It is not because Julian Assange reminds us of Errol Morris. It is because Julian Assange reminds us of Robert S. McNamara. His precision and self-assurance are coupled with mission, history, and a noble cause. But will he eventually come, like McNamara did, to regret his actions? Will he ever see his choices as participants in the “fog of war” rather than cures for crimes exposed? “The War Logs,” is what the New York Times is calling its coverage of the latest WikiLeaks release. We prefer The War Fogs, because the character of Assange’s legacy remains so unclear.
In their response to the latest WikiLeaks release, the Defense Department said, in part, the following (reported in the Times tonight):
“We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies. We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us, and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large. By disclosing such sensitive information, WikiLeaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us. The only responsible course of action for WikiLeaks at this point is to return the stolen material and expunge it from their Web sites as soon as possible.”
They never will. This is one tool of warfare today that those before the blogosphere never wrestled with: freedom of information means periodic desecration of discretion as a value. Where is Assange’s respect for service? And where is his respect for those with more information than he will ever amass, even given the variety, and perhaps honest instincts, of his sources? We do not know. And it will not matter. The collateral damage of his actions makes folly of what he says is ethical.
This is why when we think about Assange now we cannot not think about Errol Morris’s brilliant The Fog of War, not because Assange is doing something award-winning journalists have done in the past, but because he is participating in something he believes ensures our freedom, but which in fact may not only place lives at risk but also inspire his own deep regret. Regret, and perhaps a request for forgiveness? McNamara, brilliant statistician, American Whiz Kid, and the man most closely associated with the phrase “war of attrition,” would later look back and see that his actions had consequences even he did not accurately assess.
War had new meaning after Vietnam. It will have new meaning after Iraq. At one point in the film, McNamara tells Morris “the human race prior to [World War II]—and today—has not really grappled with what are the rules of war.” One of McNamara’s eleven rules was, “Belief and seeing are often both wrong.” He might have added a twelfth: History will teach us nothing.