I can’t think about the horrific images of people in Afghanistan clinging to the wheels of U.S. military airplanes without thinking of the coverage of the Iraq war on April 9, 2003. It was the day an iconic statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down, images of which were broadcast across the globe and shaped the world’s early view of what would become one of the longest wars in American history.
I had been a full-time professional journalist for a little more than five years, working on the business desk for The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News and becoming the editor in 2003. I was also writing a monthly column on race and covering the area’s real estate market and manufacturing industry. I didn’t do much with politics or foreign policy. But the images out of Iraq were nearly impossible to turn away from and led many—if not most—to believe our troops had been greeted as liberators just as the Bush administration foretold.
There, in the middle of Baghdad, “ordinary Iraqis” and “citizens with sledgehammers,” as newscasters told us, were basking in the demise of Hussein. They smiled as though freedom was finally theirs for the taking. Their arms were raised high, as though in a Black church shouting hallelujah, joy dripping from their pores like sweat. The clapping. The dancing. The crowd rushing to jump on the statue. They celebrated with the U.S. soldiers who had helped bring the statue down with heavy chains attached to a military vehicle. It took about two hours, almost all of it broadcast live on multiple networks, until the brass statue buckled.
“I hope they’re watching this all over the Arab [world],” a newscaster on Fox News chimed in.
It was only three weeks into the invasion. Hussein would soon be captured and hung, a long-time cruel dictator getting his comeuppance and 25 million Iraqis getting a new lease on life. President George W. Bush would later slip on a flight suit and triumphantly help fly a fighter jet to an aircraft carrier declaring “Mission Accomplished.”
It was heady stuff, though most of it manufactured and out-of-context. As ProPublica would later note, the crowd of maybe a couple of hundred people—many of whom were photojournalists and U.S. soldiers—paled in comparison to what was going on away from the square: looting and the beginning of a long and brutal war.
I think back to that day, and the many months of reporting before it, about how the media confidently got that period so very awfully wrong.
I vowed to never forget that lesson.
Much of the coverage over the weekend has been as emotionally wrought as it was in 2003. It’s gut-wrenching to think about what women and girls now face. Those stories must be told, as should the stories of multitudes of refugees. We must hear from soldiers who fought in that region, if they agree with Biden’s decision or lament it. Foreign policy experts, presidential historians and others should be enlisted to help our audiences make sense of it all. We seem to have those bases covered well.
I can’t help but wonder if there are questions going unanswered, though.
The relative calm in Afghanistan over the past several months: Was that a result of the Taliban biding its time until the U.S. left? Or a result of what the U.S. had put in place over the past two decades? If it was a wait-it-out scheme, what would have happened had the Biden administration instead announced it was not going to pull troops from the country in the foreseeable future, if at all? Would that have convinced the Taliban to go on the offensive sooner and return the war to some of its darkest, bloodiest days? Had that happened, would more U.S. troops had been sent to the region, as was the case during the Obama administration? What would have been the reaction of the U.S. public? The international community?
It’s a reminder that we must never stop asking questions even when things seem clear.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, we did not ask enough questions because we either lacked the will, the vision, or were too caught up in the immediacy of emotional images like the Twin Towers falling to the ground. Before invading Iraq, we found it exceedingly easy to listen to those who believed it was the right thing even as we did a horrifically awful job listening to those who screamed it would lead to disaster.
Which are the quiet voices that need amplification to provide perspectives that are missing from our coverage today?
Our coverage can’t be grounded on analysis about which political party stands to benefit or who is most to blame. This war unfolded under four U.S. presidents—two Democrats and two Republicans—and cost an estimated $2 trillion. It was initially widely supported by the American public and media, meaning we all played a role.
Thousands of decisions led to the results that began unfolding this past weekend. What lessons should we learn from them to help guide us in the coming years? Why didn’t we do a better job in 2003 to help our audiences understand that the decision to enter Iraq was always going to affect what was happening in Afghanistan?
Had we done a better job two decades ago asking questions and looking beyond our kneejerk responses to powerful images, would Afghanistan have become the nation’s longest war ever?
Issac Bailey, a 2014 Nieman Fellow, is a journalist, race relations seminar creator and facilitator, and the author of “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland” (Other Press, October 2020). He is also the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press, 2018). He has contributed to Politico, CNN.com, Time, and The Washington Post. He is a former columnist and senior writer for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and he was a 2011 recipient of a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for stories about a child protection case. The state subsequently revamped the way it handles such cases.