All wars are meme wars.
With the release of a video entitled “Collateral Murder” last April, the mysterious organization WikiLeaks declared war on secrecy in the United States and forever changed the way American wars can be packaged and sold to the public.
The leaked footage showed an American Apache helicopter killing 18 people including two Reuters journalists in Iraq in 2007. The crew’s callousness and macabre humor as they calmly unleashed hell on unarmed men and children sent shockwaves around the world and revealed the brutal reality of America’s foreign occupations.
Describing itself as a media insurgency, WikiLeaks recently raised the stakes by releasing over 91,000 classified military documents from US operations in Afghanistan. One of the largest leaks in American history, the “War Logs” exposed the previously unreported killings of hundreds of Afghan civilians and revealed the extent to which the Taliban’s strength has grown.
Predictable outrage over the leak exploded out of the White House, Pentagon and conservative media outlets.
Despite their resistance it is now clear to many that we desperately need WikiLeaks to reveal the truth. Wars are not invariably fought on lies, but they are often sold to the public with exaggeration and misrepresentation of facts.
Until now people with information that could cut through the fog had to trust journalists and put their lives in their hands. But even if whistleblowers did have faith, journalists can be legally compelled to reveal the names of their confidential sources.
Using encrypted communications and technology to erase leakers’ digital fingerprints, WikiLeaks hosts its material on servers in European countries with tight privacy laws. Leaked documents are kept beyond the reach of any nation’s judicial process, and the site is a very secure and encouraging mechanism for courageous individuals to anonymously leak information vital to the public interest.
Valuing the individual’s right to know over all else, WikiLeaks’ “uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking” destroys the editorial role cherished by many media outlets by releasing all information to the public unfiltered.
“I am an information activist,” WikiLeaks creator Julian Assange told the Guardian. “We believe a richer intellectual and historical record that is fuller and more accurate is in itself intrinsically good and gives people the tools to make intelligent decisions.”
The potential impact of WikiLeaks in relation to its size is staggering. At the core of the organization is a group of only a half-dozen full-time volunteers. With their help one conscientious individual with important information can shake the world.
In 2006 Assange wrote that a social movement exposing secrets could “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality – including the US administration.”
To be sure, Assange and his team at WikiLeaks have faced challenges. They have been threatened with hundreds of lawsuits but so far no one has taken them to task in court.
In 2008 WikiLeaks itself revealed US counterintelligence plans to shut down its site. The classified report suggested: “The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the WikiLeaks.org Web site.”
These plans have proven ineffective.
Just as online piracy revolutionized copyright, the emergence of WikiLeaks has done the same for secrecy, and the PR and propaganda of war making has been dealt a huge blow. Governments can no longer conduct their dirty business in private, and whistleblowers with the guts to reveal the truth can impact the course of history.
In effect, the geopolitical game has changed forever. It takes a degree of public outrage to mobilize a population behind a war, and it is tempting to wonder how different American history could have been if an information-leaking mechanism like WikiLeaks had existed decades ago.
The most disastrous and devastating war in American history began with a bold-faced lie when the National Security Agency (NSA) fabricated intelligence describing an attack by North Vietnamese boats on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. Midlevel NSA officials were responsible for the faulty intelligence, and a conscientious whistleblower within the agency could have prevented the widened war and the pain of untold millions of people in Southeast Asia and the United States.
The weeks before the invasion of Iraq were a crucial tipping point when millions of people marched in cities around the globe in some of the largest protests in history. There was a real, tangible feeling that our collective resistance could make a difference and stop a war that we knew was wrong. Yet without any evidence of the Bush administration’s lies we would all soon sit stunned, watching bombs rain down on Baghdad live on CNN.
By revealing the falsehoods and manipulations that often underlie the case for war, WikiLeaks can alter the course of wars and maybe even prevent them. The true nature of WikiLeaks’ capabilities will be seen in the lead-up to the next war launched on lies.
All wars are meme wars. And the PR campaign to strike Iran has been mounting for years. It is now much easier and safer for an individual with crucial information to expose official lies than it was in the lead-up to the wars in Vietnam or Iraq. If Western leaders attempt to deceive the public into waging another war in our name, the way is now clear for a brave source to come forward with information, confident in WikiLeaks’ ability to protect his or her identity.