Honor Wikileaks, not “Black Ops” and the call of duty

al-Jazeera, 9 Dec 2010

Leaks have made it harder for Western governments to dupe their citizens into accepting potential future wars

by Mark LeVine

For professional historians the publication of the vast trove of diplomatic cables is a bittersweet affair.

No one outside of the Washington establishment and the myriad foreign leaders shamed by revelations of their penchant for hatred, hubris and pedestrian peccadillos can seriously argue that the release of these classified documents has done anything but good for the cause of peace and political transparency.

Whether about Iraq, Afghanistan, or the minuate of American diplomacy, they have shed crucial light on some of the most important issues of the day and will make it much harder for Western or Middle Eastern governments to lie to their people about so many aspects of the various wars on/of terror in the future.

If the Nobel Peace Prize was honestly awarded, who would be more deserving than Bradley Manning, US Political Prisoner?

Indeed, if there’s anyone who deserves the next Nobel Peace Prize more than the courageous American soldier, Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have given the documents to Wikileaks in the first place, I’d like to know.

At the very least, given what a mockery President Obama has made of the principles for which the prize is supposed to stand – evidence of which, like pressuring Spain to drop criminal investigations into Bush administration torture have only come to light thanks to the latest WikiLeaks release – the Nobel Committee should demand his medal back and give it to Manning or whoever the leaker is.

A new approach to diplomacy-honesty and transparency

Already, thanks to WikiLeaks, citizens in the West and Middle East know more than they were ever supposed to about how corrupt, misguided, incompetent and mendacious are their leaders and the policies pursued in their name.

As each new revelation comes to light, I can’t help thinking, why was this secret in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better if American and other diplomats shared their concerns openly rather than hiding them from the public?

How about everyone telling the truth for once and letting the people decide? Aren’t Italians better off knowing that the American Ambassador thinks Berlusconi is too old to party like a rock star and too corrupt to be trusted with his country’s leadership? Shouldn’t Americans know that the Saudis continue to funnel huge sums of money to militants and that Pakistanis are refusing to hand over nuclear fuel they long ago promised to give up?

Wouldn’t Mexicans be better off knowing just what the US thinks of their anti-drug efforts, and Americans better off knowing just how badly the drug war is proceeding? And certainly the news that Saudi Arabia, at least, supports attacking Iran has already led Iran to tone down its rhetoric and seek to reassure its neighbors of its peaceable intentions.

As far as I can see, the best development that could come out of Wikigate would be that diplomats around the world begin tweeting their previously secret observations on a daily basis, so that everyone knows where everyone else stands and governments can no longer hide behind diplomatic courtesy to continue with the all-too-often reprehensible “business as usual”. The world has never needed honesty more than it does today.

Looking for shelter in an increasingly dangerous world

If there’s anyone who doesn’t think the world – and particularly the United States – desperately needs WikiLeaks, I offer you “Exhibit A” of why this is the case: the star-studded official trailer for the “Call of Duty: Black Ops” first person shooter video game. Regular readers of this column might recall my November 16 article, “Nowhere Left to Run,” where I discussed the cultural implications of “Black Ops” after spotting a poster for the game in a Berlin subway around the time of its release.

Since then I have seen the trailer, whose slogan is “There’s a soldier in all of us” and features both ordinary people – a secretary, fry cook, hotel concierge, and the like – along with celebrities like Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, and late night American talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.

After watching the trailer I was so exasperated I emailed a colleague at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies here at Lund and asked him, “Where is Ice Cube when you need him?” His reply stunned me: “LoL you don’t know where Ice Cube is? He’s doing the voice of Bowman in ‘Black Ops’…”

Ice Cube, just another sad example of how, with too few exceptions, hiphop has gone from being the "CNN of the streets" to the "ho" of the corporations

In case you’re not a hiphop fan, once upon a time Ice Cube was the terror of law abiding white citizens across America as a member of the highly political gangsta rap group NWA. In fact, their song “F*** Da Police” almost got them into as much trouble with the US government as is Julian Assange today.

But those days are long forgotten. Today Mr. Cube spends his time, when not playing secret service agents in movies, providing the voice for one of the lead characters in “Black Ops.”

But it’s not just hiphop that’s prostituted itself to violence and big corporations. The rock n’ roll establishment has equally shamed itself, as none other than the Rolling Stones allowed their song “Gimme Shelter,” one of the most important anti-war songs of the Vietnam era, to be used as the soundtrack for the trailer, which shows Kobe Bryant smiling widely as he and innumerable other “ordinary” people blast away an unseen enemy in a clearly Middle Eastern landscape (not surprisingly, digital sales of the song and other Stones hits spiked in the wake of the trailer’s release).

A chilling view of american culture and values

The “Black Ops” trailer makes for chilling viewing, as it tells viewers – successfully, apparently, given the record – breaking sales of the game – that they can derive great pleasure from taking a break from life to pretend to kill people half way around the world.

Perhaps most troubling, the colours and landscape of the trailer are eerily reminiscent of the infamous killing of a dozen Iraqis by a US helicopter crew, some of whom are laughing as they fire missiles at their targets. Not surprisingly, the only reason we know of this event is because WikiLeaks put the classified video, dubbed “collateral murder,” into the public domain last April, in one of the releases that first made the organisation (in)famous.

Apparently Bryant, Kimmel, Cube, the Stones and the designers of “Black Ops” are all either ignorant of, or more likely unmoved, by the reality that ordinary Americans – fry cooks, secretaries, concierges and other working class people – have been forced to answer the “call of duty” for extended tours in Iraq and now Afghanistan during the last decade, where many have been forced into precisely the life and death situations of extreme violence that Bryant and his famous friends were no doubt paid handsomely to pretend so thoroughly to enjoy.

This is the mindset, at all levels of American society, against which the truths revealed by the hundreds of thousands of WikiLeak documents must stand. And the potential for changing peoples’ minds is clearly disturbing enough to the US government that it has begun, when not calling for Assange’s arrest and worse to warn students at elite institutions like Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs that they risk never being hired by the State Department if they even mention the WikiLeaks documents on any social media sites in which they participate.

Like the corrupt law firm that hired innocent newbie attorney Tom Cruise in the movie “The Firm,” the last thing the Government wants is for prospective employees to understand what it’s really up to until they’re sucked in too deep to change it.

Truths that must Be learned-the sooner the better

Chances are, if your government is telling you not to read something, you should be reading it twice as closely.

The detailing of all the problems the Bush and Obama administrations have had in executing policies in the Muslim world have done an invaluable service to any citizen who wants to understand whether the government’s claims as well as aims in the war on terror are both reasonable and feasible on the ground (sadly, it seems more often than not, the answer is they are not).

Certainly, I will urge my own students to read the various WikiLeak documents and compare them with documents we have from wars past, to gain greater insight into the continuities and changes in war-making, diplomacy, and the motivations behind both over the course of modern history.

But if the release of over countless classified documents has given the world a “banquet of secrets” to feast upon (as Timothy Garton Ash put it in The Guardian), historians might be tempted to wonder what scraps we will be left to scrounge over when it comes time  to write histories of the events covered by the various WikiLeaks documents with the nuance and perspective that only comes from a certain amount of historical distance from the events in question.

And it’s not merely professional jealousy by people used to having largely exclusive access to the historical record– after all, who but historians is willing to sit in dusty archives for years searching through hundreds of thousands of documents for a few gems that can advance the state of knowledge on a topic? With easily searchable data bases, now – Heaven forbid! – anyone can be an historian, rendering judgment on events and motivations that members of the previously closed historians’ guild normally have to wait decades to get access to.

Or can they?

Despite the huge volume of cables and documents released by WikiLeaks, they only offer a very partial account of the realities they discussed. The often unguarded and even eloquent language of the writers of the dispatches does not change the fact that they were written by US government employees (whether soldiers or diplomats) for their superiors, addressing issues from an American perspective and a set of interests that can’t be assumed to match those of the myriad other actors in the dramas these documents reflect.

History’s lesson: multiple perspectives provide the best view

No matter how much we think we can learn about the realities of the Afpak, Iraqi or larger Middle Eastern conflicts from WikiLeaks, the limited perspective of the documents WikiLeaks has been able to obtain reveals that there is still an incredible amount to learn before we come close to having the full picture of the history-making events of the last decade.

And unless there are British, French, Iraqi, Afghan and other soldiers with a similar access to classified documents and a reckless disregard for their own future, it is likely that the full accounting of the “Wikiwars” will likely wait until the historians of tomorrow are finally allowed to peruse the far larger volume of documents that governments will work even harder than before to keep out of the public domain.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s