The Pencil Warrior
By Dave Wheelock
I wish I could say that as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was transfixed by events that have since assumed legendary status in the national consciousness: the so-called counterculture of the hippies, the horrific arc of the war in Vietnam and the ongoing struggle for human rights at home, and the humiliation and fall of a president. But while I dug the music (and still do) and managed to stay out of trouble (mostly), I only dimly perceived the drama and significance of Daniel Ellsberg’s public disclosure in 1971 of a 7,000-page “top secret” Department of Defense study entitled “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.” Fortunately filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith have come to the rescue of others who missed, or were not yet around to experience, Ellsberg’s decision to act upon information that exposed a bloody trail of lies and deception running counter to many years of government pronouncements about Vietnam.
Sworn to unquestionably serve his government, the former Marine could have kept his mouth shut like the other intelligence analysts around him who knew their silence prolonged the war. Yet as Ehrlich and Goldsmith reveal in their film “The Most Dangerous Man in America” Ellsberg had the counsel of a strong partner in making his fateful decision: his wife Patricia. “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public” Ellsberg said of his decision to provide copies of the Papers to major newspapers and members of Congress, disclosures that eventually led to the resignation of by-then President Nixon and the turning of national opinion against the pointless bloodletting in Southeast Asia.
Ellsberg’s story reminds us of other dirty, not-so-little secrets we’ve been told, and raises (or should, anyway) some troubling questions about our own presumptions of national security. Is there a distinction to be made between the defense of our citizens and the preservation of the acting administration, and if so, how do we know when the boundary has been crossed? What is the proper role of news organizations in determining and communicating the facts, and how well are we being served today? The facts of history show coups, assassinations, kidnappings, and colonization have taken place in our names; does our security not come with a moral imperative to ensure we as a nation deserve protecting?
The story of the Pentagon Papers also points out the deep divisions that remain in the United States. Writes Mike from Chicago in an online discussion: “I am tired of the beatification of the anti-war movement and their players. This guy leaked thousands of pages of classified information . . . he should have been shot, not idolized. In 1971, the United States was in position to win the war in Viet Nam despite the (sic) having their hands tied by their government and the undermining politicization and media adulation of the anti-war movement.”
In some sectors, including those posing as “news” organizations, Marine Lt. Colonel Oliver North, deeply implicated and even convicted of crimes related to illegal arms and drug smuggling, remains a hero in the defense of our country. I suppose North also had the strength of his convictions, in his own way.
But chalk one up for the true underdogs, those without friends in that Shining City Upon a Hill (who can get you off scot free). A most miraculous feature of Ellsberg’s story may be that he got away with it, albeit on a technicality.
So did the New York Times and Washington Post, but only after their right to publish had been silenced for fifteen days by a government injunction. The case rose all the way to the Supreme Court in a matter of weeks, where the newspapers’ First Amendment rights were only thinly verified.
I wonder if Bradley Manning will be so fortunate. The 22-year-old Army intelligence specialist is imprisoned in Kuwait, facing charges he leaked State Department cables related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks, an international organization that publishes, online and anonymously, submissions of otherwise unavailable documents. “Inconveniently” those documents have included video images of the grisly massacre by a helicopter gunship of unarmed Iraqi civilians.
Already American “news services,” against the international grain, have overwhelmingly chosen to ignore fundamental questions of foreign policy in favor of speculation about what should be done about WikiLeaks.
In a world widely proclaimed as new (read “fearful”) since the attacks of September 11, 2001, American justice seems to have shed some of its celebrated blindness, at least toward some. We cannot know the guilt or innocence of Pvt. Manning until he stands trial – or at least we’re not supposed to. At any rate the odds against a court martial weighing questions of moral responsibility seem pretty long.
Dave Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation, holds a history degree from the University of New Mexico . Mr. Wheelock's views do not necessarily represent those of the Mountain Mail. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.