USA Today‘s military beat reporter Jim Michaels has a tremendously important op-ed in yesterday’s newspaper. Michaels explains how, at a crucial juncture in the Iraq war, in 2006, the Big Media consistently misinformed policymakers and the American public about what was really happening in Iraq.
Michaels charitably attributes this media misinformation campaign to the “fog of war.” A more candid explanation, however, must acknowledge that the Big Media is mostly anti-war, journalistically lazy and unimaginative, and all too willing to participate in the construction of a defeatist narrative that plays into the hands of America’s enemies.
In short, legacy media outlets should not get a pass for their misleading reporting. Instead, they should be held accountable for their journalistic misdeeds and their work discounted accordingly.
A big part of the problem for reporters is that Iraq and Afghanistan are unconventional conflicts and specifically counterinsurgencies. Consequently, the traditional yardsticks by which we measure military progress — success or failure in traditional set-piece battles — simply do not apply.
Rather, Michaels explains, counterinsurgencies are typically “won and lost in the hearts and minds of civilians,” which are harder to see:
Bombings and casualties should not be ignored, of course. Violence is part of war, but context is crucial. If we applied today’s standards to conventional war, the headline after D-Day would have read: “10,000 Allies Killed or Wounded in Record Violence.”
In fact, while the Big Media were highlighting the continued violence in Iraq, American Soldiers and Marines were building effective working relationships with tribal sheiks in Ramadi and Anbar province.
“It was a remarkable story,” Michaels notes:
By the fall of 2006, a gutsy and eccentric tribal leader had teamed up with [then-Army Colonel Sean] MacFarland, [commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division], who was willing to take a chance on a sheik with a checkered background.
One by one, other sheiks joined his alliance. Intelligence began flooding into the U.S. military, allowing the targeting of al-Qaeda leaders. Many of the tribes had been allied with al-Qaeda and knew its secrets.
“How did we miss it?” Michaels asks. “For all the hype of today’s 24/7 instantaneous news,” he observes, “the media were consistently about six months behind important developments on the ground in Iraq. Newspaper readers in 1876 got more timely information about the Battle of the Little Big Horn.”
This helps to explain the vast gulf in perceptions about Iraq that existed between American Soldiers and Marines on the ground there and policymakers and the public back home. Soldiers and Marines on the ground mostly believed in the American mission in Iraq and were convinced, by and large, that we were winning. Policymakers and the public, by contrast, were convinced that Iraq was a hopeless cause.
Indeed, as Lt. Col. Jim Lechner told Michaels: “We knew, at least in Ramadi, we were going to win.” (Lechner was MacFarland’s deputy.)
Ramadi, MacFarland said in Jan. 2007, had “passed a turning point,” though few had recognized it. “Soon everyone will,” he added.
As Michaels himself acknowledges, the legacy media’s manifest failures of reporting in Iraq have important implications for Afghanistan. Then, as now, the situation “looks bleak.”
Violence is increasing, insurgents are running rampant in parts of the country, and the central government is shaky. More U.S. troops are flooding into the country in a last-ditch effort to take initiative from the enemy. It looks a lot like Iraq in 2006, a time when politicians were predicting doom.
Knowing how Iraq shifted — quickly — we must ask this question about Afghanistan: Are we failing to report on developments that could turn the tide of this conflict, too?
That’s exactly the right question to ask, and the answer, I believe, is a resounding yes. The media most certainly is missing signs of significant progress in Afghanistan.
The new Commander of U.S. Central Command, General James N. Mattis, for instance, said this after returning from a May 2010 trip to Afghanistan:
The hardest thing for me to convey is that progress and violence can co-exist…. “How can there be progress?” we say. “Look at these IED attacks.” The fact is there is progress.
The Pakistani army has made strides in eliminating safe havens used by the Pakistani and Afghani Taliban, [Mattis] said, and there’s been a falling out between the two groups…
Schools are another sign of progress. Girls who were prohibited from education under the Taliban are now going to class.
“This enemy does recognize the danger of education to young people, and what it could do to their message,” he said…
The American people should not lose faith now, he said.
“The only way we can lose this war is if we lose it in Paris and Brussels, in Berlin and Washington, if we lose it in the bars in Boston and the living rooms of Illinois. That’s where we would lose it.
“Because our message is stronger, our troops are plenty skillful, and the ferocity and ethical approach to fighting that our troops represent is what eventually turns a skeptical population against the enemy and over to our side.”
In short, I wouldn’t bet against our Soldiers and Marines because they’re that damn good. But I would discount reporting by the legacy media because they’re that badly biased and inept.