Friday, September 17, 2004


Are We Losing The War In Iraq?

Editor's note: the following essays were inspired by recent news concerning Iraq, especially these stories:

Suicide Car Bomb in Baghdad; U.S. Pounds Falluja

U.S. Intelligence Offers Gloomy Outlook for Iraq

Kerry Says Bush Hiding Mobilization Plan

Are we losing the war in Iraq?


At least that's my opinion, based not only on the news I read, but also an appreciation that the news I read is frequently inadequate at capturing details relevant to a proper understanding of events on the ground.

That said, a more applicable question is: Am I Worried?

Yes. Or, at least I'm beginning to be.

Now, if you're looking for complaints about how the Bush Administration handled the campaign against Saddam, or the occupation in the months after Baghdad fell, look elsewhere. I am probably one of the few people in Washington to think that we handled the occupation just about right, and about as good as could be expected given the circumstances. I'm willing to defend that position if anyone wants to hear a defense, but that's not what I'm writing about here.

The violence to date has not surprised me, not in the least. It's war, a war in a nation with not only a proud people, but an ignorant one. Ignorant, in the sense that their ability to rationally process information has been stunted not only via decades of false propaganda, but also the cultural influence of tribalism.

Proponents of democratization speak often about the need for a free press. Many highlight the ability of a free press to "hold leaders accountable." The press, in effect, acts as an unwritten element in the governing constitiution, serving as an unofficial check and balance on the power of the state.

However, successful exercise of this ability requires a knowledgeable and responsible press, and like most democratic institutions, this ability is not obtained overnight.

No, one of the (many) things Iraq needs now is a free Arab press whose primary responsibility is to the timely and accurate provision of information to the Iraqi people.

Take thirty years of totalitarian rule, with total control over the news/propaganda delivered to the people. Combine that with a conceptually illiterate population: they can read, but they possess little ability to perceive events of which they know nothing about (for example-- explaining the abundance of shopping malls to a Soviet citizen in 1976). Finally, mix in the tribal element, where a citizen is likelier to rely on their family and neighbors (often one and the same) for not only their "facts," but also their opinions about those facts. The "If Uncle Ahmed said so, it must be true" effect.

Leaving the situation in Iraq for a moment, let us consider the American press, and their coverage of military matters in Iraq.

Most correspondents know little about Iraq. They know little about warfare. They are placed into a situation where they must learn as they go. However, the poor security situation in the cities often means that they don't report far from the secure areas, and even when they leave "The Green Zone" they rely on the first people they meet-- usually at the scene, where something bad may have just happened.

Ask an Iraqi what they think of the Americans in the comfort of their home watching satellite television, and you're likely to get a very different answer than if you ask that same person on the street caught up in an angry crowd after a mortar attack. Human nature, folks.

So, combine a populace that is commonly unable to intellectually understand what is happening in their country with an international media unable to ask the right questions, and the resulting output is fairly useless in helping an American public 10,000 miles away understand what the situation on the ground really is.

That is why I often ignore bad news from Iraq, because most of it is gloomy bunk. People dying? Soldiers fighting? Well, yeah-- it's called war.

If you can forgive me a sports analogy, with a few exceptions, most reporting has simply kept score like at a basketball game. Problem is, no one can see the clock-- some assume it's the fourth period, others only the middle of the second. Even worse, the reporters track only the scoring as newsworthy-- U.S.A.'s up by five right now, we're winning. Oooh, the Insurgents scored a point, the U.S.A. is losing momentum.

If you obsess about all of this, you will be unable to appreciate the larger aspects of the game, the actual performances of each team, and most important of all-- the execution of the strategy that ultimately brings victory at the end of the game. And just like basketball, warfare is all about those last five minutes of the game-- but obviously, you have to compete for three and a half quarters to get to those last minutes in a position of winning.

And, most importantly, "scoring" involves killing-- which means broken bodies, broken homes, and broken hearts.

So, again, are we losing? No, I do not think so.

Are we winning? That's where I become concerned-- see my next post for more.

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