We are all familiar with the assertion “In war, truth is the first casualty.” This of course is not the same as saying that in wartime only falsehood survives, even when it is the case that many particular lies do. No, the principal fact of language concerning battle is that it can only be approximate, in the sense either of being “hopelessly inadequate” or “despicably euphemistic,” assuming one even knows what one is talking about. Most on this topic don’t, as Paul Fussell noted in his lecture, “The Culture of War.”
It is hard for civilians to understand [war], and it’s not their fault that they can’t — because civilians occupy a world, thank god, which is in large part rational and predictable. A world which makes sense, in an old fashioned way.
War emphatically does not make sense, especially to those who experience it. However, retired United States Army Colonel and former Brigadier General, Janis Karpinski, has confidence in the Afghanistan operation logs published some days ago at WikiLeaks. Judging by her comments on As It Happens (on Tuesday July 27), she believes that the first responses “do contain the truth” about what happens in combat and that, the information being an immediate report of combatants, “there is no reason not to believe it.” This, by the way, happens to be precisely the sort of thinking mocked by Fussell.
I don’t introduce Paul Fussell to deride Karpinski, who as the person responsible for Abu Ghraib has been the subject herself of much speculative discussion. My point is only that Operation Medussa reminds us that the truth remains elusive, and this in part because of, and not despite, information sources like WikiLeaks. It also happens that I think everyone ought to read Fussell’s numerous books on war, all of which are excellent and all of which establish and substantiate the appropriate attitudes of skepticism and disgust.
So to reiterate, the “Afghan War Diary” will not and can not show us “the true nature of this war,” the claims of Julian Assange aside. It is simply more reports and more data, which are something different. Nor are these 92,000 documents likely to be a twenty-first century version of the Pentagon Papers. We already knew of the corruption and abuses. We knew Pakistan was playing both sides. We knew in short that Afghanistan is a bloody mess — again, insofar as we possibly could know. What we don’t know, but desperately need to, will not be found at WikiLeaks: how to successfully support the men and women of Afghanistan in the rebuilding of their country, while all the while in Iran and Pakistan, and elsewhere, they are preparing for more war.