I am the son of a Vietnam veteran. Though I wasn’t alive in 1971 when the Pentagon Papers emerged, the very mention of them makes my blood boil. It is one thing to know that the most important man in your life, the one who helped later give it to you, volunteered to serve his country and ended up in a conflict that had — to be charitable — questionable morals and objectives with the transparency of an opaque cataract. Then later, as a student, I learned of Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 release of a 7,000-page top-secret study to the press, which exposed the lies upholding the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam.
Learning that the government lied to the public-at-large the entire time about how well it was all going wasn’t merely my boyish naïveté falling away. It was part of the process of learning, first hand, how disposable America considers those dearest to you.
All that is why the exclusive published by the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock on Monday made me a special kind of furious. He reported that throughout the 18 years of this U.S. war in Afghanistan, senior U.S. officials lied about our military’s prospects for success, “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
If that all sounds familiar, how about this: Whitlock cites a truckload of documents from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s federal study, unironically entitled “Lessons Learned.” It examines the Afghanistan war’s basic failures in the words of the very military leaders who were involved in the war’s planning and execution. The quotes, compiled from at least 461 interviews in documents that the government worked very hard to keep out of public view, are uncompromising.
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“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” said one three-star Army general. A colonel in the Army said that “every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.” “What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” said a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, adding, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”
Whitlock also obtained a series of memos — dubbed “snowflakes” — from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from the first five years of the war. One, dated six months after the war’s inception, remarks correctly that “we are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave.” His sign-off is simply “Help!” That was hardly symbolic of the bombastic, jingoistic public posture of the George W. Bush administration at the time.
Whitlock’s exclusive was auspiciously labeled as the Afghanistan Papers, drawing a direct connection to Ellsberg’s heroic release of the Pentagon Papers. This new report did the same, just for our contemporary version of the same empty conflict, perhaps meant to bolster the bottom lines of the military-industrial complex or merely to help powerful men stay in powerful offices here stateside. Who is to say?
What is certain is that what the Afghanistan Papers report details may not be terribly surprising. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t shock us to our very essence as a nation. After all, one of the things that I have always wondered about the Pentagon Papers as someone who hadn’t been born at the time of their publication is why they didn’t better prepare the nation for Watergate, or better yet, why they didn’t change the nation more than Nixon’s scandal.
All my life and throughout every American history course, I learned that the citizenry blanched at the fact that their president had engaged in impeachable behavior and resigned after assisting in the cover-up of a criminal act. However, to me, that always paled in comparison to the entire government lying to the public over the course of several administrations about a war that left nearly 59,000 American military members dead and exponentially more Vietnamese civilians. Had the nation become so inured to war, so used to the loss and devastation, that when it was revealed that the government had lied about their progress and supposed successes, it made less of a historical imprint?
Was it because the Pentagon Papers emerged when those who could be held accountable were safely out of office? Or is it because the Papers didn’t actually stop the war that they described? It is tough to say, but these are fresh questions worth re-examining.
These Afghanistan Papers won’t stop this war, either. Taking various counts into consideration, including those of the Department of Defense, there have been at least 2,300 U.S. military service members killed and nearly 21,000 wounded since it began weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (For those needing a benchmark for reference, friendly fire killed Pat Tillman more than 15 years ago while he was serving in Afghanistan.)
As of March, Brown University’s Watson Institute had calculated that “at least 244,000 Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani civilians have died violent deaths as a direct result of the wars” and that “war deaths from malnutrition, and a damaged health system and environment likely far outnumber deaths from combat.” Those numbers are surely higher by now; the Post reported in two months ago that just between July and September, 1,174 Afghani civilians were killed and 3,139 were wounded — the deadliest period for civilians in a decade. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reports that the war has killed or injured more than 8,200 Afghani citizens in 2019 alone, keeping pace with last year’s totals.
Yet there is no grand swell of outrage here in the States against this never-ending horror. Whatever disgust at this now — quite literally — generational war has apparently been spent. Yes, I realize that we are impeaching a president at the moment, and that it is a matter that should be at the forefront of our attention. But the Afghanistan Papers barely registered on the news, broadcast or otherwise, in a culture that has proven quite adept at paying attention to many things at the same time. Is that because we, as Americans ignore the release of things this, which ideally would outrage the general public as much as they do Gold Star families and veterans? (Should we need a family member in service to get emotional about these Papers?) Or is it because we have become so utterly accustomed to the government lying to us about war, and everything else?
A new collective American vigilance has not resulted from the sacrifices of these military members in Vietnam and Afghanistan, nor the courage of Ellsberg and other whistleblowers who have helped reveal the government’s treachery. Instead, they have reaped mainly cynicism and doubt, through no fault of their own. Mister Rogers once sang to children first in 1968, right after my dad’s service in Vietnam: “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” It is an elementary question that I found myself revisiting this week for the first time in about 40 years. It is clear that in the wake of, now, two massive releases of document troves that prove that the government lied about how well it was doing in endless, unwinnable wars, what we have done with our “mad” is not making us better.
I don’t know where our anger is. It certainly isn’t on the streets, protesting this unjust, unending war. Our press and other storytellers in the media aren’t shouting out that fury boldly enough. Perhaps we’ve just kept it inside, allowing it to rot us out hollow.