James Fallows: Does WikiLeaks Prove the War Can't Be Won?





[James Fallows is a National Correspondent for The Atlantic.]

I have just started to look at some of these documents; more on the substance later. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder and Alexis Madrigal have immediate reactions on the military and the media-ecology implications of this development.

The interaction between "traditional" and "new" media is the most immediately arresting "process" aspect of this event. It's structurally similar in one sense to the Pentagon Papers case nearly 40 years ago. Back then, Daniel Ellsberg worked with the New York Times to publicize the documents. Otherwise, how could he have gotten them out? This time, Wikileaks worked with the Times -- and the Guardian and Der Spiegel -- to organize, make sense of, and presumably vet the data. Wikileaks could have simply posted the raw info even without the news organizations' help. At first glance this is a very sophisticated illustration of how newly evolving media continually change the way we get information, but don't totally replace existing systems. The collaboration of three of the world's leading "traditional" news brands makes a difference in the way this news is received.

A word of historical comparison. Unlike Marc Ambinder or Alexis Madrigal, neither of whom was alive at the time, I remember when the Pentagon Papers came out. By that point American involvement in Vietnam was "ending" -- even though it would be another four years before U.S. troops left the country after the fall of Saigon, and even though many, many American, Vietnamese, and other people were still to die in the "wind-down" phase. The major effect of the Papers was to reveal that for many years officials closest to the action had understood that the war could not really be "won," at least under the real-world political circumstances the U.S. faced. Of course the U.S. could have waged all-out unlimited war, and prevailed -- but it wasn't going to do that. Perhaps the most shocking single document in the papers was the famed "McNaughton Memo" of 1965, which assessed American reasons for staying in Vietnam this way...


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