Saturday, October 01, 2005

Iraq's Bright, Shining Liars

Even today when Washington admits to the great discrepancy between its prolonged optimism and the obviously serious existing situation, it talks in the most superficial terms about increases in terrorism and post-coup command changes, rather than facing squarely the substantive factors which, step by step, determine the pattern and rythm of defeat.
          —From The Making of a Quagmire, by David Halberstam (1965)

“That’s when it hit me,” Specialist Firth, 29, said the next day. “To feel the weight of one of your comrades, to lift the dead body of a fellow American, you can never prepare yourself for that.” For a moment, he fell silent. “It wakes you up to reality, you know?” he said as tears welled up in his eyes. “There are people dying here.”
          —From a Juliet Macur report in today’s New York Times.

So back in August Rosemary Goudreau, the Alka Seltzer-tempered editorial page editor at the Tampa Tribune, is tizzing over this e-mail she’s received over and over for the last couple of years, as have so many of us in the trade: “Did you know that 47 countries have reestablished their embassies in Iraq? Did you know that 3,100 schools have been renovated?” Did you know that 22 million Iraqis woke up this morning? And so on. You know the sort. Anonymous. Panglossian. Impossible to verify. Most of all, irrelevant: Who gives a shit if fifty thousand schools have been renovated if the neighborhoods around them are still getting cluster-bombed à-la-Anbar Province, if their teachers are getting executed and their students getting kidnapped, raped, mowed down or enrolled in the early-draft plans of one of a few dozen militias running the country’s after-school programs, if cities like Ramadi, Samarra, Tal Aafar, Mosul and Fallujah and the near-totality of western Iraq are as good as no-go zones for American patrols and their Iraqi shadows? Not to risk feeding into the perception that the media only report the bad news — and splendidly pandering to the perception that most of our media generals are pandering fools — Ms. Goudreau shoots off the email to Mike Silverman, managing editor at the Associated Press, to see if maybe, well, the AP’s reporters “in country” could do something about these wonderful happenings in the best of all possible Iraqs the anonymous emails are referring to. (The emails are not anonymous of course but collated shards of Pentagon propaganda a year and two year out of date, from the same administration that buys and packages fake news with our tax dollars but that’s another story.) Silverman’s quote to the New York Times in the Aug. 15 story that reported this little exchange: “We’re there to report the good and the bad and we try to give due weight to everything going on… It is unfortunate that the explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries on some days seem to dominate the news.” I’m sure the fatalities think it’s unfortunate they dominate the news too, when there should be at least equal time given over to the infinitely important daily news that while, say, fifty-five Iraqis and maybe six GIs got clobbered, twenty-two million Iraqis and one hundred thirty-nine thousand other GIs did not. Time and space should be given over to the fact that the sun rose on a hundred muezzins in Baghdad yesterday too, and if the sun set on only ninety-nine of them, well, that’s ninety-nine better than the “negative” media have been willing to report. A suicide bomber takes out half a police station and orphans a dozen families? Report those traffic jams all over Baghdad, a sea of cars shimmering in the normalcy of unregulated exhaust fumes. It is, it really is unfortunate that the explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries on some days seem to dominate the news. A few more pictures of smiling Iraqi children on their way to school, thumbs up, would only be fair to the photo editors who can use a live shot of the next day’s morgue gallery.

The AP has never been off the optimism bandwagon though. Its reporters, like those from every news organization covering the Pentagon’s Five O’Clock Follies in Baghdad and Washington, are always ready to fill inches with the face-value fantasies of starry-eyed briefings. A few weeks before Goudreau’s fizz over those mass emails the AP was happy to report that “U.S. and military forces have ‘mostly eliminated’ the ability of insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity attacks in Baghdad,” according to Maj. Gen. William Webster, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad (and the latest in a revolving-door show of  commanders). “There are more threats ahead,” he said. “I do believe, however, that the ability of these insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity operations as they did last year, we’ve mostly eliminated that.” It’s July 8. On July 10, a suicide bomber kills forty people. By the end of July 58 Americans are dead. By the end of August another 85 Americans are dead. By September the insurgent attacks, the suicide bombings, the no-go zones have all multiplied. A Time cover asks, two years too later, whether any of this is winnable anymore. It ought to wake you up to reality. But editors, like little Thomas Friedmans scurrying after imaginary silver linings, want to give you the good news out of Iraq. At what point does impulsive objectivity become rank distortion? That point was reached in Iraq more than two years ago when Jessica Lynch’s blond highlights became this war’s bright, shining lie.