It has amused me for years, how ordinary civilians, media figures and scriptwriters for movies and TV shows can believe so strongly that the military is one big monolithic secret-keeping machine; something which happens on a base, post, or on the front lines will never, ever see the light of day in the larger world and that the military commands can keep something quiet for years or decades. If it is something tippy-top secret, and known to only a few – well, yes, in that case. But quite often something – a program, a wild idea, a mission—remains unknown largely on account of lack of interest on the part of the larger world or the establishment news media organs. The military is actually far from being the big monolithic secret-keeping machine, once you get away from the deliberately highly-classified, ultra-secret-squirrel stuff.
During George Bush’s second term, the reporter Seymour Hersh was given to go around giving lectures to anti-war audience claiming that all kinds of horrible massacres were being perpetrated by American troops; massively violent stuff on the order of My Lai in the Middle East, involving scores of victims and whole companies of U.S. Army and Marine troops. Bodies stacked up by the bale, according to Mr. Hersh, who was at least careful enough not to commit these incredible tales to print. Mr. Hersh, I think, has the monolithic military secret-keeping meme on the brain. The atrocities which he was alleging to have happened among front-line troops in Iraq just could not have happened, not without a lot of personnel inside of the military family knowing. The truth is that the possibility of keeping something out of general knowledge in the military world expands geometrically with the number of people involved, directly or peripherally. And nothing much happens in the military world stays secret for long; yes, the knowledge of certain matters may not seep out into the ken of the greater public and the news establishment professionals – but that’s because military members are routinely briefed about OPSEC (operations security) and they don’t spill to outsiders, much. Something that may be common knowledge to those inside the family, as it were, may go for years without attracting undue attention or interest on the part of those outside of it.
Mr. Hersh and other fantasists might well have had an easier job in peddling incredible stories of military malfeasance in pre-internet days; it would take months and years for allegations to make the rounds and for those inside the military family to even become aware of them and respond – and then, of course, it was already over. History had been engraved in stone, as it were; set there by being repeated over and over. Any debunking was too late and too little. But the internet and a generation or two of tech-savvy and social media troops have tightened the OODA loop considerably. It took a good few decades for many of the established memes regarding Vietnam veterans – sullen draftees, drug-abusing, unstable, baby-killing losers – to be debunked by researchers like B. G. Burkett, and even now that meme refuses, zombie-like to lay down and die. It twitches now and again, over the last ten years or so, but refreshingly, military members and veterans today are instantly aware and more than willing to swing into social media action to debunk sensational accusations and to unmask fraudulent veterans – or even to speak out when there is a controversy such as Bowe Bergdahl’s status as a POW or as a deserter. Which brings me around to the thing about secrets. Among the milblogs like Blackfive there was no secret about there being something hinky regarding the circumstances of his disappearance from his duty station in Afghanistan. It wasn’t a big thing, but it came up now and again; one of those open secrets among the milblog family and commenters. Very likely, everyone that he served with and under knew that he was a flakey, unmotivated soldier, and after he went under the wire, a deserter as well. But it was one of those open secrets – which, because the Obama administration didn’t care to look before they leaped into a deal, a distraction and a show and tell in the Rose Garden, has now come back to bite – heavily.
Couldn’t happen to nicer people, I would say; except that whatever does happen next, in the wake of freeing five upper-level operators from Guantanamo, will very likely not land on the Obama administration or its high-level flunkies. Most likely, it will land on the rest of us, starting with those in the uniformed services.