National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At war: Commentary
Issue Date:  April 11, 2003

Reports of 120 Iraqi tanks turned out to be three.  The U.S. general explained the confusion as 'a classic example of the fog of was.'

Eye on the Media

Pause and reflect

False reports from Iraq undermine confidence in government and media


If the first war week was one of shock, awe, and a bad day, the last few days have forced both the military and the nation to -- borrowing two words from the headlines in The New York Times -- pause and reflect.

March 27, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of the Army forces in the Persian Gulf, told Times reporter Jim Dwyer, “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces. We knew they were here, but we did not know how they could fight.” Then he added the phrase that sent the willies through the media and the administration: “We’ve got to take this pause.”

He was acknowledging what others had felt for days: The stretched-out supply lines, the unexpected sand storms, the refusal of the citizens of Basra (which we had decided for a while to bypass) and Baghdad to welcome their would-be liberators with open arms, the Iraqi shift to guerrilla tactics, the slowness in setting up a second front in the North, and the rising toll of civilian dead in Baghdad where two missiles had smashed into marketplaces -- all suggested that perhaps the Pentagon had made some mistakes.

A string of false reports during the week undermined public confidence in both the media and the government. At the same time, with 750 reporters embedded in the American and British forces, satellite technology that puts a live battle on TV screens all over the world, and instant analysis from a gaggle of retired generals ensconced in front of wall maps in network studios in New York, Washington and London, this is the most reported -- if not the most understood -- war in history.

But, as the Manchester Guardian (March 29) made its list, some reports didn’t hold up.

  • An embedded CNN reporter said Saddam had sent out his tanks from Baghdad to attack “coalition” forces for a pivotal battle of the war. It didn’t happen.
  • The fall of Umm Qsar was reported six days before it fell.
  • The Jerusalem Post, one of whose board members is Richard Perle, an architect of the Iraq war, reported that troops had found a chemical weapons factory. The Fox network spread the story. Within 24 hours the story evaporated.
  • When the pictures of dead American and British prisoners appeared on Arab and American TV, the pro-war press said some of the dead had been executed. Tony Blair, during a Camp David news conference, said they were victims of “an act of cruelty beyond all human comprehension.”
    But quickly Downing Street backed down. A victim’s sister emphatically denied he had been executed; he had died instantly in the ambush.
  • Basra, reports said, had risen up in revolt. As of March 29, it was still in Iraqi hands. TV news reports a fierce battle between British artillery and jets and a convoy of 120 Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers pouring out of the city. The 120 tanks turned out to be three. The U.S. general explained the confusion as “a classic example of the fog of war.”

The administration response, as usual, has been to equip Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with his bulletproof vest, headgear, ear plugs and boxing gloves and embed him in the Sunday morning TV news shows -- on ABC’s “This Week” and on Fox, and with surrogates Gen. Richard Myers and Sen. John McCain on NBC’s “Meet the Press” -- to assure us that everything was going according to plan.

Though they had a plan that was working, they had no timetable, and, though Vice President Dick Cheney had predicted the war would take weeks rather than months and that the “streets of Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy,” neither Rumsfeld nor the generals would speculate March 30 on how long the war would last.

Rumsfeld’s theme in several interviews has been that the Iraqis are prevailing only because they play dirty. Again and again he called Iraqis “terrorists,” although the definition of terror is a random attack on innocent civilians to provoke fear, and he has juiced up his arguments with atrocity stories: Iraqi militia cut out the tongue of an opposition member and let him bleed to death on a Baghdad street; when an Iraqi commander hesitated to fight, “his head was chopped off and paraded around the city on a pole.”

The New York Daily News reported that Iraqis were forced to fight lest their children be killed.

Its tabloid rival, the New York Post, went them one better with a Page One headline: “Saddam’s Evil Order to Kids: Fight or Your Parents Die. HOW LOW CAN IRAQ SINK?”

According to one report, foreign infiltrators were caught crossing the Mexican border and were headed for President Bush’s Texas ranch. Their obvious intent: assassinate our president!

In his 1943 essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” George Orwell says there are two things to remember about atrocity stories. First, “atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on the grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves those of his own side.” Second, “The truth is that they happen.”

But we should examine them all. In the March 30 Times, in a story on the distance between expectations and what really happens, Jim Dwyer observes that “American military officials have suggested that the resistance can be explained by saying that many Iraqis have been coerced into their roles by loyalists of the Hussein government; so far, there has been little independent corroboration of this analysis.”

Rumsfeld rightly depicts “decapitation” as a horrid act. Yet his people re-coined the word decapitation as “good,” when it applied to cutting off the heads of Saddam and his officers in our first week assassination try.

The border-jumping assassins arrested on the way to Bush’s ranch have been caught. But would their killing our president be a violation of U.S. or international law? Bush signed the order to assassinate Saddam. Does not a standard (Emmanuel Kant) moral principle demand that a law for one must be applicable to all? How could we complain?

Finally we must consider what the morality of this war is doing to the moral sensibilities of our troops. If we claim the high ground we must hold it by not excusing behavior by our men that we would foam at the mouth over if the enemy behaved the same way.

In a beautiful Page One juxtaposition of two stories, The New York Times March 29 interviewed two young men on how they felt about killing. In one, by Dexter Filkins, a sergeant says, “We had a great day. We killed a lot of people. … We dropped a few civilians, but what do you do?” When our soldier saw one Iraqi soldier surrounded by 25 women and children, he didn’t shoot. When he saw an Iraqi soldier with two or three civilians, he and his men opened fire. A nearby woman went down. “I’m sorry,” he says. “But the chick was in the way.”

In the other story, by Steven Lee Myers, a sergeant agonizes over the same kind of situation: “I have my wife and kids to go back to. I don’t want them to think I’m a killer.” Like General Wallace, he said, “I expected a lot more people to surrender.” They did not. So he had to fire his weapons as Iraqis attacked headlong into the cutting fire of the tanks. “I’m a Christian man,” he said. “If I have to kill the other guy, I will, but it doesn’t make me a hero.”

The brigade’s chief chaplain, a Mennonite, says, “We’re in the thousands now that were killed in the last few days. Nothing prepares you to kill another human being, to cut someone in two. . . . It bothers them to take
a life, especially that close. They want to talk to me so that they know that I know they are not awful human beings.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit Community professor of the Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 2003

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