Thursday, April 19, 2007

The War in Iraq in 2003

I was intrigued to go back and see this Op-Ed for the October 2003 newsletter of the Army's Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), What should be Believed about Progress in Iraq? by John Martin. Martin's piece is mainly advising the services on how to do better PR about the war. His approach would probably have been better than what the services are still doing. He described it then as "an official 'party line' that says all is going well and according to plan." Of course, saying his advice would be an improvement on that really is not saying very much, since random scrawlings on a page would be about as effective as the official service press releases.

Martin was seeing some of that fabled good news in Iraq: "My experience tells me that both good and bad things are happening in Iraq, but that the overall trend is positive." But the following reflects pretty much conventional conservative cynicism about the mainstream media, with Martin seemingly unaware of the extremely credulous treatment of the administration's claims on the Iraq War that was very much the norm at the time:

A stereotypical military response to this reporting dichotomy might be to blame the media for their part in a "vast, left-wing conspiracy" to deprive the administration of popular support for a war the media don't support. Although undoubtedly some element of the media is looking for ways to discredit or embarrass the administration ― particularly as the presidential election approaches ― it is more likely that the effect is unintentional. Sensational news stories of "disaster" in Iraq sell much better than do stories of once-empty streets now bustling with commerce. The "boring" success stories occurring every day aren't sensational enough to warrant broadcasting on prime-time news shows. In contrast to their broadcast counterparts, newspapers provide a broader perspective, but even there success stories are relegated to the back sections of the paper, far from the widely-read front page. The media shouldn't be blamed for report-ing that presents a bleak picture, but neither should consumers of the news believe that the picture painted represents the whole truth in Iraq. (my emphasis)
Was this guy even watching or reading the fawning coverage our "press corps" was giving the administration's and the services' claims about the Iraq War at that time? From that comment, you really have to wonder.

But his op-ed reminds us that some things really were going better back then:

At least one congressman sneaked into Iraq when congressional delegations were still officially prohibited, just so he could see for himself what soldiers and Iraqis were saying about the war and reconstruction efforts.
That's not how Maverick McCain did it on his last trip to Iraq! That's just unthinkable now.

Martin diplomatically talks about how the glorious Commander-in-Chief hadn't necessarily handled his leadership role on the Iraq War in an optimal manner:

Casualties and other bad things are going to continue in Iraq, but they need to be put into perspective. This is, after all, a nation at war. President Bush might not have helped when he declared an end to "major combat operations" in May. People misinterpreted that as a statement that the war was completely over, not just the major fighting. Their expectations of a peaceful occupation, therefore, are the basis for cognitive dissonance when confronted with regular images of fallen soldiers. Many people simply don't know what to believe. They still support the war effort, but are disturbed at the thought that the costs and sacrifices made for
operational victory might be wasted by strategic stalemate or loss. (my emphasis)
It's striking, and disturbing, how much Martin's op-ed is focused on the military managing news coverage to influence public opinion in the United States:

The support of the American people for the war remains strong, but it would be a mistake to think that negative reporting could not erode it significantly. America's enemies underestimated American will when they attacked. It will not easily be defeated, but American leaders must continue to make every effort to ensure domestic support of the war.
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