Weldon Berger at BTC News had a post this morning about the latest bad signs in Baghdad, but what caught my attention was a reference to a bit of information I'd not heard before: Back in May, the cost of a taxi ride from the international airport to the Green Zone was $35,000. Berger suggests the cost of that taxi ride might be good metric for our progress in Iraq.
Which seemed a good excuse to bring up a post I read earlier this month by my favorite U.S. Army grunt-level Iraq blogger, Boots in Baghdad. On July 14 (7/14, an important date and number in Xark World) the Boots wrote a piece on press coverage of the war. His take: The media shows only the bad and misses the good that's being done.
I've disagreed with such criticisms before, but it is not pleasant to disagree with such an assessment when it comes from an eloquent 22-year-old enlisted man serving on my behalf over in "the sandbox" while I sit at my computer in air-conditioned comfort.
"I don’t have a problem with how a journalist chooses to regard, or disregard for that matter, their nation and their countrymen," Boots wrote. "I do however feel that there is a HUGE void in western journalism. Bad things happen here. There isn’t any denying that. However, good things, great and incredible things, are happening every day. If objectivity were the goal, why is there so little mention of the good?"
The post's tone is sincere, questioning and thoughtful, and even though it ultimately concludes that the press is hurting soldiers and Iraqis by making things look worse than they are, it never sinks to the level of rant. Such qualities are why I read his blog reqularly.
Boots' commenters, on the other hand, compete to top each other in professing their love for our troops and their scorn for our traitorous media:
"'Objective' means 'America is bad'. Once you understand this definition
professional journalists claim of objectivity will make perfect sense," wrote anonymous.
"The Media cannot even give our Brave Americans in Uniform one little crumb of success. Pray for the media that they will become AMERICAN!!!" wrote Pebblepie.
And then, this one:
"Ever since Bush was elected President, the MSM and leftwing Liberals have done everything in their power to try and blame Bush for everything and anything concerning the GWOT. Because the Liberal's no longer control the House, Senate and White House, they'd rather help the arhabi then get behind our Military and do the right thing. They would rather rant and rave about the evil Rove and whether he outed a has-been analyst and her failure of a husband, or how Bush and his Administration only went to war because of Oil.
"I get all of my news about what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan from blogs like yours. You guys are there, and see what is happening, telling us both good and bad, and how the good is actually happening more often than is ever told on the MSM," wrote Pothus.
Which brings up several points:
The claim that the media hasn't made an effort to show good news from Iraq is a popular talking point in ... the media. Turn on your TV to your choice of news channel and pretty soon you'll hear somebody say this: "The media is only showing the bad things."
Which begs the question: With so many media outlets featuring so many conservative pundits making so many complaints about how the media is misrepresenting the truth on Iraq, how can "the media shows only one side" complaint be valid?
The claim that the media hasn't made an effort to show good news from the war is just that: a claim, and not one that is well-supported by my experience as a rabid reader of newspapers and online information. The good news is out there -- on TV, in the newspapers, on the net. But it isn't the primary news. It's secondary. Subordinate.
Critics say that this is all the evidence they need to prove their point. But you can't prove a media-bias claim by saying "75 percent of the media stories were negative to only 25 percent positive."
Why? Because such an argument assumes that any "natural" situation is 50-50 good-to-bad, with any deviation from that "balance" evidence of bias. Which is absurd. By such a standard, we would force the media to provide 50-50 good-bad coverage of such groups as the Man-Boy Love Association and such unmitigated disasters as earthquakes and floods.
The issue isn't "showing all sides." The issue is false equivalence.
The fog of war
Which brings us back around to what I think is the original problem with covering war: Is it possible to be objective about a topic that is so difficult to see, in real-time, in its entirety?
Personally, I doubt it. It's called "the fog of war." Generals with access to all the real-time classified intelligence available struggle to get a clear picture, and if they can't tell what's going on with a high degree of confidence, how are we supposed to know? This is why the meaningful histories of wars tend to be written years after the fact -- and also why real-time media coverage is so ripe for criticism.
An individual soldier like Boots is a great source of information, but remember: In his own way, he's limited, too. Trying to understand Iraq from ground level is like trying to scan a 360-degree battlefield at great depth, only through a telescopic rifle site. A good picture, but isolated, out of context. I accept what he says as truth, but I also understand the grunt's-eye perspective is often an information-poor environment.
Soldiers know this. Back in 1985, all the tankers in one of my cav troop's platoons painted subtle mushroom shapes into the camouflauge patterns on their turrets in an act of unified protest. "We're the Mushroom Platoon," one of the sergeants told me, "because they feed us shit and they keep us in the dark."
If I wrote something like that about one of today's units in Iraq, some chickenhawk would call me unpatriotic. But soldiers know the military isn't perfect. They know that a set of desert BDUs isn't a cloak of personal infallibility, and unless soldiers have changed since my day, they will gladly point out to their bretheren all the idiots and assholes in their unit who prove this point daily.
Today's media critics don't want this truth portrayed where anyone can see it, but Ernie Pyle would laugh at such an idea. He didn't treat his subjects as supermen. His genius lay in understanding how the heroism he witnessed was made more noble by the human frailties of the men around him.
Bill Mauldin understood it. His Joe and Willie were bearded, exhausted realists. American G.I.s from The Greatest Generation won World War II, but they also invented the words "snafu" (Situation Normal -- All Fucked Up) and "fubar" (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition) when standard English failed to capture the colorful nuances of Army life. When we fail to capture that aspect of the military experience, how are we "showing all sides?"
When you're trying to develop a big picture, you collect as many bits of information as you can, good and bad, and look for patterns. You never get all the information, and all the information you get isn't right. As imperfect human beings, you try to make the best assessments you can. This is true for the military, for reporters and for "civilians." The more sources of info you can add and consider, the better your chances for accuracy and understanding, but the longer you take, the less valuable the information becomes.
I work for a newspaper, and tomorrow we'll publish a package of stories we got by sending a reporter and a photographer over to Iraq on a military transport for a few days. I don't know whether they'll be "positive" or "negative" (although I can say that 100 percent of the stories from our previous military-escorted and military-funded excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan have produced glowing accounts of our men and women in the field), but I do know that this reporter has been to Iraq before and was never allowed to see anything beyond what his handlers made available.
The last thing a local paper wants to do is publish a story that makes an individual soldier look less than good. But war is war, and ugly things happen -- as Kevin Sites can certainly attest. Last year Sites, on patrol with a squad of U.S. Marines, recorded what appeared to be evidence of an enlisted Marine fatally shooting a wounded, un-armed Iraqi man after the squad stormed a warehouse. Internet distribution of the video kicked up a shitstorm of criticism from people who felt that releasing the tape was traitorous because it provided propaganda for America's enemies. The average newspaper publisher doesn't want to take that kind of heat.
Instead, our newspaper staff makes an effort to find wire stories that humanize the war, that show it from the soldier's eye view, that provide the very balance that Boots' commenters believe is never shown. The irony is, in our efforts to show "the good side" and satisfy our critics, we may be distorting the the facts into a falsely rosy picture.
You make the call
Press critics say "Just give it to us the way it happened," and an amazing number of people seem to accept this simple instruction as the solution to the "bias" problem. I wish that this were true, but here's the reality, unpleasant as it may be: Trying to come up with an objective picture requires making value judgments.
For instance, if I'm the one structuring the newscast or laying out the page or writing the story, I have to place everything in some kind of order. It is impossible to communicate otherwise. And that means that I have to look at what's available and make decisions about what piece of news is most important.
So pretend you're the one writing the day's main story:
Over here you've got an account of 27 Iraqi army recruits killed by a suicide bomber, a horrendous tragedy that could harm efforts to bring the local security forces up to speed, a necessary first step before our own troops can come home.
On the positive side, you've got a nice feature on a squad of U.S. combat engineers fixing a well at an elementary school and an interesting story on a U.S. infantry platoon leader who has learned that he is more effective at his mission since he started meeting with tribal leaders for tea and respectful communication. All meaningful, worthwhile stories, but you have to lead with one.
Now choose which one comes first.
My mental picture of Iraq in July 2005 is not pretty, and I think that honest, thoughtful consideration of the information available to us leads inevitably to that conclusion.
For all our efforts, we are incapable of providing the kind of basic security that is required for normal life in sections of the country. More than two years after the end of major combat operations, we are still don't have Iraq back up to its pre-war standard of living, thanks in large part to a "recovery plan" that has turned into a private-sector boondoggle, with more than $8 billion in infrastructure funds simply missing.
And while many of our troops no doubt make daily sacrifices on behalf of the Iraqis, is there any doubt that the Iraqis remember the slights and humiliations of occupation more vividly than they do the acts of kindness? That's not me hating America -- that's just me thinking about human nature.
Our job as Americans is to get the best picture we can and step up for what we think is right. I supported the case for war in 2002-03, realized that the fundamental facts of that case were wrong in 2003-04 and I've been talking about my mistake ever since. I wish things weren't this way, but things are what they are.
Some say we were right to invade, even without the WMDs, because Saddam was a bad guy. I disagree, and here's why: America is a democracy. We, as a people, supported the case for war on the grounds that Iraq was developing terrorist weapons for use against us. Had we been asked to invade Iraq because Saddam was a bad guy, most Americans simply would not have agreed. We've been tricked by a bait-and-switch.
The news out of Iraq isn't bad because of the media hates the troops or George W. Bush or America. The news out of Iraq is bad because the situation is bad.
Let's do what we can about that. Maybe we should start by getting that Baghdad airport taxicab fare down to something less than the cost of the cab itself.
(The photo of the Iraqi children was taken by Boots on July 9, 2005.)