WikiLeaks in World War II

It’s not going to be easy to sort through that mountain of secret documents on the Afghanistan war dumped into the public domain this week by online watchdog WikiLeaks.  There are 90,000 or so “incident reports,” and even the first step in any serious analysis–putting them all into neat little piles–could take months. 

So far, however, they seem to read pretty consistently.  The war isn’t going as planned.  The intelligence has ranged from uncertain to bad.  Despite all our talk about “counterinsurgency” (COIN) operations, we continue to kill massive numbers of civilians, and the victims are often completely innocent.  Our Pakistani allies are inconstant, and they may even be in bed with our Taliban adversaries.  While our soldiers continue to fight well, there are times when the whole war effort simply seems adrift–bereft of higher direction or purpose.

None of this is particularly startling, and only someone who hasn’t been paying attention would be surprised.  Indeed, no war goes as planned, they all kill civilians, and there are times when they all seem to be adrift.

What if something like WikiLeaks had existed in World War II?  I wonder what the reaction would have been to the sudden appearance of 100,000 incident reports–essentially direct reportage from soldiers in the field.  Here’s what they would have included:  botched operations, either badly planned or badly executed; indiscriminate killing of civilians; the shooting of prisoners.  And I’m not even talking about the criminality of the Wehrmacht or the Imperial Japanese Army here; I’m talking about the Allies.  The friendly fire statistics alone, unavoidable when mass armies close on one another in this type of firepower-drenched warfare, would have led to public outrage.  Above all, the reports would have contained moment after moment in which–to the soldiers on the ground, at least–the whole thing just seemed senseless.

After the fact, we write histories that make it all look so neat.  Orders of battle.  Tables of organization and equipment.  Arrows on a map (my personal specialty).  But these are all mere symbols, tools to help us interpret and explain something that often defies rational analysis. 

The war in Afghanistan may or may not be going well–only time will tell.  But from what I’ve read in the WikiLeaks so far, it sounds like–a war.

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6 Responses

  1. Bill Nance

    This is increasingly becoming an issue in modern society. People see and read more than ever, but their comprehension is very low. Scarily, this is influencing how we wage warfare – whoever can get the most shocking soundbite or graphic 30 second TV or youtube video gets the advantage.

  2. Luke Truxal

    What I find amazing is what the military and society considers acceptable or unacceptable civilian casualty numbers. Despite considerably high civilian casualties from American daylight bombing their numbers were considered low and acceptable at that time. Many of the Germans were amazed at the low civilian casualties from daylight bombing at times. However, in today’s world those numbers would be a tragedy.

    Now if one drone attack kills a handful of civilians it is considered an unacceptable loss. It seems that as technology and information has progressed our expectations have as well. I wonder if Eisenhower would have survived his North African campaign if it had the same coverage we have now. It seems that technology has raised our expectations to an unprecedented level. We now expect results faster than ever whether it is on the battlefield or in civilian jobs back at home.

    Any civilian losses are a tragedy but the way society seems to view them versus back then has changed dramatically due to the amount of coverage.

  3. tioedong

    some would say the “exposes” on Patton salpping a soldier, etc. were the WWII equivalents of Wikileaks.

    I leave it to historians to estimate the US casualties that resulted from his temporary removal.

  4. The Forester

    During WWI, the tactics employed & results achieved necessitated criminalizing nearly to the point of treason any criticism of the war or or its prosecution.

    Re: casualty expections – if we expect much from these weapons it’s because we were promised more when they were originally foisted on, er, sold to, us.

  5. Malcolm Duncan

    Luke,I believe that Pattons dismissal actually saved thousands of Allied lives in the Normandy invasion.Patton was part of “Operation Fortitide”,the deception operation to convince Hitler and the German high command that the actual invasion would be in the Pas du Calais area.If Hitler had not bought the deception,the causalities at Normany would have been much higher.


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