I have a minor confession to make: I had actually planned on writing about Julian Assange a couple of months back, when Wikileaks released the tens of thousands of documents on the war in Afghanistan that drew so much national attention. In fact, I'd begun putting together an extended essay on Assange and was well into it when something happened that really kind of threw me for a loop because it was something I hadn't experienced since starting this little experiment of mine almost five years ago: the piece just got away from me. As I kept working on it, I realized that there was so much that I wanted to say -- so many oversized themes I wanted to touch on -- that my thoughts just started to splinter and go off in every direction. I've gotten pretty good about editing myself and reining in my superfluous ideas and unruly tangents as I write, but between the scale of what I was trying to get off my chest and the fact that a hectic work schedule was turning my brain to tapioca, I just couldn't make the whole thing coalesce.
So I gave up. I just put the piece aside and figured that maybe I could break it up over time, cherry pick bits of it for use in other, more concise posts -- which is kind of what I did when I wrote God of War a couple of nights ago.
But I want to go ahead and publish part of the original piece that I know will never see the light of day otherwise -- the sort of introductory anecdote that would've eventually wound up being the framework of the essay -- because I think it'll give you an idea of what led me to want to write about Assange and Wikileaks in the first place.
What interested me in the story from the very beginning was the fact that both Julian Assange and those in the left-leaning media who devoted reams of copy to the documents he leaked seemed to be genuinely shocked and incensed at what the U.S. military was capable of in its prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. I've always figured the Pentagon lies its ass off when doing so suits its needs; this should surprise absolutely no one, and maybe it's understandable that someone would want to make a point of pulling back the curtain on the blatant untrue statements the government has made with regard to our ongoing conflicts. But what struck me more was the venom aimed at the actions undertaken by the military that weren't lied about, they just weren't exactly shouted from the rooftops. I'm talking about special forces units being used to target and quietly take out insurgents -- what critics dramatically called "hit squads" -- and classified operations aimed at eliminating the enemy which occasionally wound up accidentally eliminating innocents. The outrage generated by this sort of thing kind of amused me because of one simple fact: Killing people is what war is all about; inadvertently killing people you don't want to see killed is an unavoidable byproduct of it.
I'm not by any means saying that taking innocent life is excusable, only that in war people die -- in fact, it's the only fucking thing you can be sure of when you go to war. This is what should ostensibly make armed conflict an absolute last resort. The only way to be indignant about an enemy being shot through the head or a wayward bomb destroying some poor innocent guy's home is to be someone who's against war altogether -- and as I said yesterday, maybe with all we now know, we have no other choice than to say that any war is unequivocally immoral. But if you don't believe that -- if you think that sometimes fighting is justified -- then you simply can't say that the "normal" horrors of war rise to the level of, say, war crimes.
And that's what really stuck in my head -- the notion that much of what Julian Assange was asserting has happened in Afghanistan qualifies as war crimes.
And that's what made me write this:
"True Blood" (Unpublished)
When I was a kid, my father would occasionally talk to me about Vietnam.
He was in the Navy during the early years of the war -- the commander of an underwater demolitions team, which meant that he was always more of a bad-ass than I could ever hope to be. Like a lot of Vietnam vets, he largely kept his "war stories" to himself, but every once in a while the mood would strike him and he'd open up about some of his experiences, his exploits, his thoughts and feelings about what it was like to trudge through the fires of hell and somehow come out the other side with all of his limbs and, seemingly, all of his faculties still intact. I never doubted that despite what I hoped was a solid upbringing under his wise tutelage, I wouldn't have survived ten fucking minutes on the ground in that place. That sentiment continues to this day. It generally takes all of a few minutes of being pinned down in a bombed out school house in Modern Warfare 2 for me to start whining about my lack of air support; actually dodging bullets in some Third World hellhole seems incomprehensible. Maybe this is part of the reason I have so much respect for the people who see fit to join our military: the luxury any of us has to be a mere civilian if he or she chooses -- to say nothing of some middle-aged, video game-playing doof -- is essentially provided and protected by them.
Of the few times my father really went into detail about the kind of combat that he believed was required to not only survive Vietnam but to ostensibly make some kind of headway toward winning the war (an admittedly laughable notion in hindsight), one particular story stands out. It was something he and his unit had heard, but which no one could verify. It involved a special forces unit that may or may not have actually existed, a high-value target, and a bunch of ten-inch-nails.
Basically, the campfire tale went something like this: A special forces team was dispatched to extract information from a Viet Cong commander which the military believed would be vital to the American war effort. The commander was encamped deep within the thick jungle and was protected 24/7 by a regularly rotating guard which patrolled the area around him in a series of concentric circles. Understanding that sheer, overwhelming terror was the most effective weapon on a mission like this -- and was certainly one of the most potent in the special forces arsenal -- the small strike team used stealth tactics to move in silently and kill one of the guards, then after doing so, they tacked him to a tree using a ten-inch-nail. Through the head.
This was the first night.
They repeated this over and over again each night, wiping out the security detail one by one while simultaneously ratcheting up the fear in those who remained -- particularly in the commander, who after a while became paranoid to the point of madness. When the time came to finally take what they'd come for -- that high-value target -- the special forces team slipped in, grabbed him, and shuttled their frightened prey to a remote location to be interrogated. And how long did it take to get the information they needed out of him? As long as it took to pull a ten-inch-nail out of a backpack and place it on the table in front of him.
Is this a true tale? Did it really happen, or was it just a ghost story told by men fighting a desperate and losing battle day after day to help them cope -- to convince themselves that they weren't the only ones being ruthlessly hunted down and picked off by an unseen enemy?
But a couple of recent events have caused me to ponder another question quite a bit lately: If this phantom unit did actually exist -- if it was out there right now killing enemy soldiers and combatants in Iraq or Afghanistan and staking their dead bodies to trees -- would you consider the actions of these men to rise to the level of war crimes, regardless of the rationale for such extremely prejudicial tactics?
I think it's safe to assume that Julian Assange would say yes.