There has never been anything quite like WikiLeaks in American military history. We are engaged in a great experiment to see whether the U.S. military can still persist in a conflict when it knows that any and all of its private communications can become public — and will be selectively aired and hyped by people with a preconceived bias against it. Had the public known in real time from periodic media leaks about operational disasters surrounding the planning for the D-Day landings, intelligence failures at the Bulge or Okinawa, or G.I. treatment of some German and Japanese prisoners, the story of World War II might have been somewhat different. But then, in those paleolithic days FDR and Winston Churchill did not have to be flawless to be perceived as being far better than Adolf Hitler.
So we now have a war within a war — one to defeat the enemy, and quite another, to preemptively backtrack, footnote, and explain the context of one’s actions for future armchair judges and jurors who will adjudicate battle behavior from the library carrel. Note here that no other government bureau or private entity functions under quite such rules of engagement — the communications of Mr. Obama’s staff are not public; we don’t read the internal memos of Warren Buffett or Bill Gates; the minutes of New York Times editorial meetings remain private; we don’t even get to read the private communications and discussions that the often petulant Julian Assange conducts with his own WikiLeaks team and learn whether there is dissent among his staff over his own ethics and methods. Surely a leaker of any and all things should not demand privacy for himself?
Note also that there is no attempt at systematic or coherent leaking. WikiLeaks mostly targets the West. It may now and then leak to us something about dastardly behavior by an African or Chinese bureau or religious sect, but it really does not tend to uncover things about the Russian, Iranian, Cuban, or Chinese armed forces in any way commensurate with its fixation on the U.S. military. It either has no wish to, has no means to, or is very afraid of the consequences — in the fashion of the reaction to the Danish cartoons — should it choose to do so. I suppose that WikiLeaks believes that the Western military can “handle” a climate of zero confidentiality and still protect the likes of Mr. Assange and his team. After all, as a high-profile, elite Westerner, he assumes a level of comfort, security, civil rights, freedom, and affluence in his many international travels and operations not accorded to most who live under other systems, and impossible without the protective umbrella of the military he seems so bent on destroying.
Nor do we know why some documents are leaked and published and others are not. In one sense, Mr. Assange is a rogue version of Bob Woodward: The would-be archival leaker knows that if he gets his particular documents to WikiLeaks promptly, his own preferred narrative will emerge; if he does not, perhaps someone else will preempt him by leaking different archives, which may include evidence of his own culpability, or at least a version of events not to his liking.
So WikiLeaks’ morality is quite selective. Mr. Assange takes a divine view that as judge and juror — and executioner — it is up to him to decide the ethics of what to, and what not to, release — though the public has no idea of his nontransparent modus operandi. But while we may be shocked for a while at the Machiavellian nature of our own military, that morning outrage soon passes amid the sheer clutter of the daily news. What persists, however, is the danger to thousands in the field who helped the U.S. military — not on the WikiLeaks supposition that we must be perfect to be good, but in the more mundane belief that we were far better than the wretched alternative on the battlefield. So, yes, we ponder the morality of WikiLeaks in the newsroom; thousands of others less fortunate do so far, far away, anticipating a bullet to the head.
Finally, I expect Mr. Assange’s organization soon to implode. You see, despite all its utopian chest-thumping about seeking out secretive evil the world over, it is really designed, in Daniel Ellsberg fashion, to expose bad faith and cruelty on the part of the evil capitalist military-industrial Western state. But right now, that apparatus here in the Great Satan is being run by the likes of the hyper-liberal Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, with the enthusiastic sanction of the New York Times, NPR, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and CBS News. Bush’s Iraq War was and is still fair game, and we can all indulge in groupthink outrage about his minions. But WikiLeaks is now flitting around within the red zone, and any leaks about Afghanistan or Iraq post January 2009 reflect upon a left-wing Obama government. A public perception of inappropriate military policy would endanger an entire far-left social experiment at home. The result will be that either Mr. Assange and his team pull back, or, more likely, the outraged media will abruptly decide that his leaking grows stale and he has already had more than his 15 minutes of fame. Who knows, maybe the head of NPR will soon scoff that Mr. Assange should first check in with his psychiatrist or his publicist — take your pick.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.