President George H.W. Bush stopped the rush to capture Baghdad February 28, 1991, on a Kuwaiti road that earned the name “highway of death.” It was a shrewd call. The allied coalition that included nine Arab nations was fraying at the spectacle of Pentagon videotapes showing Iraqi troops being gunned down from the air like carnival targets as they tried desperately to retreat from Kuwait into Basra. Even the American public had little stomach to watch this massacre much longer.
On the ground, days later, the highway still was a gruesome tableau to those of us reporting on the war. The convoys had been pinched with textbook strategy: The front and rear vehicles were disabled, trapping the others between for the next strafing runs. Evidence of the terror that ensued was clear. Trucks crashed into jeeps, smashed cars, and overturned, trying to careen out of the killing line. Drivers fled, their doors open, meals left on seats, Kuwaiti loot piled in the rear. The blood on the sand suggested many did not make it.
There was another calculation in Bush’s decision to end the war in 1991. If the Baghdad regime were toppled, what would happen then? No one had a plan. Saddam Hussein was vile and ruthless, but anyone with knowledge of the region knew he was a cork stop to even more chaos that would be unleashed by a void in Baghdad.
The first President Bush took harsh criticism for not “getting Saddam” by those who were ignorant of the consequences of doing so. A decade later, his son took it upon himself to finish the job for his father. Amazingly, he still did not have a plan for what would happen afterwards. Sadly, we would all learn the consequences.
President George W. Bush set about creating support for his Iraq quest with now familiar moves: a cynical Big Lie linking Saddam Hussein with the September 11th attacks, fabricating evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and an Orwellian campaign equating patriotism with support for his war. A book by Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor and Publisher, revisits the success of this strategy with the media through a collection of his columns published from 2003 through 2007. The columns—compiled into a volume entitled, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq,” rail at a compliant press and a manipulative administration.
The only thing more annoying than a scold is a scold who was right and keeps telling us he was right. Mitchell undoubtedly was right in much of his parade of criticisms of the performance of the American press leading up to and into the Iraq War. He reminds us often in his columns how prescient he was and, if we miss the point there, he reminds us often again in the introductions he penned for this collection. His book can be fairly summed up by the mantra, “I told you so.”
I was left wondering at the point to this finger-wagging approach. Yes, we in the press should be collectively contrite for our lack of aggressive skepticism. Of course, we should learn from mistakes we made and, yes, the predominant narrative was shanghaied by one or more ambitious reporters and a masterful and unethical public relations campaign from the White House. Some of the shrewder editors in the country got fooled, along with a majority (at times) of the American people and the U.S. Congress.
But we already know all of this. We don’t need another recitation of the indictment. What we need—and this attempt doesn’t satisfy—is insight into how all of this happened. Reliving this period, and hearing once again about the many failings Mitchell’s columns spotlight, raises more fundamentally troubling questions not answered by the stock prescription that journalists should have been more skeptical of the war claims.
Heretical as this may seem, I’m not sure it would have mattered.
Case in point: Recall how many Americans believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11th attack. Two years later, in September 2003, nearly 70 percent of Americans believed this, according to a Washington Post poll. By 2007, the figure had only slipped to 41 percent (Newsweek poll) and to a still astounding 28 percent by March of this year (CBS/New York Times poll). Even back in 2003—and continuing through the years—reporting debunking this as a lie pushed by Dick Cheney (still) has been out there, even if it was offered up too weakly when the lie was first told. Yet for a sizeable portion of the public, none of this matters.
This divergence—between what the press reports and what the public believes—is profoundly discouraging for those of us who think of our jobs as resting on the premise that given the facts, the public will make reasonable decisions. To imply that America would not have gone into this war if only journalists had written the truth is to buy into a myth of the power of the press that I think is no longer true.
With the public relations strength and electronic bully pulpit of the presidency—bolstered by the echo chamber of the Web and the punditry of talk radio and cable TV—I’m not sure any amount of journalism critical of the conventional wisdom of the day could have outweighed a President hell-bent on whipping up war fervor in this country, especially given the fragile national psyche after September 11th.
This raises a second critical issue: the willingness of the nation as a whole—including the press, public and Congress—to be swept by emotion into a drumbeat of nationalism. When I’d return periodically to Iraq to cover the story for The Washington Post, I always felt I was entering Alice’s Wonderland. The reality I’d find there held little resemblance to the impression of Iraq at home. My newspaper featured its war coverage on Page One day after day. And Western and Iraqi journalists risked their lives to bring factual accounts to those pages. But the view I found at home was framed not by our reports—or other original reporting from Iraq— but by the Bush administration’s spin, which characterized this as a simplistic good vs. evil struggle from which no patriotic American should shirk.
My disappointment lies not so much with the journalism, but with the seizure of American minds by a kind of patriotism that demanded support for jingoism, no matter how wrong or foolhardy. Journalists should not have been infected by this. Nor should members of Congress or families who sent loved ones to war. Yet, too many were.
I saw the grip of this mentality on a personal level. While I made regular reporting trips to Iraq, my brother offered feverish flag-waving support for the war from his home in Pennsylvania. It was the kind of love-America, send-guns-to-Iraq support that Bush and Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld encouraged. My brother never once asked me what it was really like on the ground in Iraq. He did not want to know the truth about what was happening there. In preferring to hide behind blinders, he is all too typical.
In our business, too many of us did fail to dig hard enough. But the failures that let this war happen went beyond those of journalists.
Doug Struck, a 2004 Nieman Fellow, reported from Iraq nearly a dozen times between 1990 and 2006 for The (Baltimore) Sun and The Washington Post. He is a freelance writer in Boston