There's a good reason why history teachers -- and I am one -- assign our students primary source material: The distinctive sound of that voice, from that place and that time, offers us an insight, or an intuition, that explanation alone cannot afford. If you want to know war, read soldiers' letters home. Or watch Restrepo. Or plow through the clotted acronyms of the 92,000 incident records from Afghanistan unearthed this week by WikiLeaks.
What is it that this vast trove of raw material tells us that we didn't know before? Already it has become a truism that the documents add little that is new, at least for those few people who spend all their time thinking about such things. And yes, the intelligence data reproduced there is second- or third-hand, and often comes from a single, generally unreliable source. And Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' founder and one-man band, views the war as a criminal enterprise and leaked the documents to "prove" it. (I heard Assange speak earlier this year, and I practically gagged on his smug self-righteousness.)
All that is true, and yet the documents matter, for much the same reason that televised images of the Vietnam War or the civil rights struggle mattered. They will make many people feel in their bones what they merely knew, or perhaps didn't know at all, before. This, in turn, will darken -- indeed, already has darkened -- the debate. The revelations will not force President Obama's hand, but they will narrow his options.
What the documents "say" will depend in part on how readers experience them. I first encountered them in Monday's New York Times. This was very, very clever of the diabolical Mr. Assange. Unlike the clip of Iraqi civilians mistakenly killed by a helicopter gunship that WikiLeaks released earlier this year, the Afghanistan documents are too massive, and too cryptic, to be self-explicating. The primary material had to be filtered, and rendered meaningful, by a trustworthy secondary source -- i.e., America's newspaper of record. The Times' twin headlines offered a brutal summation: "Pakistani Spy Unit Aiding Insurgents, Reports Suggest," and "Unvarnished Look at Hamstrung Fight." What the documents said -- or rather, what the Times said the documents said -- was, "It's even worse than we thought."
I then spent some time paddling in the vast sea of WikiLeaks' dedicated webpage in order to encounter the material directly. This proved slightly bewildering. I couldn't even find any of the damning material on Pakistani intelligence, since none of the documents are coded that way. Selecting documents according to the category to which a soldier in the field assigned it -- "murder" or "enemy action" -- only served as a reminder that the overwhelming majority of events in a war are confusing, open-ended, inconsequential. The one thing that stood out was the enormous number of documents coded "blue-white" -- coalition forces encountering civilians -- or "green-green" -- Afghan security forces encountering one another. Here were the sickening consequences of the fog of war.
The most user-friendly format I've found so far is a list of 300 "key incidents" compiled by the Guardian and laid out in a spreadsheet. The guideposts allow the reader to discern meaning in the mass.