that our nation is doomed unless it starts withdrawing, so the more facts that come to light the more pressure there will be to do so. Neither the White House nor the leadership of either political party wants to deal with that pressure right now, but that’s too bad. The lives of our soldiers, the security of the Afghan people, the health of our economy, and the long-term interests of the human race depend on keeping that pressure as high as possible for as long as it takes.

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