Reality Discredits the Chickenhawks

It looks as if it’s going to be a real war, not a video game, a TV "reality" show or a cakewalk. The apparent setbacks to the American battle plans over the weekend might well turn out to be less strategically significant than some would make them out to be. But they have demonstrated, as all too many Americans seem to have forgotten, that war is about real people firing real weapons and killing real people on both sides.

Even if the weekend’s unfortunate events turn out to be mere bumps on the road to ultimate victory, however, they should be enough to create severe credibility problems for the most enthusiastic of the this-will-be-a-cakewalk war whoopers. This should be especially true of the armchair generals and soundbite soldiers who speak so casually of the necessity of combat when they themselves have never seen it.


Whatever you might think about whether this war was justified or desirable, it is a good idea not to be too eager to draw conclusions too quickly from what we have seen so far. The apparent setbacks to the American effort do not necessarily mean American troops will not succeed. In fact it is probably still the safest bet that the U.S.-led coalition will win the military aspect of the campaign.

To some extent the temptation to reach conclusions before they are genuinely warranted can be laid at the feet of the media. On balance it is probably helpful to the cause of more widespread knowledge (and perhaps inevitable given the development of communications technology with which news people could have wandered in the vicinity anyway) to have had various media "embedded" in U.S. and British military units. But the very immediacy of their reports can sometimes create inaccurate impressions that obscure the overall context of a campaign. (Not to mention how annoying it can be to be reminded breathlessly by some wet-behind-the-ears tyro that this or that camera angle in "unprecedented in the history of war reporting" or the most remarkably exciting thing since your first orgasm.)

The general course of wisdom for viewers and observers, which journalists usually learn through hard experience, though some never do quite learn it, should be reinforced. Whatever the story, the first impression, the first image, the first version is almost always at the very least incomplete and more often than not inaccurate or misleading. So the breathless reporting on this war should be taken with at least a few reservations. The all-news networks in particular sacrifice context for immediacy.


From my perspective, the best war coverage available has come from MSNBC, a judgment echoed by one of my constant callers and occasional sources, a retired law enforcement professional with extensive military and counterintelligence experience who favors the war. CNN does reasonably well, although its version of being objective sometimes leads it to bend over backwards to make the Iraqis seem reasonable or credible (An example would be Christiane Amanpour’s instant analysis of Saddam Hussein’s – or whoever’s – Sunday speech, which discussed the idea of it being pretaped hardly at all and reached a bit to make general references to current events look more specific than they actually were.)

The worst coverage by far comes from Fox, which has been so breathlessly pro-Pentagon that it should be on the payroll. Its retired military "experts" are more vapid and dismissive of complications than those on the other networks, and while some of the anchors are fairly decent, others – Rita Cosby and Bridget Quinn intrude unpleasantly into the consciousness – combine cheerleading with shallowness to a really annoying extent.

Fox also, on Saturday, did pretty much what all and sundry have legitimately criticized the Iraqi government and Iraqi television for – exposing POWs to public scorn and ridicule. Its cameras zoomed in on the faces of Iraqi prisoners, just as Iraqi TV is said to have zoomed in on U.S. prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross has criticized the practice on both sides and by all networks, pointing out that Article 13 of the Geneva Convention calls from protection of POWs from "insults and public curiosity" and promiscuous distribution of the images of POWs.

Fox does seem to have the most and the best-connected "embedded" journalists, some of them quite competent, and they are sometimes able to provide bits and pieces the others can’t. So they can be useful in forming your own mental image of the pig picture. But use with caution.

Naturally, the great American public views things differently. The overnight snap ratings I’ve seen show Fox leading comfortably, with CNN a fairly distant second and poor MSNBC bringing up the rear badly. I’ve been told that the BBC does better than any of the American networks, but I can’t vouch for that personally. I’ve heard the hour-long BBC World Service broadcasts on radio and consider them quite good, but I don’t get BBC on my cable system and so haven’t seen what they do with television.


The upshot of all this is that what seems to be the case after a weekend of reporting might not prove out in the long run. We’ve gotten an image of trouble and complications, but the Pentagon spokespeople just might be correct when they suggest these are mere glitches and the overall plan is still going well.

To be fair, few military people expected a trouble-free "cakewalk" to Baghdad, although more than a few civilian planners and talking-head "experts" did a great deal to create such unrealistic expectations. Victor Davis Hanson, the National Review Online hawk who became an expert by studying the classics and ancient Greek, did point out correctly that the legendary Gen. George Patton took two months to advance 400 miles during World War II (to be sure, against more organized and battle-hardened defenses). So it could well be that the audacious U.S. march toward Baghdad has gone reasonably well. And while any American killed is a tragedy, considering the scope of the operations the casualties have still been fairly light.

Nonetheless, some of the setbacks should case concern among the cockeyed optimists. I talked with Ivan Eland, Director of the Center for Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute in Oakland. He told me, "A key factor seems to be that instead of being welcomed as heroes and liberators, U.S. forces are being fired upon," even in the predominantly Shia cities in southern Iraq.

Again, it’s probably early to draw conclusions, but it would not do to dismiss out of hand the possibility that many Iraqis, even those discontented with Saddam Hussein’s rule, have a sense of nationalist loyalty that will lead them to oppose foreign invasion of any kind. If it is a factor and if it persists, it could complicate matters later, even after a militarily successful war.

Perhaps the "setbacks" will be salutary if they lead to more realistic expectations. The 1991 Gulf War, followed by "antiseptic" bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, may have led many Americans to believe modern technology had made war a clean, almost bloodless endeavor. The weekend’s complications should purge such illusions. One hopes they will also undermine the credibility of some of the more notoriously unrealistic prewar prognosticators who had the entire population dancing in the streets and rising up to throw out the remnants of the notorious Ba’athist regime. (Has anybody kept track of the more fatuous statements from the Perles, Ledeens, Goldbergs et. al.? I haven’t done it as systematically as I might.)

Besides being brutal and bloody, of course, wars are notoriously unpredictable. The Iraqi regime might crumble tomorrow and coalition forces might waltz into Baghdad. The safer bet, however, is to get used to the idea that this war will be tougher and more costly in human life than the optimists had predicted.

We should get some more indicators in the next few days as coalition forces run into the first organized elements of the Iraqi Revolutionary Guards. One thing is sure. While numerous commentators and journalists have made much of the scope and quality of the U.S. "psyops" operation, with all the leaflets and the cell calls to tops Iraqi military leaders and the like, it is most definitely an open question who is really winning the psychological aspects of this war.

As a human being and as an American I would like this war to be short, sweet and decisive, with an American victory at the end. And I think on balance that would be the least damaging result for the region, though it might feed the tendency toward megalomania in some circles. But I suspect it’s going to prove to be a real war, going back and forth, lasting a reasonably long time and costing us dearly in blood and treasure.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).