The lyricist Peter Allen was a prophet: “Everything old is new again.”
WikiLeaks is to the war in Afghanistan as the Pentagon Papers were to my war, the American war in Vietnam. Once again, a lone individual has taken it on himself to reveal more about a war than the administration wants us to know. More importantly, WikiLeaks has opened a new “credibility gap.” People of my generation should recognize the term. It was coined to denote the distance between the administration’s orchestrated claims of progress and the mounting evidence of misdirection and stalemate the press was witnessing. It was the Tet Offensive of 1968 that would illuminate, once and for all, the gap between the official rhetoric and the reality on the ground. We weren’t defeated militarily, but our leadership was discredited; and in a free society, that’s worse.
This time around, however, there is an important difference. That original credibility gap was a crime of commission. The Johnson administration inadvertently opened it in an effort to con us, the American public, into supporting a war that even Robert McNamara knew to be unwinnable. To its credit, the Obama administration has not been cooking up phony statistics or touting inflated body counts in order to sell us on the current war. But, as the WikiLeaks documents suggest, they have been guilty of crimes of omission. They have been less than open and honest about how badly the war is going. Even worse, no less than the Johnson and Nixon administrations during Vietnam, they seem to have been classifying documents not out of military necessity but mainly to cover up mistakes and to avoid embarrassment.
The Obama administration should indeed be embarrassed at having succumbed to this temptation, but the press too should be red-faced. It should not have fallen to a self-appointed Internet watchdog to show us why this war too may be unwinnable. Once again, that should have been the role of the press. But the fact of the matter is that our major media outlets have allowed themselves to be co-opted. During Vietnam, reporters were free to roam around and to report independently of military authority. Today, reporters are approved by military authority and “embedded” with military units. The term is an unfortunate one; it suggests that reporters are “in bed” with the units they cover. As a result, it seems to me, today’s reporters are perhaps identifying too closely with the troops and are reluctant to offend the command that can, in effect, kick them out of “bed.” We are just not seeing the same degree of journalistic independence and healthy skepticism that were so much a part of the coverage of my war. Witness, for instance, CBS correspondent Lara Logan’s recent hand-wringing over General McChrystal’s firing.
There is, of course, legitimate concern that some of the documents published by WikiLeaks may put our troops at greater risk. There is likewise grave concern for our Afghan allies whom Julian Assange has reportedly identified. But he should have been preempted by more responsible members of our own Fourth Estate. We may indeed realize a greater good if the WikiLeaks revelations prompt a thorough reconsideration of why we’re risking the lives of our troops in the first place. In the meanwhile, it is time for the press to get out of bed and to show us what is really going on in Afghanistan. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a second Tet-style offensive—a Ramadan Offensive perhaps—to bring that to pass. --EFP