The First Casualty

[Foreword to the book So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits – and the President – Failed on Iraq by Greg Mitchell (Union Square Press, March 2008).]

In war truth is too often the first casualty, and it is not just a president or a secretary of defense or assorted official spokesmen who do the killing. Our brothers and sisters in the media also participate in the execution. Greg Mitchell has taken that as his lesson in So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits – and the President – Failed on Iraq and in so doing has done a service to future generations in our business, and I believe, for readers of the news.

Looking back to that fall of 2002 when war drums were beating loudly and the president and his closest advisers spoke with certainty – and deceit – about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and the danger he ostensibly posed to our country and our friends and allies, most in the media either swallowed it whole or timidly refused to do their jobs and question the official rationale for war.

The great gray lady, The New York Times, and the voice inside the Beltway, The Washington Post, put dozens of unquestioning reports on the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam’s quest for a nuclear weapon on their front pages. The few reports that even suggested that some experts were questioning those claims were buried deep inside, among the Viagra ads.

The Times‘ front-paged reporter Judith Miller’s breathless stories about Iraq’s quest for WMD came straight out of the mouths of a series of bogus Iraqi "defectors." After the invasion the paper of record ignored for too long the fact that Miss Miller virtually became the ex-officio commander of a U.S. task force charged with searching Iraq for proof of nuclear ambitions and possession of vast quantities of WMD.

Did the national outburst of patriotism and an epidemic of American flag decals and flag lapel pins on the expensive suits of television anchors frighten those who had long believed that their newspapers set the nation’s agenda?

How could those agenda-setters and so many others in the media abandon their first duty to challenge and question the assertions of the politicians holding high office?

To his credit Greg Mitchell was writing columns and putting out a prewar cover article in E&P that raised those and other important questions before the first American soldier ever planted a boot inside Iraq. Also doing critical reporting on the administration’s claims were a few good people working in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers – bureau chief John Walcott and reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel. (I worked there with them and made my own contributions to some of the critical stories before the war began and after.) But it would be several years before the work of these Knight Ridder reporters was acknowledged.

During the early years of the war, I made two reporting trips to Iraq, in the fall of 2003 and again in 2005-2006. The soldiers and Marines I lived with and went on operations and convoys with were the same type of fine young Americans I wrote about in earlier wars. In fact, many of their commanders, from colonels to four-star generals, were officers I had marched or ridden with when they were captains and majors in an earlierwar. All were doing their best with a bad hand dealt them by their civilian overlords – too few troops to do the job assigned, struggling against faulty decisions by people like Ambassador L. Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority that only fueled the insurgency, and laboring under the micro-management of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld whose ears were closed against any advice contrary to his thinking.

I was an early and harsh critic of the administration’s conduct of the war. In the interest of full disclosure, because I had worked in 2001-2002 as a special consultant to Gen. Colin Powell, then secretary of state, I had sources very close to the debates and infighting over the conduct of the war at the highest levels. It was clear that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld were riding roughshod over anyone who urged caution and careful thought. By 2005 I was writing columns suggesting that Rumsfeld and his deputies Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith be fired for their mistakes, along with the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Air Force Gen. Richard Meyer. None of this endeared me to either the White House or the Pentagon bosses.

Not until the 2007 perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s hatchet man, would the overly cozy relationship too many Washington pundits and reporters maintained with the likes of Libby and George W. Bush’s spinmeister Karl Rove be exposed to the open air.

Those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War, and to carry visible and invisible scars from our work there, felt uneasy about Iraq and the stated reasons for preemptively invading that country. Those feelings only grew stronger in the months after March and April of 2003 when the president and his men were doing premature victory laps around the press rooms at the White House and the Pentagon.

Mitchell lays it all out in this book. Read it and weep. If you are a consumer of the news, I urge that you reserve judgment when reading reports quoting the calculated rhetoric of government officials.And, if you are a reporter, take a solemn vow to not believe everything you hear, and barely half of what you see.

Author: Joe Galloway

Joe Galloway is a senior military correspondent and the author of several books, including the national bestseller We Were Soldiers Once... and Young. He can be reached at