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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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