The WikiLeaks Documents Are NOT the Pentagon Papers 2.0

Sunday’s WikiLeak deluge and the official response to it have reaffirmed my axiom for the digital age: too much information, not enough knowledge.

After the flood of more than 90,000 low-level classified documents splashed onto the front-pages of the Western world’s three leading newspapers, the U.S. government delivered a tongue-lashing to WikiLeaks, mainstream media wrote ominously of repercussions for Obama’s ability to secure Congressional war funding, and bloggers plunged into the data headfirst in the search for scintillating information.

And while a few morsels have surfaced here and there, what, on balance, have we learned? What has really changed? As it turns out, very little.

It comes as no surprise that the war is going badly, that civilian casualties have been downplayed, or that Pakistani intelligence maintains ties to militants operating in Afghanistan.

Former soldier and Center for a New American Security analyst Andrew Exum writes, “I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance,” and calls comparisons to the Pentagon Papers “ridiculous.”

As for the stern lectures about the leak’s potential to cost lives or compromise national security, a Pentagon review of the documents “has so far found no evidence that the disclosure harmed U.S. national security or endangered American troops in the field.”

So much for that.

Glenn Greenwald, one of the sharpest progressive bloggers, linked to what he called “a very perceptive analysis” by the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson that explains “how and why [the leaks] reveal clear official deception about the war.” But I found nothing of the sort in Davidson’s brief post, nor does she herself claim to have offered such an explanation.

One story, had the U.S. media evinced any interest in pursuing it, might have been the suppression of reports on civilian casualties and possible war crimes. But such pedestrian concerns carry little currency here, as blogger Sahar Habib Ghazi pointed out in a post that appeared in Pakistan’s major daily, Dawn:

“[I]nstead of focusing on the many war crimes, cover-ups and evidence of an occupation mentality in Afghanistan, most American news networks and publications have seized the opportunity to either berate WikiLeaks for divulging secret information or to point fingers at Pakistan…”

One reason the leak will not become Pentagon Papers 2.0 is that the contents tend to confirm, rather than contradict, the general trend of the news about the war in Afghanistan for anyone who has been paying attention.

But there is also another reason: we live in America 2.0. We are far removed from the era of social and cultural tumult that accompanied the Vietnam War. We have decided to shift the burden of our war-fighting from conscripted young men to a smaller, leaner, and better-trained all-volunteer force, which we have equipped with deadlier and more automated technology. Most Americans are more connected to their iPads than American soldiers or foreign civilians, the news of whose deaths briefly flash on the gadgets’ screens now and then.

So while we’re ceaselessly drenched in new information—leaks, Rolling Stone features, official reports, policy studies, investigations, blogs, up-to-the-minute news—we (collectively speaking) have no hard incentive to enhance our knowledge.

And as we’ve been repeating the same mistakes for the past ten years, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world, it certainly shows.