Does the U.S. press know we're at war?
Does the U.S. press know we're at war?
Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 13 2004 5:05 PM

The First Casualty

Does the U.S. press know we're at war?

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During every war, the government will sometimes lie to the American people and its allies, and it will almost always attempt to deceive or conceal information from its enemies. The Bush administration gambled that it could invade Iraq without revealing its real reasons for doing so and without losing the support of the people who will ultimately decide whether venturing American lives and money was worth it. After all, we know we are at war, not just because the president told us, but because our enemies have done so in word and deed. So, there are two ways to look at our current predicament: 1) the government lied to get us into the Iraq war, and the inevitable result is a series of mistakes and miscalculations; or 2) Iraq is just a campaign in a war we were already fighting, and both lying and confusion are essential parts of all wars. However, the press seems to be confused because it's not really sure we're at war.

For instance, last week when the Iraqi government decided to close Al Jazeera's Baghdad office for a month to give the station a chance to reconsider its positions and policies, the New York Times ran an editorial condemning the government's action. "Thwarting Al Jazeera's news coverage will not halt the violence that has been tearing Iraq apart for the past 16 months. But it may … give [Allawi's] government a freer hand to abuse human rights and pursue personal political vendettas in the name of restoring law and order." The Times doesn't really think that Al Jazeera's watchful eye prevents Arab regimes from abusing the human and political rights of Arab citizens—or why didn't the network keep Saddam in check? No, this is the U.S. press on auto-pilot. Any decision that keeps someone from articulating their point of view, even if it abets violence and misreports facts, is censorship, and we're against it, even if it's just for 30 days. But does the NYT's editorial staff believe that if Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl had wanted to film George Patton's 3rd Army in its march through France, she should have been allowed to do so?


The press isn't thinking hard about these matters because it's not convinced that this war might affect them personally. It's safer right now just to treat it as a big story. Close readers of the press will notice that the major media outlets have been rotating reporters into Iraq over the last year—some reporters are exhausted, and others want a shot at covering the big story. Do they all have experience covering war zones and living in Arab societies? Absolutely not. The military talks about a learning curve for its new troops sent into Iraq. Doesn't the same apply to journalists? Critics have pointed out that U.S. forces don't know Arabic or much about Arab or Muslim culture, but neither does the American press. Analysts have argued that the military is not prepared to occupy and police a country. But the media is not trained to report an occupation or an insurgency. When the press describes fierce fighting, are they comparing it to a multidivisional engagement with tanks and heavy artillery or a really ugly shootout in front of a Bronx social club? When the press says that after a year the occupation is a total mess, is it in the context of Great Britain's decadeslong occupation of Egypt or the weeks it takes to quell a raging forest fire? Or are they just trying to catch the White House in one of its prewar flights of fancy?

Time reporter Michael Ware, to his credit, declined to accept any more videotapes from the Iraqi militant groups who were using him as a liaison to the Western media. He thought it was wrong, and he was starting to get scared. "It terrifies me on a personal level and it terrifies me in terms of what we are up against," he said. "This is far more serious, far more organized, committed, than many of us realized." Ware is a very brave and conscientious guy, but his realization is odd. Apparently, he had to go to a war zone to realize that the outcome of this war might affect the way he lives.

One of the goals of the 9/11 commission was to get all the U.S. intelligence community on the same page to fight a kind of war it has never fought before. What will it take to get Ware's colleagues to recognize that, as different as this war is, it's still a real war?

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.