After 17 months observing pacification efforts in
They had lain there, letting us four pass so as to get a better shot at the main body of troops. We couldn’t fire at them, because we would have been firing into our own platoon. But a lot of its fire came back right at us. Dropping to the ground, I watched this kid firing away for 10 seconds, till he disappeared with his buddies into the rice. After a minute the platoon ceased fire in our direction and we got up and moved on.
About an hour later, the same thing happened again; this time I only saw a glimpse of a black jersey through the rice. I was very impressed, not only by their tactics but by their performance.
One thing was clear: these were local boys. They had the advantage of knowing every ditch and dyke, every tree and blade of rice and piece of cover, like it was their own backyard. Because it was their backyard. No doubt (I thought later) that was why they had the nerve to pop up in the midst of a reinforced battalion and fire away with American troops on all sides. They thought they were shooting at trespassers, occupiers, that they had a right to be there and we didn’t. This would have been a good moment to ask myself if they were wrong, and if we had a good enough reason to be in their backyard to be fired at.
Later that afternoon, I turned to the radio man, a wiry African American kid who looked too thin to be lugging his 75lb radio, and asked: “By any chance, do you ever feel like the redcoats?”
Without missing a beat he said, in a drawl: “I’ve been thinking that … all … day.” You couldn’t miss the comparison if you’d gone to grade school in
I can’t help but remember that afternoon as I read about US and British patrols meeting rockets and mines without warning in the cities of
There could not be a more exact parallel between this situation and
As more and more US and British families lose loved ones in
I served three
By the time I released to the press in 1971 what became known as the Pentagon Papers – 7,000 pages of top-secret documents demonstrating that virtually everything four American presidents had told the public about our involvement in Vietnam was false – I had known that pattern as an insider for years, and I knew that a fifth president, Richard Nixon, was following in their footsteps. In the fall of 2002, I hoped that officials in
I can only admire the more timely, courageous action of Katherine Gun, the GCHQ translator who risked her career and freedom to expose an illegal plan to win official and public support for an illegal war, before that war had started. Her revelation of a classified document urging British intelligence to help the
I have no doubt that there are thousands of pages of documents in safes in London and Washington right now – the Pentagon Papers of Iraq – whose unauthorised revelation would drastically alter the public discourse on whether we should continue sending our children to die in Iraq. That’s clear from what has already come out through unauthorised disclosures from many anonymous sources and from officials and former officials such as David Kelly and US ambassador Joseph Wilson, who revealed the falsity of reports that Iraq had pursued uranium from Niger, which President Bush none the less cited as endorsed by British intelligence in his state of the union address before the war. Both
Those who reveal documents on the scale necessary to return foreign policy to democratic control risk prosecution and prison sentences, as Katherine Gun is now facing. I faced 12 felony counts and a possible sentence of 115 years; the charges were dismissed when it was discovered that White House actions aimed at stopping further revelations of administration lying had included criminal actions against me.
Exposing governmental lies carries a heavy personal risk, even in our democracies. But that risk can be worthwhile when a war’s-worth of lives is at stake.
· Daniel Ellsberg is the author of Secrets: a Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.