Citizens of the United States today join in celebration of Memorial Day and honor those who have served and died in American wars from now all the way back to the American Civil War. It is the ninth consecutive Memorial Day during the “war on terrorism,” which was the Bush Administration’s response to the September 11 attacks. The “war on terror,” as the world knows, led to the Afghanistan and Iraq War and countless other covert military operations all aimed at rooting out terrorism.
The memories of war shared with veterans in communities are, of course, sanitized. Communities do not really tell the stories of war. Members of squads like the “Kill Teams” of Afghanistan do not share photos or cell phone videos they captured when they shot innocent civilians and posed with them. They do not talk about the glory of employing “enhanced interrogation techniques” or torture to gain, often, false information from detainees at Guantanamo or “black” prison sites to better prosecute the war against global terrorism. And probably few could be said to be telling real war stories, like the ones that can be found in the pages of the American literary classic by Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.
WikiLeaks has released military reports from both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. What those sets of documents reveal along with the contents of the few thousand US State Embassy cables released indicates there is a reality that society and government would like to suppress. The contents may be useful to the US government, as decisions are made in future wars, but much of the contents might lead a society to hesitate to engage in future wars of choice especially wars that appear to be authorized illegally (e.g. the Libya war, etc).
When US President Barack Obama finally began to withdraw some troops from Iraq, this is how he reflected on the past years of war:
The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people, trained Iraqi Security Forces, and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians — and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people — Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.
This is how people wish to remember war. This is what they hope veterans accomplished. This story and not the truth of war is what they prefer to think about if they think of the “reality” of war on Memorial Day at all.
Unfortunately, for a population insulated from daily reports of the horrors of war, WikiLeaks came along and released the Iraq war logs and a “Collateral Murder” video and threatened to pierce the bubble the press and government has let form around the American population.
Unlawful killings of civilians, indiscriminate attacks or the unjustified use of lethal force against civilians, horrendous abuse and torture of Iraqis by the Iraqi National Guard or the Iraqi Police Service, and torture of Iraqis whilst in UK custody (presumably, whilst in the custody of US and other coalition forces custody as well) were each revealed in detail.
The “Collateral Murder” video shows soldiers targeting and killing civilians in Baghdad. It reveals a Reuters journalist and his driver being shot and killed by US soldiers in a helicopter. It includes a “Good Samaritan,” Saleh Mutashar, driving up in a van and being killed as he tries to save the wounded. It features US soldiers shouting profanity and callous remarks as if they were just buddies having a few beers while playing a video game.
This is the allegory President Obama has told when speaking about the Afghanistan War:
Under the banner of this domestic unity and international legitimacy — and only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden — we sent our troops into Afghanistan. Within a matter of months, al Qaeda was scattered and many of its operatives were killed. The Taliban was driven from power and pushed back on its heels. A place that had known decades of fear now had reason to hope. At a conference convened by the U.N., a provisional government was established under President Hamid Karzai. And an International Security Assistance Force was established to help bring a lasting peace to a war-torn country.
The American population would like to believe their country’s intervention has erased fear and given a people hope to justify the sacrifices US troops have made. The Afghan war logs, however, muddy this mendacious yarn.
What do they reveal exactly? That a US-assassination squad in Afghanistan that operates with a “kill-and-capture list.” That drones used by the US are prone to system failures, computer glitches and human error. That Pakistan actively arms the Taliban even as the US works to keep the country an ally. That the CIA has expanded its paramilitary operations. That intelligence agents are awash in data they don’t know what to do with. That killings of civilians by forces are going unreported. That the US has covered up certain Taliban activity. That Iran is likely aiding the Taliban
US State Embassy cables reveal cables like the one on the Bala Baluk massacre—an incident where US and NATO forces attacked “Taliban,” dropped bombs leaving a mosque in ruins, and turned the village into “an inferno of screaming, mangled and bloody people.” The cable demonstrates the US and assistance forces, working with NATO, have actively conspired to inaccurately report the number of dead civilians in attacks or strikes.
WikiLeaks puts forth the minority report on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aspects of the wars that will likely not make it into the history books children learn from in school but nonetheless a history that allows Americans to understand, if they choose, the shallowness of day after day accepting the official government story of war and supporting the troops when accepting that story endangers soldiers, civilians and breeds lawlessness and brutality.
In the midst of this Memorial Day, Congress is considering, along with a worldwide authorization for war that will ensure future Memorial Days are starkly painful for families, a holiday to honor those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. US lawmakers want the “national day of honor” so the country can “recognize the enormous sacrifice and invaluable service that those phenomenal men and women have undertaken to protect [American] freedom and share the gift of democracy in other parts of the world.”
Piercing through this cavalier mindset is WikiLeaks (and, for that matter, all those who have fueled the Arab Spring).
American society does not remember the stories that soldiers like Ethan McCord (in the above video) will live with for the rest of their lives. Society does not share the burden of memory that a soldier deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq remembers. It adorns yellow ribbons to the vehicles it drive around, awards medals to soldiers, offers minimal health care and ways to reincorporate into society upon return from deployment but little is done to give soldiers a public forum for expressing the anxiety, anguish, fear, pain or stress that a soldier brings back with him or her from a war zone.
Much has been said about WikiLeaks being dangerous; for example, the propagated notion that an organization exists that is intent to “steal” documents from governments all over the world has inaccurately led many Americans to consider WikiLeaks an “info-terrorist” organization. But, this is not the real risk to America.
The true risk is that more and more in the American public start to challenge the idea that the U.S. troops must stay in Afghanistan and do battle with the Taliban, begin to dispute the arguments against withdrawal of US/coalition forces from Afghanistan, and eventually doubt the motives and intentions of American superpower in Afghanistan more openly.
The danger is that WikiLeaks erodes a sense of shared purpose in the country—disrupt the unity that is imposed upon American citizens from the top-down to accept any and all wars or face marginalization in their communities.
As author, columnist and war correspondent Chris Hedges has written, war “gives [Americans] purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent.”
Mourning the loss of loved ones, honoring those who are deployed in an unending global war, and convincing one’s self of the glory and sacrifice of those loved ones’ involvement in conflict is part of a war culture that appears in advertising, movies, and television, at sporting events and in the mecca of war memorials, Washington, DC.
Support rituals ensure a faction of people does not grow in its ability to oppose and obstruct US government war policies.
If WikiLeaks is allowed to succeed in its mission (in fact, even exist without being defamed and opposed by the government), it is able to directly challenge war culture. That’s not to say the organization is anti-war but rather that the information released directly forces a person to ask about the moral conscience of waging war, hence putting at risk the rubberstamping of war that traditionally has come from Americans (with perhaps the exception of the Vietnam War).
A people no longer inculcated with war culture will not be as open to global wars on real or conjured up enemies. That is why, this Memorial Day, the US government is in the middle of a war on WikiLeaks and that is why it hopes Americans consider alleged whistleblower to WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, to be mentally “unfit” to stand trial and someone who never should have served in the military in the first place.