By: Greg Mitchell
How the press portrays the aftermath of the Battle of Fallujah may determine what happens next in Iraq. In the days ahead, therefore, the media must look carefully at both the strategic benefits and the human toll of the offensive.
While the issues are endlessly complex, they boil down to the simple, age-old question: Does the end justify the means? It will be fascinating, though possibly quite sad, to see how this plays out in the press in the coming days.
A glorious victory to some may look like Bush’s Guernica to others. In a report from the city for The New York Times, Robert F. Worth on Wednesday described Fallujah as “this post-apocalyptic wasteland” and “like a film that is set sometime on the other side of Armageddon.”
With the fight easing — though by no means finished — embedded reporters can see more of (what’s left of) the city and independent journalists are now braving the scattered gunfire. What they learn, the pictures they take and the lessons they draw, will help shape public opinion as the administration ponders “Fallujah-type solutions” for routing insurgents from Ramadi, Samarra, Mosul, and other inflamed cities.
So there are a lot of lives, Iraqi and American, riding at least in part on press reports and visuals.
There are many troubling angles to this story. For example, U.S. officials have long claimed that foreign jihadists had assembled in force in Fallujah and were helping to spearhead the revolt. Yet in today’s USA Today we learn that of more than 1,000 insurgents captured there in the past week, only about 20 are foreigners.
Because the media generally needs little prodding to examine political and military questions, let me emphasize the human dimension here.
Evidence of the physical and spiritual toll in Fallujah remains sketchy. While the apparent execution of one wounded insurgent by a U.S. Marine draws headlines, the fate of thousands of civilians is still hidden.
It is not yet known with any certainty how many civilians might have been killed in the city, how many of those who fled have become gravely ill in ramshackle refugee camps, how much of Fallujah has been wrecked, and how long it will take to get the water running, lights on, and rubble cleared. Almost forgotten is the fact that the United States dropped tons of bombs to soften up the city in the weeks before the assault — and before most of the residents escaped.
Starkly differing appraisals have already appeared. On Tuesday, Patrick J. McDonnell in the Los Angeles Times took a triumphant tack. He quoted Col. Craig Tucker crowing that “it was beyond their [the insurgents] comprehension how much combat firepower we sent down there.” Col. John Ballard said, “The story for me is how we successfully convinced the local population that they would be safer to leave the city.”
Tucker added, “In terms of civilians, it was a relatively clean battlefield.” Ballard chimed in, “I have seen no evidence of a humanitarian disaster.”
Compare this to a Monday dispatch from The Associated Press: “Dead Iraqis still lay out in the open, their stiff limbs akimbo, like department store mannequins knocked off their pedestals. At least two women were seen among the dead. … Some districts reeked from the sickening odor of rotting flesh.”
Jackie Spinner, a Washington Post embed, wrote on Tuesday: “Even the dogs have started to die.” But she also quoted Marine Brig. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik: “This is what we do. This is what we do well. … What I saw out here is a bunch of professional Marines and soldiers who were protecting the property of the Iraqi people.”
This stood in contrast to another Tuesday report from The New York Times’ Dexter Filkins, squeezed into the very bottom of page A12. It described horrific conditions in the battered city: “obliterated mosques, cratered houses and ground-up streets.” Filkins observed that “the American military faces the urgent but almost paradoxical imperative of rebuilding the city it just destroyed. … The devastation that the battle has wrought will not be easy to repair. The human and political effects of that devastation could rapidly spread far beyond Fallujah.”
Filkins also showed what Col. Tucker’s “combat firepower” actually looked like on the street: a tank firing a round at a single sniper, turning him “into rubble” as well as punching a hole in a minaret of a mosque. One insurgent remained alive in the mosque, so the military called for a pair of 500-pound bombs to be dropped from the sky, “and the mosque was no more.”
Of course, an enemy shooting from a mosque may be fair game. But leveling a mosque is not likely to win the hearts and minds of the Fallujahans who will soon see it.
Or, as Col. Michael Olivier told Robert Worth of The Times: “First we blow up your house, then we pay you to rebuild it.”
Then there are these reports:
? Amnesty International declared on Monday that the rules of war protecting civilians and wounded combatants have been broken by both sides in the assault. It also warned of a looming humanitarian crisis “with acute shortages of food, water, medicine and with no electricity. There are also many wounded people who could not receive medical care becuse of the fighting.” A spokeswoman for Amnesty told AP: “According to what we’re hearing and some testimony from residents who have fled, it looks like the toll of civilian casualties is high.”
? An Associated Press dispatch on Monday quoted Marine Sgt. Todd Bowers, who is helping determine reconstruction needs: “It’s incredible, the destruction. It’s overwhelming. My first question is: Where to begin?”
? BBC reporter Paul Wood, embedded with the Marines, also described bodies lying in the streets, which were “starting to become a serious health risk.” He had talked to a Marine officer who said that “cats and dogs are now starting to eat these bodies. It is a quite horrific picture which I’m drawing but that is what awaits the people of Fallujah when they come back.” The reporter added that he could not imagine “how people are going to feel when they see their city and they see the holes in the mosques and they see the destruction that has been wrought by this battle.”
? Anne Barnard of The Boston Globe noted that the military says it took every possible step to minimize civilian casualties, but “the methods used — air strikes and artillery and tank fire from a distance — make it difficult to know whether civilians are caught under fire.” U.S. forces had urged Fallujans trapped in the city to stay in their homes, but “troops using thermal sights often assumed that if there was a ‘hot spot’ inside a house ? indicating body heat ? the people inside were insurgents.”
? Officials with the International Red Cross decried the continuing ban on sending aid and ambulances into the combat zones. Fallujah General Hospital was well supplied but held no patients, as none of the injured had been able to reach it.
Equally disturbing: While we are starting to get a sense of the human effects of the “means,” we still have no idea of how, when, or whether, this will ever “end.”