The opening scenes of “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s splendid film about the Pentagon Papers, aren’t set in a noisy newsroom, but in a hushed jungle, as G.I.s in Vietnam try to evade enemy detection.
If Spielberg reprised the theme for a film about this week’s equally consequential “Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” a commensurate setting would be Kabul, Kandahar, or another Afghan hamlet where Americans — along with forces from many NATO nations — have fought and sometimes died in the enduring, if not endless, war with the Taliban.
The two wars — and the official characterizations of them — had striking similarities. In each, intrepid troops fought in what was to become an unwinnable quagmire while U.S. officials overstated success — lied, to be honest — to U.S. lawmakers and the American public.
Or, as the Washington Post stated it in its initial “Afghanistan Papers” story: “A confidential trove of government documents obtained by the Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
The documents were part of a report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a congressionally created agency to investigate waste in the war zone.
The report, the result of more than 600 interviews with key American and Afghan officials, as well as other government records and statistics, is scathing — and scary, in its comparisons to the mistakes made in Vietnam.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, an Army general who was the White House “war czar” during the Bush and Obama administration, told interviewers. Lute later added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.
“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2,400 lives lost,” Lute said.
They know now — thanks to tenacious efforts by the Post, which had to wage a three-year legal fight to get government officials to respect a reasonable, responsible Freedom of Information Act request.
“The more they fought us, as a news guy, the more the interest was raised,” said David Fallis, one of the news guys who worked with Craig Whitlock, the project’s lead writer.
Fallis, the Post’s deputy investigations editor, described how a tip about an interview with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn led to the discovery that there were hundreds more such candid conversations. So the Post filed FOIA requests and fought in court to bring the information to the court of public opinion.
“One of the things we always ask is, ‘What is the public interest?’” Fallis said. “This is going to sound Pollyannaish, but for democracy, for people to make informed decisions, they need to be informed.”
That ethos should guide newsgathering everywhere. But major media-model challenges have made it harder for all but a few news organizations to withstand the challenges of court fights, let alone an environment where such public-service reporting is met with hesitation, if not hostility, from government officials, all the way up to the president.
“What you have to remember about the 18-year war is it crossed three administrations and two political parties,” said Fallis, referring to the Bush, Obama and Trump eras.
“These are people that are in power on our behalf,” he added. “They’re in charge of American policy.”
Which raises the blunt question of “Can the public really trust its military leaders to tell it the truth?” (Ret.) Col. John Morris, formerly a chaplain in the Minnesota National Guard, rhetorically asked in an e-mail exchange.
Morris, who has given a lot of thought to the relationship between society and the military in the post-9/11 era, referenced other “huge impacts from our never-ending war,” including “the transition of the Guard from a ‘state militia’ called to federal duty in drastic situations [like World War II] to an ‘operational force’ used continually with no end in sight,” and “the continued deep divide between those serving and those who have never served” (which the Afghanistan Papers will deepen, Morris believes), as well as “the debacle at Guantanamo (i.e. the loss of our moral compass).”
These, and other profound issues, are why journalism matters — especially when it’s as telling, and compelling, as the Afghanistan Papers reporting.
“We the people have a right to know what the government is doing in our name, and certainly have a right to know if our military and soldiers are being sent overseas to fight in a war under false pretenses,” said Jane E. Kirtley, the Silha Center professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
That was true with Vietnam. It’s true with Afghanistan, too.
While the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers are “different animals,” Fallis said that both shared similarities, including being about “a long, drawn-out conflict,” and that both spurred controversy. The Afghanistan Papers are unique, he added, due to the candid assessments of key decisionmakers.
History, Kirtley said, “has shown us that the revelations that were published by both the New York Times and the Washington Post known as the Pentagon Papers were extremely important in terms of the public’s understanding of the war in Vietnam and holding government to account, so I would hope that would be the consequence.”
The official title of SIGAR’s assessment is “Lessons Learned.”
Notably, and tragically, it appears that the lessons learned in Vietnam were not appropriately applied by political, military and diplomatic leaders in Afghanistan.
But at least a version was learned by journalists, including those at the Post who doggedly dug for the truth on behalf of its key constituency: the American people.
“I teach in my media ethics classes that journalists’ highest loyalty has to be to the public — not to a branch of government, not to a particular source, but to serving the public interest, to being loyal to the public first and foremost,” Kirtley said.
For Fallis, the Afghanistan Papers project can be put into a broader context.
“The public interest part of journalism is just critical, from the smallest weekly in Oklahoma to the New York Times to everything in between,” said Fallis.
“This is the kind of accountability journalism that serves that purpose and serves that mission.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.