Sunday, August 1, 2010

This Is War!

The 1992 movie Sneakers poses a tantalizing question: what if secret information can be cracked and thrown into the public limelight? The movie never goes there, but we're getting a taste of the answer through WikiLeaks, which is tossing thousands of documents on the Afghanistan war online in the name of openness and transparency. Ideology has something to do with it, but I also believe it's part of the old computer-hacker mantra that information should be free, which is the same mantra some use to justify software piracy and digital music theft.

The immediate comparison is to the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the U.S. had a deeper involvement in Vietnam than previously stated. The Afghanistan data dump, however, does not shed any major new light on the war other than to expose civilian casualties we didn't know about. Anti-war activists cheer. Conservatives grumble. Our soldiers keep on following orders, and they will remind you war is messy.

In an ideal war, the goal would be zero civilian casualties, but that isn't Afghanistan, and it won't be. We are not fighting on an isolated battlefield but on the streets and sidewalks. To expect our soldiers to eliminate civilian casualties when they are dealing with terrorist tactics and an enemy who will gladly sacrifice ordinary people is impossible. I don't understand what good can be accomplished by naming and shaming. It's as if our apologies and regrets for accidentally killing innocent people don't mean anything anymore, and international embarrassment is the new penance, a maneuver designed to make anti-war activists feel better. War crimes are a different matter, and I'm not excusing them, but we start re-defining "war crime" to simply mean the death of any civilian during the heat of battle, we're in for a world of hurt and discouragement among our armed forces. You do remember they volunteered for the job.

As a journalist, I have to tell you my thoughts are divided over the release of this information. In principle, I hate cover-ups. But this isn't a cover-up, which makes it easy for me to say that I wouldn't have released this information, not with American soldiers still fighting. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is Australian, not American, and we can't expect him to share American values. I do hope he would at least share some understanding of the nature of war.

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