The jubilation of liberating millions from fascism and removing the world’s most odious dictator apparently lasted about 12 hours. I was listening to a frustrated Mr. Rumsfeld last Friday in a news briefing as he tried to deal with a host of furious and crazy questions — a journalistic circus that was nevertheless predictable even before the war started.
I thought immediately of the macabre aftermath to the battle of Arginusae in 406 B.C. After destroying a great part of the Peloponnesian fleet in the most dramatic Athenian naval victory of the war, the popular assembly abruptly voted to execute six of their eight successful generals (the other two wisely never came back to Athens) on charges that they had failed to rescue seamen who were clinging to the wreckage.
The historian Xenophon records the feeding frenzy and shouting of the assembled throng. Forget that Sparta felt beaten and was ready for peace after such a catastrophic defeat; forget the brilliant seamanship and command of the Athenian triremes; forget that a ferocious storm had made retrieval of the dead and rescue of the missing sailors almost impossible; forget even that to try the generals collectively was contrary to Athenian law. Instead the people demanded perfection in addition to mere overwhelming success — and so in frustration devoured their own elected officials. The macabre incident was infamous in Greek history (the philosopher Socrates almost alone resisted the mob’s rule), a reminder how a society can go mad, turn on its benefactors, throw away a victory — and go on to lose the entire war.
Something like that craziness often takes hold of our own elites and media in the midst of perhaps the most brilliantly executed plan in modern American military history. Rather than inquiring how an entire country was overrun in a little over three weeks at a cost of not more than a few hundred casualties, reporters instead wail at the televised scenes of a day of looting and lawlessness.
Instead I had been expecting at least some interviews about bridges not blown due to the rapidity of the advance. Could someone tell us how special forces saved the oil fields? How Seals prevented the dreaded oil slicks? Whose courage and sacrifice saved the dams? And how so few missiles were launched? Exactly why and how did the Republican Guard cave?
In short, would any reporter demonstrate a smidgeon of curiosity — other than condemning a plan they scarcely understood — about the mechanics of the furious battle for Iraq? It would be as if America forgot about Patton’s race to the German border, and instead focused only on Frenchmen shaving the heads of Vichy collaborators, or decided that it had not been worth freeing the Italian peninsula because a mob had mutilated and hung Mussolini from his heels. Did any remember what had happened to a Russian armored column that tried to enter Grozny to control that city? Did any have a clue what Germany or Italy was like in June 1945?
What was striking about the Iraqi capitulations was the absence of general looting on the part of the victorious army. From the fall of Constantinople to the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait City, winners usually plunder and pillage. American and British soldiers instead did the opposite, trying to protect others’ property as they turned on water and power. That much of the looting was no more indiscriminate than what we saw in Los Angeles after the Rodney King Verdict, in the New York during blackouts, or in some major cities after Super Bowl victories, made no impression on the reporting. Remember this was a long-suffering impoverished people lashing out at Baathists — not affluent, smug American kids looting and breaking windows at the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
A terrorized people, itself looted and brutalized by fascists for three decades, understandably upon news of liberation feels the need to steal back from Baathist elites and government ministries what had been taken from them. This is not an excuse for general lawlessness, but rather a reminder that freedom for the oppressed sometimes goes though periods of volatility and messiness.
All this was lost on our journalistic elite, who like Athenians of old wished to find scapegoats in the midst of undreamed good news. Dan Rather, for example, finished one of his broadcasts from liberated Baghdad with an incredible “before” and “after” footage of his entry that should rank as one of the most absurd pieces of the entire war coverage. Tape rolled of his initial drive a few weeks ago to Saddam’s HQ, when the roads were once safe from banditry and free of destruction. Then in glum tones he chronicled his harrowing current arrival into Baghdad amid craters and gunfire.
Mr. Rather — so unlike a Michael Kelly or David Bloom — forgot that he was now motoring right smack into a war zone. And he seemed oblivious that just a few weeks ago he had just conducted a scripted and choreographed interview with a mass murderer. Consider the sheer historical ignorance of it all: Was Berlin a nicer place in 1939 or 1946? And why and for whom?
The machinery of a totalitarian society, of course, can present a certain staged decorum for guests who are brought in to be manipulated by dictators. How many were shot in dungeons during his visit, he never speculated. In contrast the first 48 hours of liberation are scary — who after all could now put Mr. Rather up at a plush state-run hotel and shepherd him in to the posh digs of Saddam Hussein with the security of an armed Gestapo? That the chaos Mr. Rather witnessed was the aftermath of a 30-year tyranny under which one million innocents have been slaughtered made no discernable impression on him — nor did the bombshell story how the Western media has for years collaborated with a horrific regime to send out its censored propaganda.
Next I turned on NPR. No surprise. Its coverage was also fixated on the looting, and aired several stories about the general shortcomings of the American efforts. Again forget that a war was waging in the north, that Baghdad was still not entirely pacified, and that there was the example of a normalizing postbellum Basra. No, instead there must be furor that the United States had not in a matter of hours turned its military into an instantaneous police, fire, water, medical, and power corps.
Personally, I was more intrigued that in passing the same reporter at last fessed up that during all of her previous gloomy reports from the Palestine Hotel of American progress, she and others had been shaken down daily for bribe money, censored, and led around as near hostages. It is impossible to calibrate how such Iraqi manipulation of American news accounts affected domestic morale, if not providing comfort for those Baathists who wished to discourage popular uprisings of long-suffering Iraqis.
There is something profoundly amoral about this. A newsman who interviewed a state killer at his convenience later revisits a now liberated city and complains of the disorder there. A journalist who paid bribe money to fascists and whose dispatches aired from Baghdad in wartime only because the Baathist party felt that they served their own terrorist purposes is disturbed about the chaos of liberation. Now is the time for CNN, NPR, and other news organizations to state publicly what their relationships were in ensuring their reporters’ presence in wartime Iraq — and to explain their policies about bribing state officials, allowing censorship of their news releases, and keeping quiet about atrocities to ensure access.
In general, the media has now gone from the hysteria of the Armageddon of Afghanistan to the quagmire of Iraq to the looting in Baghdad — the only constant is slanted coverage, mistaken analysis, and the absence of any contriteness about being in error and in error in such a manner that reflected so poorly upon themselves and damaged the country at large at a time of war. It is as if only further bad news could serve as a sort of catharsis that might at least cleanse them of any unease about being so wrong so predictably and so often.
In the weeks that follow, the media, not the military, will be shown to be in need of introspection and vast reform. Partly the problem arises from the breakneck desire of reporters to obtain near celebrity status by causing controversy and spectacle. Many (especially executives) also came of age in Vietnam and are thus desperate to recapture past glory when once upon a time their efforts made them stars and changed our national culture. Reporters are cultural relativists, who never ask themselves how many more people are tortured and die because of their own complicity with a murderous regime. Ignorance also is endemic. Few read of history’s great sieges and the bedlam that always follows conquest, liberation, and the birth of a new order. Arrogance abounds that journalists are to be above reproach and thus deserve to be moral censors in addition to simply recording the news.
So while it is censorious of politicians and soldiers, the media is completely uninterested in monitoring its own behavior. Would Mr. Rather have gone to Berlin amid the SS to interview Hitler in his bunker as the fires of Auschwitz raged? Would NPR reporters have visited Hitler’s Germany, paid bribes to Mr. Goebbels, and then broadcasted allied shortcomings at the Bulge, oblivious to the Nazi machinery of death and their own complicity in it?
There is also a final reason that explains our demand for instantaneous perfection. It is often a trademark of successful Western societies that create such freedom and affluence to fool themselves that they are a hair’s breadth away from utopia. Journalists who pad around with palm pilots, pounds of high-tech gear, dapper clothes, and expensive educations have convinced themselves that if lesser people were as caring or as sensitive as themselves then we could all live in bliss. The subtext of the daily Western media barrage has been that if we were just smarter, more moral, or better informed, then we could liberate a country the size of California in days, not weeks, lose zero soldiers, not 110, and be instantaneously greeted by happy Iraqis who would shake hands, return to work, and quietly forget thirty years of terror as they voted in a Gandhi.
Anything less and Mssrs. Rumsfeld, Meyers, Franks, “the plan,” — somebody or something at least! — must be held accountable for the absence of utopia.
But that is a word, they should remember, that means not a “good place” but “no place” at all.