Americans who—like me—weren’t alive when the Pentagon Papers story was first leaked to The New York Times are likely still familiar with the end conclusion: The American people found out what a disaster the Vietnam War had been. And in a landmark case for press freedom, when the federal government tried to stop the Times and The Washington Post from publishing that confidential record of the war and the lead-up to it, the Supreme Court ruled on the side of the press, in favor of “no prior restraint” or censorship from the government.
But some of the details may be hazy, and especially as so many have begun comparing the revelations in the Afghanistan War Logs—released by WikiLeaks and reported out by The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Speigel—it’s worth revisiting some of that history to better inform our perspective on the present.
So I rang up Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter to whom the Pentagon Papers were first leaked by military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg in 1971—stories for which the Times later won the Pulitzer Prize. (Ellsberg, it is worth noting, has also chimed in on the latest leaks. He told The Wall Street Journal that he felt an affinity for the leaker in this case.)
Sheehan proceeded to share—in the brief time we were able to speak—what the Pentagon Papers told us about Vietnam, and what the latest leaks say about Afghanistan. Here’s what he had to say, edited slightly for clarity:
On the War Logs vs. Pentagon Papers comparison:
The Pentagon Papers dealt with more years. From 1944—World War II—through 1968. You had a vast time span. It was an archive of much of the war itself. It was for most of the war and covered the French-IndoChina war. The Pentagon Papers' revelations were of the highest level of decision-making. Decision-making by the president, the secretary of state, secretaries of defense, heads of the CIA, commanding generals. The highest level—and those were the most exciting revelations—the extent to which the government had deliberately deceived the American public about events in Vietnam or deluded themselves.
They came at the end of a long war that divided this country more than any war since the Civil War. This is coming during a war that’s an unpopular war, but the revelations aren’t at that level. As far as I can make out, the WikiLeaks logs cover a number of years. But it’s nitty-gritty stuff. Low-level stuff.
It doesn’t mean it’s not very revelatory. It is. It shows the extent to which the Bush administration abandoned the war in Afghanistan and what repercussions that has had. These young men and women were treated in a shabby fashion. They weren’t given the support they should’ve been given. They didn’t expect to get that support until Obama came in, and it takes time for that shift to happen.
On what the Afghanistan War Logs have added to what we know:
They show how difficult the war in Afghanistan is. It’s a very complicated situation. You’ve got a government in Kabul which is corrupt and untrustworthy. You’ve got Pakistani allies which are not necessarily always your allies. You’ve got a Taliban movement which is resurgent, but also isn’t unified. It has its own factions, but it’s a resilient movement .
The WikiLeaks revelations are very valuable, I think. They show how hard it is going to be to reach the objective the U.S. wants to reach, which is basically pacifying the country. Coming up with a sort of agreement which will pacify the country and end the insurgency. It shows how difficult it is to deal with your own allies.
It gives you a good insight into the war, the kind of war Americans are faced with. It shows the extent to which the Bush administration neglected Afghanistan and wasted resources in Iraq on a war that wasn’t necessary, and ignored a war that was necessary in Afghanistan. The situation has worsened markedly as a result of that neglect.
On the criticism by some who point out that the latest leaks don’t bring to light much new information:
They may not contain a lot of new information, but they get public attention. That’s important, that the American public understand what’s going on. I’m not saying it’s necessary that they quit Afghanistan, but that the public understands the price being paid.
One value from these logs is it shows things are much more difficult on the ground than what you get from high-level briefings where they talk about counterinsurgency and use all these terms. When you get down to nitty-gritty here, these guys are trying to deal with a village that’s divided against itself. You don’t know who to trust, because people in the village don’t know who to trust.
On whether it should come as a surprise that the official picture is rosier than reality:
That’s almost always the case. There’s a lot of pressure to succeed on senior people. They put that on the people below them. It’s self-generated. The Army term is "can-do spirit." There’s the can-do spirit. No general wants to admit he can’t accomplish something, so you’re bound to get a rosier picture.
On how having the documents makes the realities of war more tangible:
In a very important way, these records make the war more tangible. There’s something tangible now. People can understand that.
The New York Times has a picture of the Taliban in a Ford truck given to the Afghan Army by the United States. That happened in Vietnam. We armed the Viet Cong guerrillas. When I first went to Vietnam, a Viet Cong battalion would be lucky to have one machine gun. Within one year, you had two or three per battalion—one per company at least. Their firepower increased enormously. That was from us.
There’s a problem in fighting an insurgency and that is that when you pour resources into a country like that, into a society that has conflict within itself, the side with the most motivation tends to obtain those resources one way or another.
On other differences people should keep in mind:
The American Army in this war is totally different than the Army in Vietnam. The American Army in Afghanistan is an army of volunteers. They’re young men and women who’ve signed up for the military because they think they’ll survive, they’ll be able to get a college education, or they really wanted to be a soldier or Marine.
That wasn’t true in Vietnam. They were drafted or volunteers, and even the volunteers figured they’d eventually get drafted and thought, "I should just get it over with." They weren’t really volunteers. When they saw how senseless the war was, many of them turned against it.
None of that seems to exist in Afghanistan. The Army and the Marines don’t seem to lack for volunteers. Young men and women are signing up knowing what they’re facing. They accept the danger. They sign up thinking they’ll live through it.
The U.S. Army was destroyed in Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam. That’s a hell of a lot of people. I don’t know the exact figure in Afghanistan, but it’s nowhere near that.
Note: The Associated Press tallies 1,785 deaths of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan since 2001, through June 2010. That number, of course, doesn’t include the hundreds of contractors—not to mention Afghan civilians—who have also died in the Afghan war.