Publisher's Note — August 18, 2010, 4:23 pm

Of the IRA and the Afghan war

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the August 18, 2010 Providence Journal.

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. – I know it was supposed to recall the drama of Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg, but when WikiLeaks jolted Washington last month with its “revelations” about the Afghan debacle, I was disappointed.

This isn’t to minimize the courage of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and the leaker, or leakers, who gave him the documents. I was pleased to see The New York Times, so badly tarnished by its biased reporting in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, help amplify the news. It took guts. I hope that more Ellsberg types will surface in the patriotic mission of providing their fellow Americans with more facts than they usually get from the politicians and the press.

But there was something unrevealing about the actual information that came out. Did we not recognize the incompetence of Hamid Karzai’s Potemkin army? Didn’t we know that many innocent civilians have been killed by unthinking American bombs and terrified American soldiers? Are we really surprised that the Pakistanis are playing a double, or even triple game with Karzai and the Taliban? Does it amaze us that the guerrillas have weapons more sophisticated than land mines and rifles?

Something else troubled me about the ritual exposure of “secret” documents — and the government’s ritual denunciation of the leakers — that brought to mind not Saigon and its infamous bubble of denial but Northern Ireland, which I visited in early March 1983. There, in the midst of a low-intensity civil war, I learned a more powerful lesson than any “secret” document could teach about the causes of violence in Afghanistan.

I had decided to go to Belfast at the end of a trip I had made to report on Michael Flannery, the elderly New York-based leader of NORAID, the American branch of the Provisional IRA, who had been named grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in spite of — or because of — his acquittal on federal gunrunning charges. New York’s Irish establishment was in an uproar, with its most prominent members — Cardinal Terrence Cooke, Sen. Patrick Moynihan, and former Gov. Hugh Carey — vowing not to appear on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral when Flannery passed by. I spent many hours with Flannery and liked him, even though I had little sympathy with IRA terrorism or overly sentimental Irish-American support for “reunification” between the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic and its Protestant-dominated, British-ruled neighbor to the north. While I supported the civil-rights struggle of the Catholic minority in Ulster, I tended to agree with Noel Quinn, a Dublin taxi driver and a Catholic, whom I interviewed for my profile of Flannery: “It’s easy to be patriotic and warlike when you’re 3,000 miles away. I frankly feel I’ve more in common with the English working man than I have with the Irishman in the States who gets drunk at a bar and throws money into the hat for the IRA.”

But none of my preconceptions prepared me for the Catholic ghetto of West Belfast. Ushered along my journalistic route by Flannery’s network of IRA contacts, I found myself entering Sinn Fein headquarters through locked, double metal gates that brought to mind a fortress or a prison. My youthful tour guide’s hard face matched the mood of this unadorned bunker — the IRA’s political front, though legal, had all the grim aspects of a clandestine guerrilla movement. Nobody on the staff was smiling, and it wasn’t just because of the routine frisking that I and everybody else who visited certain parts of Belfast had to endure at the hands of the widely hated Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Outside, as my host accompanied me along the Falls Road, I witnessed a principal cause of those hard faces. While we discussed “the troubles,” a British Army armored vehicle rumbled by us, braked abruptly, and disgorged red-bereted members of the elite Parachute Regiment.

Brandishing automatic weapons, the soldiers quickly dropped into ready position, aiming their guns at some middle distance and doing circular sweeps of the immediate surroundings. For the pedestrians on the sidewalk, including women and children, the point was clear: Her Majesty’s Government was reminding the Catholic rebels and their families who really ruled the neighborhood, and that its agents were prepared to shoot if anyone dared say the contrary.

For me, being only partly informed, the impact was somewhat different. I remember saying to myself, “I’m standing in the middle of a foreign military occupation.” It didn’t matter that the soldiers were white and spoke English, or that the Protestant majority wanted them there. For the Catholics in the Falls Road, the British Army was as alien as the Red Army was in Kandahar province in the 1980s and the American and British armies are today. You didn’t have to approve of the IRA’s cruelty and violence to understand perfectly their cry of “Brits out!” You don’t have to like the Taliban’s opposition to Western-style feminism to comprehend their drive to rid their country of armed foreigners in uniforms.

Next time you hear Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Christiane Amanpour try to justify the reckless stupidity of the Afghan war by invoking human rights or international law, try to imagine how the local citizens might feel if British soldiers were patrolling the streets of Boston, Washington or Austin — to enforce, let’s say, a ruling by the International Criminal Court against U.S. soldiers for atrocities committed in Iraq against women and children. It’s no secret that many Americans would reach for a gun. You won’t find that sort of information in the WikiLeaks documents, and it isn’t classified.

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