March 25, 2003
Discredits the Chickenhawks
looks as if it's going to be a real war, not a video game, a TV
"reality" show or a cakewalk. The apparent setbacks to
the American battle plans over the weekend might well turn out to
be less strategically significant than some would make them out
to be. But they have demonstrated, as all too many Americans seem
to have forgotten, that war is about real people firing real weapons
and killing real people on both sides.
if the weekend's unfortunate events turn out to be mere bumps on
the road to ultimate victory, however, they should be enough to
create severe credibility problems for the most enthusiastic of
the this-will-be-a-cakewalk war whoopers. This should be especially
true of the armchair generals and soundbite soldiers who speak so
casually of the necessity of combat when they themselves have never
CAUTIOUS ABOUT CONCLUSIONS
you might think about whether this war was justified or desirable,
it is a good idea not to be too eager to draw conclusions too quickly
from what we have seen so far. The apparent setbacks to the American
effort do not necessarily mean American troops will not succeed.
In fact it is probably still the safest bet that the U.S.-led coalition
will win the military aspect of the campaign.
some extent the temptation to reach conclusions before they are
genuinely warranted can be laid at the feet of the media. On balance
it is probably helpful to the cause of more widespread knowledge
(and perhaps inevitable given the development of communications
technology with which news people could have wandered in the vicinity
anyway) to have had various media "embedded" in U.S. and
British military units. But the very immediacy of their reports
can sometimes create inaccurate impressions that obscure the overall
context of a campaign. (Not to mention how annoying it can be to
be reminded breathlessly by some wet-behind-the-ears tyro that this
or that camera angle in "unprecedented in the history of war
reporting" or the most remarkably exciting thing since your
general course of wisdom for viewers and observers, which journalists
usually learn through hard experience, though some never do quite
learn it, should be reinforced. Whatever the story, the first impression,
the first image, the first version is almost always at the very
least incomplete and more often than not inaccurate or misleading.
So the breathless reporting on this war should be taken with at
least a few reservations. The all-news networks in particular sacrifice
context for immediacy.
CRITIQUING THE COVERAGE
my perspective, the best war coverage available has come from MSNBC,
a judgment echoed by one of my constant callers and occasional sources,
a retired law enforcement professional with extensive military and
counterintelligence experience who favors the war. CNN does reasonably
well, although its version of being objective sometimes leads it
to bend over backwards to make the Iraqis seem reasonable or credible
(An example would be Christiane Amanpour's instant analysis of Saddam
Hussein's – or whoever's – Sunday speech, which discussed the idea
of it being pretaped hardly at all and reached a bit to make general
references to current events look more specific than they actually
worst coverage by far comes from Fox, which has been so breathlessly
pro-Pentagon that it should be on the payroll. Its retired military
"experts" are more vapid and dismissive of complications
than those on the other networks, and while some of the anchors
are fairly decent, others – Rita Cosby and Bridget Quinn intrude
unpleasantly into the consciousness – combine cheerleading with
shallowness to a really annoying extent.
also, on Saturday, did pretty much what all and sundry have legitimately
criticized the Iraqi government and Iraqi television for – exposing
POWs to public scorn and ridicule. Its cameras zoomed in on the
faces of Iraqi prisoners, just as Iraqi TV is said to have zoomed
in on U.S. prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross
has criticized the practice on both sides and by all networks, pointing
out that Article 13 of the Geneva Convention calls from protection
of POWs from "insults and public curiosity" and promiscuous
distribution of the images of POWs.
does seem to have the most and the best-connected "embedded"
journalists, some of them quite competent, and they are sometimes
able to provide bits and pieces the others can't. So they can be
useful in forming your own mental image of the pig picture. But
use with caution.
the great American public views things differently. The overnight
snap ratings I've seen show Fox leading comfortably, with CNN a
fairly distant second and poor MSNBC bringing up the rear badly.
I've been told that the BBC does better than any of the American
networks, but I can't vouch for that personally. I've heard the
hour-long BBC World Service broadcasts on radio and consider them
quite good, but I don't get BBC on my cable system and so haven't
seen what they do with television.
END OF THE CAKEWALK
upshot of all this is that what seems to be the case after a weekend
of reporting might not prove out in the long run. We've gotten an
image of trouble and complications, but the Pentagon spokespeople
just might be correct when they suggest these are mere glitches
and the overall plan is still going well.
be fair, few military people expected a trouble-free "cakewalk"
to Baghdad, although more than a few civilian planners and talking-head
"experts" did a great deal to create such unrealistic
expectations. Victor Davis Hanson, the National Review
Online hawk who became an expert by studying the classics and ancient
Greek, did point out correctly that the legendary Gen. George Patton
took two months to advance 400 miles during World War II (to be
sure, against more organized and battle-hardened defenses). So it
could well be that the audacious U.S. march toward Baghdad has gone
reasonably well. And while any American killed is a tragedy, considering
the scope of the operations the casualties have still been fairly
some of the setbacks should case concern among the cockeyed optimists.
I talked with Ivan Eland, Director of the Center
for Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute in Oakland.
He told me, "A key factor seems to be that instead of being
welcomed as heroes and liberators, U.S. forces are being fired upon,"
even in the predominantly Shia cities in southern Iraq.
it's probably early to draw conclusions, but it would not do to
dismiss out of hand the possibility that many Iraqis, even those
discontented with Saddam Hussein's rule, have a sense of nationalist
loyalty that will lead them to oppose foreign invasion of any kind.
If it is a factor and if it persists, it could complicate matters
later, even after a militarily successful war.
the "setbacks" will be salutary if they lead to more realistic
expectations. The 1991 Gulf War, followed by "antiseptic"
bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, may have led many Americans
to believe modern technology had made war a clean, almost bloodless
endeavor. The weekend's complications should purge such illusions.
One hopes they will also undermine the credibility of some of the
more notoriously unrealistic prewar prognosticators who had the
entire population dancing in the streets and rising up to throw
out the remnants of the notorious Ba'athist regime. (Has anybody
kept track of the more fatuous statements from the Perles, Ledeens,
Goldbergs et. al.? I haven't done it as systematically as I might.)
being brutal and bloody, of course, wars are notoriously unpredictable.
The Iraqi regime might crumble tomorrow and coalition forces might
waltz into Baghdad. The safer bet, however, is to get used to the
idea that this war will be tougher and more costly in human life
than the optimists had predicted.
should get some more indicators in the next few days as coalition
forces run into the first organized elements of the Iraqi Revolutionary
Guards. One thing is sure. While numerous commentators and journalists
have made much of the scope and quality of the U.S. "psyops"
operation, with all the leaflets and the cell calls to tops Iraqi
military leaders and the like, it is most definitely an open question
who is really winning the psychological aspects of this war.
a human being and as an American I would like this war to be short,
sweet and decisive, with an American victory at the end. And I think
on balance that would be the least damaging result for the region,
though it might feed the tendency toward megalomania in some circles.
But I suspect it's going to prove to be a real war, going back and
forth, lasting a reasonably long time and costing us dearly in blood
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