Tuesday, October 26, 2010
God of War
I'm getting to the point where whatever Glenn Greenwald says, I feel an instinctive need to stand against it, simply on principle. It's not that he doesn't occasionally make some excellent and even necessary arguments from the left; it's that he's just so self-righteous in his outrage, so petulant in his demands, and so destructive to his overall cause by refusing to give even an inch in his quixotic quest to see the Progressive Utopian States of America come to fruition in our lifetime that it's tough to consistently take his side. All that aloof disapproval just becomes exhausting after awhile. Throw Sirota and Hamsher into the mix and you've got the intractable left's own version of the Supremes -- only more diva-ish.
With that in mind, I had to fight the urge to automatically say that Julian Assange deserves to be put up against a wall somewhere after reading Greenwald's impassioned and completely expected defense of him yesterday morning in Salon. It was always a given that Greenwald, and really much of the institutional left, would hail Assange as a hero given that the Wikileaks founder has made it his mission to be a perpetual thorn in the side of the U.S. government by exposing all of its supposed dirty little war secrets; you knew from the very beginning that parallels would be drawn between him and Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the infamous Pentagon Papers which proved that the Johnson administration had essentially lied through its teeth in Vietnam. So to see the left tag anyone in the established media who dares to treat this modern day Horatius at the Bridge with anything other than respect as "Nixonian" is just the next logical step.
Now understand, I damn well get the irony of the American press suddenly choosing to grow a spine when interviewing Assange, even though it all but carried pom-poms to the White House and Pentagon briefings during the lead up to the war in Iraq. I also have no doubt that more than a few of the accusations that have been leveled at Julian Assange since Wikileaks became the epochal cultural force that it is were and are a direct effort to discredit him and his work. But that said, Assange's attitude when it comes to being asked tough questions about his motives and his methods -- and the potential unintended consequences of both -- has always been one of arrogant indifference. He's fully aware that what he's doing might get innocent people killed, but he's said flat-out that he's willing to accept responsibility for that because in the end, he believes, the greater good is served by the world understanding that it's being lied to about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Assange isn't just some guy who's got a hard-on for the truth and who hates the notion of state secrets; he wants to expose and bring to justice the people he believes are immoral criminals, the people who started the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and who continue to prosecute them in one form or another.
Once again, there's irony -- this time in the fact that taking a few lives in the name of the supposed greater good was the justification the Bush administration used to take us to war in the first place. And before you summarily dismiss the implied comparison, think about this: Julian Assange now holds a staggering amount of power -- the ability to literally decide who lives and who may very well die, and which countries will face the kind of scandal that can potentially topple governments. It's almost too much privilege to be at the whim of one person. Which is why there's nothing wrong with attempting to hold Assange accountable, regardless of how pissy he may get about being asked to justify his actions or face an adversarial press. Anyone who refers to the unfortunate and unintended deaths that may occur as a result of those actions as "collateral damage" -- and Assange has, in those very words -- is operating on at least somewhat the same level as the governments which are often rightly criticized for making such blithe distinctions.
But there's another thing worth exploring here: The question of whether, in the internet age, the age of seemingly absolute media transparence, war can survive. Not just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but any war. Now that it's almost impossible to hide the reality of what armed conflict is -- how brutal and devastating it is to those on both sides of the gun, how innocence and morality are often the very first casualties of it -- will there ever be such thing as a truly "just" war again? Julian Assange and those who laud his efforts and who believe he's entirely justified in indiscriminately spitting sensitive information into the ether -- not even filtering it through, say, a responsible press, as Ellsberg once did, but just putting it all out there and letting the chips fall where they may -- these people likely wish to see the entire concept of war become a relic of the past, a modern day impossibility, made so by the inability to keep anything a secret anymore. The problem with this, of course, is that sometimes war really is necessary; there will always be people or situations which leave you no other option but to fight. And those fights will always be ugly. Innocent people will die. Once moral people, their psyches turned inside out, will kill without cause. Governments and generals will make decisions that seem unspeakably ghastly. Because war truly is hell.
And as is the case with Assange, there will be nothing wrong with holding those who take us into battle and who put our men and women in the line of fire accountable. The issue then may be how much naiveté is displayed by those who choose to be insurgent whistleblowers to the battlefield horrors and propagandizing at home that go hand in hand with a lengthy war. Would you really believe that innocents aren't dying? That the military isn't engaging in tactics that many might see as underhanded? That the government isn't hiding some of the facts about both? Admittedly, there's an argument to be made that people like Julian Assange exist only because the press isn't doing its job; this is as true on many levels as it is unfortunate, because, once again, Assange isn't doing what he does to satisfy some lofty commitment to the truth -- he's doing it to serve his own agenda, which asserts that war, particularly in the modern age, is inherently immoral. He wears his personal bête noire proudly and pompously on his sleeve, and engages in his own kind of war in the service of its destruction, which he finds entirely justifiable.
But as with the governments which accept a certain number of casualties as the cost of doing business, Assange excuses his actions and the authority he feels he's entitled to wield by claiming that the cause he's fighting for is just. He washes the blood off his hands with one of the strongest cleansers imaginable: intellectual rationalization.
And those who blindly support him in his crusade, simply because it happens to gel with their own anti-war beliefs, can't seem to see the ultimate irony in that.