Watching the War

by Jonathan Wallace

March 29, 2003

I have spent many hours these last ten days watching the war on CNN. In that time the American media and its public have traveled an arc from inane excitement and unplaced self-confidence to neurotic doubt and confusion. On the whole, the latter is a better guaranty of democracy than the former.

War reporting, like any live coverage of urgent events as they unfold, involves ladling a very thin gruel to the audience. The broadcaster has the unenviable task of talking non-stop, for twenty-four hours, about events on which he has minimal information. In a stirring example of the medium determining the message, in order to fill the available time, the newscaster must repeat himself, speculate, interview passersby, other newspeople, and self-proclaimed public "experts", while endlessly re-looping the same scant video of the event being covered. Nonetheless, you watch the endless tedious repetition, almost in a state of addiction, waiting for each skimpy crumb of new information to take its place in the scroll.

It was impossible, in the first hours, not to feel the primitive excitement as our troops started to roll in after all the months of building expectations. I was ready for an overnight war which would immediately pull the legs out from everything I have written warning caution and circumspection--an overnight collapse of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi people throwing roses and so on. After all, in Afghanistan the Taliban collapsed much faster than I expected and air power played a more decisive role than I thought possible.

It didn't take long for a dose of reality, as the first American soldiers were captured and slain. Some American POW's were being displayed on Iraqi television, as were the bodies of several of their compatriots killed--posibly executed with shots to the head-- at the same time. This was a group of lightly armed cooks and supply staff who had been left to their own devices to drive through a battle zone; perhaps they were among the first victims of the fatal complacency we have shown at every step so far. CNN noted that the Pentagon was asking the media not to air footage of the POW's, and that it had also decided not to show pictures of the corpses, save one in which no face was identifiable. I immediately got on the Net and found several other mainstream media sources, which variously reported that the POW's were "stoical" but "very frightened", a seeming contradiction. The AP reported what CNN had intimated, that the government was leaning hard on the press not to use the images of these soldiers live or dead, and noted that media outlets flouting the Pentagon might privately fear that the military would retaliate by ending the practice of allowing "embedded" journalists to travel with its troops.

The AP failed to mention that the same government which is pushing the broadcast media not to air these images grants, and has the power to deny, the latter's broadcast licenses. Every television or radio company knows that the F.C.C. can make your life a living hell at renewal time. Thus there is a powerful but rarely mentioned incentive not to buck the government when it is really insistent about something.

This is no excuse for the New York Times, which seems to have slipped a long way since the Pentagon Papers days. Unlike ABC, the Times does not need the government's permission to disseminate information. Yet several of the Bin Laden tapes which have appeared on Al Jazeera since September 11 have only been very selectively excerpted in any U.S. media, including the "newspaper of record". Not surprisingly, the Times fell right in line and did not show any POW pictures even though the story is newsworthy, it is dramatic, the POW's, though bruised, are mainly alert and intact, and it would not have been in questionable taste to show them. But the Times, like everyone else, lay down before the Pentagon's request that the images not be shown. The one excuse given, that showing the images violates the Geneva Convention, is on the same level of absurdity as the government's "steganography" argument against showing the Bin Laden videos after 9/11.

In the meantime, the television view of war presented via the "embedded" journalists is a highly sanitized version, all distant flashes of light and muted roars, zero images of dead soldiers or civilians.

The very use of language, "embedded" journalists, is very disconcerting. Dismissed on public radio as "in bed" reporters, these newspeople give us almost exclusively local color, like the man in the first day or so who said something like, "We are in a tense position. The convoy has bogged down and is vulnerable to ambush. On the roof of the armored personnel carrier in which I am riding are two snipers and a man with a 50 millimeter rifle. Ahead we can see eight Iraqi soldiers on top of a building. They are not a danger to us per se but there is the risk they may call down an artillery strike on our position, etc."

What is interesting about this is that it gives the impression of giving you a lot of information, but does not. On the one hand, it seems far superior to the pale pablum dished out by talking heads endlessly repeating little snippets of information. It seems to provide a colorful and dramatic context--the bogged down convoy--and a lot of information-- the snipers and rifleman, the eight Iraqi soldiers, the possible ambush or artillery strike, etc. However, in the end, this "local color vignette", though highly interesting, tells us very little about the conduct of the war itself. Donald Rumsfeld, whose contempt for journalists is barely concealed under a sort of bristling polite sarcasm, lectured the press yesterday that what they are reporting is not the war but merely slices of it. (Shades of "C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la guerre.")

Rumsfeld was correct. It was left to the Iraqi defense minister to point out what we would otherwise have to read between the lines: whenever we met resistance, in the early days we were going around it, for fear of bogging down on the way to Baghdad, so we are potentially leaving substantial numbers of determined fighters in our rear. This may be yet another indication of the American weakness: our reliance on technology and reluctance to commit ground troops-- the same tendency which allowed Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.

A determined press doing its job of dispassionately reporting and, yes, analyzing the war would be telling us this story instead of merely hinting at it obliquely. Instead, war coverage in the first week was the most inconsequential it has been in my lifetime, all local color and no context.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, available at, defines "embedded" as follows:

To fix firmly in a surrounding mass: embed a post in concrete; fossils embedded in shale.
To enclose snugly or firmly.
To cause to be an integral part of a surrounding whole...

All of these meanings apply to the embedded correspondents but the third one is particularly apt. The journalists are now part of the military, an integral part of our armed forces, essentially their propaganda organ. From this perspective, it is remarkable that anyone created or used a phrase like "embedded". Not so many decades ago, journalists were merely accredited to particular military units; now they are enclosed snugly in them.

On NPR the other day I heard someone observing that in an effort to deter independent journalists from reporting in Afghanistan, the Pentagon told them that if they used satellite phones they might be targeted and killed. I saw an echo of this kind of thinking when watching a press conference with General Tommy Franks. A reporter asked him about a British journalist who had just been killed by American or British fire in Southern Iraq. The general replied that not one of the embedded journalists had yet been harmed and that journalists who placed themselves in danger could certainly meet unfortunate circumstances. The subtext was: don't report on me; report with me, or for me. Fixed firmly in a surrounding mass, indeed.

All of this makes me think of the peculiar truncated form of journalism known as the traffic report. Interesting stories are constantly playing out on the road: accidents may occur because a driver was drunk, or an over-worked truck driver was exhausted, or someone was talking on a cell-phone, or because the city has refused to repair a dangerous merge. Or accidents may be exacerbated by the design of cars or features of the road such as embankments. Each of these raise highly interesting ethical, social, legal and political issues--but we never hear about any of this on the traffic report, which is narrowed down to the sole question of whether you will get to work on time using your usual route. So the reporter, in his helicopter, tells you simply whether your road has been blocked by an accident; perhaps it is a "serious accident", or a "three car accident", or a "jack-knifed tractor trailer" blocking multiple lanes. Or you may be told that a "police investigation" is taking place. Assuredly you will never be told whether someone died or, beyond this, why they died and what the social implication of all of it is: cars, fossil fuels, the economics of crashes and prevention.

The war news is reported the same way that traffic news is. There are vehicles, they are going someplace, in certain areas the route is clear and in others it is obstructed. Phrases like "heavy fire" are placeholders like "jack-knifed tractor trailer"; but so far the media has not told us anything about bodies, Iraqi or American, in piles, any more than the traffic report on the evening news shows us the bodies of dead drivers. As of Tuesday the 25th, the Pentagon was not yet releasing the number of American casualties, and the media was refusing to speculate. For several days we had the phenomenon Graham Greene lampooned in The Quiet American-- post-battle news conferences in which the presiding general could tell you how many enemy had been killed, but claimed not to have a final tally of our own dead.

Yet I would argue that this is exactly what wars are about-- bodies, civilian and uniformed, lying in heaps. A press which reports the traffic--tanks moving around Basra, Apache helicopters overflying the environs of Baghdad--but refuses to report on bodies in piles is not an independent media, but more of a crooning baby, embedded in a tangle of warm quilts.

After writing these words, I was very amused to see the following quote from deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz is, of course, one of the ideological retreads from the Reagan administration responsible for convincing the President to invade Iraq:

A war plan is not a railroad timetable. When you make a long-distance road trip, you can't predict the weather. You can't predict the traffic jams that you'll encounter along the way. You can't predict whether your car will break down or not. You have plans, though, that anticipate those kinds of contingencies, and the thing you do know is that you will get to your destination. (Times, March 27, 2003, p. B10)

At the end of the first week, the change in journalistic and public attitudes was predictable but rather sad. We now have attention spans so short that (as I read the other day) the networks no longer air miniseries, as viewers will not commit six or more hours of their time to one story. Yesterday, I saw a series of interviews with people complaining about the all-war-all-the-time news format--after a few days they are ready to move onto something else. That restlessness, and government pandering to it, is what has led to the common expectation that all wars will last three days (and involve no American casualties).

As expectations dropped, the media started doing a little better--it was as if, instead of giving the government a permanent exemption from criticism, they had granted only a one week pass. When the fedayeen showed greater resistance than expected, and the people of southern Iraq did not rise up against their oppressors, we started to see more "News Analysis" articles in which commentators now questioned the administration's expectations of a short and easy war. However, the media was still uneasily backing away from showing real images of the war; the first corpse I saw pictured in the Times was only in the last day or so, and predictably, was that of an Iraqi soldier.

A story which was substantially under-reported here was the fact that the Al Jazeera sites (including a newly launched English language service) became mysteriously unreachable a few days ago. I heard something second-hand about "patriotic" hackers mounting a denial of service attack. Here is an unofficial site which mirrors some Al Jazeera content, including images. Last week, Al Jazeera reporters who had been covering U.S. financial markets for years were denied the right to report from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, in retaliation for their service's willingness to present news and images we will not.

I don't see how anyone can attempt to comprehend this war without looking at the corpses, destruction and injuries it produces. In The Quiet American, which I reread recently after seeing the rather faithful but lifeless movie starring Michael Caine, Fowler, a British journalist, confronts Pyle, a naive, idealistic and therefore quite deadly CIA man, at the site of a marketplace bombing which Pyle arranged (not quite expecting so many women and children to be killed). Fowler manipulates Pyle into stepping in blood; Pyle looks down and comments "I must get a shine before I see the Minister". I think we all need a shoe-shine about now.

Donald Rumsfeld and the president are showing uncharacteristic signs of annoyance and stress in public appearances. A near-mythic moment (if there weren't so many of them) occurred when the president was unable to name one member of the U.S.-led "coalition". There is also some major back-pedaling going on, such as the spectacle this week of prominent hawk Kenneth Adelman, a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld in his first go-around, trying to explain an op ed piece he published in the Washington Post a year ago in which he said that the invasion of Iraq would be a "cakewalk".

It seems that there were two major camps of thought in the Bush administration: Colin Powell's, who resists going to war but believes that you must use overwhelming force when you do, and the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis, which wanted to rush into battle with minimal forces, thinking that bombing, coupled with a few limited Special Forces incursions, could solve all problems. I am a civilian with no military experience whatever, and even I was aware of a strong current of opinion, going back to World War II, that wars are not won by air power uncoupled with large ground forces. Bombs didn't get Bin Laden, and it was very predictable they wouldn't "decapitate" Saddam Hussein.

Over the last few months in the Spectacle I have written several essays focusing on arrogance and "war fever", citing other ill-conceived incursions fueled by public enthusiasm such as the Crimean and Boer wars. These are not complicated or hidden precedents, even if we hadn't had retired generals like Norman Schwartzkopf warning us in the earliest stages of planning last year that it would be hard to take Baghdad:

You can't discount the 100,000 Republican Guard and Palace Guard. And not only are they a good military force, but they also have a lot of good equipment behind them. They're going to have over 8,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers, a large amount of artillery. Its not going to be an easy battle...

I have never seen a situation in which our government rushed into action ignoring the advice of so many experienced people on its own side--people it would have listened to in the past. While I do not think President Bush is smart enough to know the difference, I do not question Donald Rumsfeld's intelligence. What we are watching may be the spectacle (unfortunately so common in this world) of an intelligent and capable man wrenching himself into stupidity through the sheer force of his own arrogance. (Of course, this is made even easier by the assistance of a complacent, captive press.)

Yesterday I saw a sound byte of an uncharacteristically nervous and grim Donald Rumsfeld saying of the fedayeen, "If their wish is to die for Saddam Hussein, they will be accomodated." Rumsfeld's strength has always been in his style, a mediagenic blend of intelligence, sarcasm, straightforwardness and arrogance. But he is now beginning to sound like a character in a pulp novel. As Raymond Chandler said, "the cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter."