5 Years Ago: Press Saw Hints of Iraq Slog to Come

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By: Greg Mitchell

Coming when it did, the photograph seemed like a cruel joke, or a Photoshop prank, just as nearly everyone in America (except perhaps a few Fox News commentators) was awakening to the bone-chilling reality of a quick war that was threatening to turn into a longer slog. And there, splashed across a spread in The New York Times, five years ago this week, during the second week of the invasion of Iraq, was a picture of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld bending over to shake the hand of an equally buoyant Robert S. McNamara.

Unfortunately, it did not look like McNamara was whispering, ?What part of the word Vietnam don?t you understand??

It was a Pentagon luncheon for former defense secretaries hosted by Rumsfeld to discuss the war in Iraq, which seemed to be undergoing more ?Vietnamization? by the hour. We had seen it all before: the apparently false claims that we had won the ?hearts and minds? of the people; the charges that the enemy was not fighting fair; and a rising toll of dead, wounded, or missing military personnel?and journalists. And that was even before a postwar occupation.

I wrote much of the above, and what follows below, here at E&P at the end of March 2003. A month later, after Saddam fell but as the insurgency began in Iraq — and it started to look like we might, indeed, be there for awhile — I may have been the first writer to predict that this would turn into a “quagmire.” I was roundly ridiculed for that. Flash forward to earlier this month. In an article marking the fifth anniversary of the war, famed correspondent John F. Burns in The New York Times dryly referred to the “Iraq quagmire” — as a fact, not an assertion.

Here is the remainder of my March 31, 2003, piece. It also appears in my new book, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.”
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Of course, it is absurd to compare a war of less than two weeks with one that lasted decades. But still, many hear echoes, faint or strong, of Vietnam. Only a few days have passed since CNN?s Walter Rodgers, in Iraq in the early moments of the war, told anchor Aaron Brown, ?It?s great fun,? but that seems like a year ago now.

With the conflict under way?and getting nastier?we thought we?d check back with some well-known reporters we had visited during the long run-up to war.

As with Vietnam, too many in the press follow the Pentagon line, says Joseph L. Galloway, the Bronze Star winner and author who is now military-affairs correspondent for Knight Ridder. ?One thing not lacking,? he adds, dryly, ?is optimism for the game plan, but if it hasn?t been cleared with the enemy, it tends not to work.? He called the press briefings ?bullshit.?

Tom Wicker, columnist for The New York Times from 1966 to 1991, tells us that he wonders why more didn?t question earlier Rumsfeld?s plan for a lighter and quicker force in Iraq when many generals were predicting the war would have to be won with more boots on the ground. ?Journalists,? he says, ?share the common perception that technology will triumph.?

Even so, Sydney H. Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Cambodia, cautions against embracing the Vietnam analogy too tightly. But like Galloway, he feels the press briefings are useless (?editors should send robots with tape recorders?), but reporters should stop ?grumbling? about them, because ?generals are doing what they do, and what you would do in their position.?

While the embedding process offers reporters only a slice of the war, not the whole of it, at least ?we know very quickly the misjudgments at the top, so we?re way ahead of Vietnam in that,? Schanberg said.

But John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper?s Magazine and author of an important book about media coverage of the first Gulf War, warns that if the war goes on for months, you ?could see a breakdown in the discipline of the Pentagon?s control of coverage. The soldiers may start to become paranoid about the reporters, and the reporters angry they?re getting lied to by officers. Maybe more embedded reporters will be emboldened to report what they see, and then there might be reprisals from the military, revoking privileges.?

Another troubling reminder of past conflicts is the relative little attention on civilian casualties. ?We pay more attention to American deaths,? says Anthony Marro, editor of Newsday in Melville, N.Y., whose paper publishes few photos of dead bodies, even fewer if they are Iraqi. ?It is easier to report on people we know, we put more faces on the Americans, we know who they are.?

Geneva Overholser, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, says that strong civilian coverage had been lacking at newspapers. ?I wish they were showing us more of that reality of war,? she adds. ?We have more than 600 reporters embedded, and we have better access, but we are not seeing much in the way of civilian casualties.?

The Boston Globe received complaints after playing up a photo of an Iraqi civilian killed by a stray bullet. Paula Nelson, Globe deputy director of photography in charge of Page One, reveals that the photo department debated using the image. ?You got a lot from that photo,? she explains. ?It showed a casualty, but it also showed the urban fighting involved. It was the first dead body we printed.? Nelson says the paper has declined to run other photos of the dead if they showed identifiable faces.

At least 60 readers wrote or called USA Today with complaints after it ran a picture of dead Iraqi soldiers on its front page March 28. Several asked why the paper did not replace it with an inside photo of a U.S. soldier walking with several smiling Iraqi children.

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