Tags: Iraq, popular culture
In the Tuesday May 26th edition of the Wall Street Journal Iraq was mentioned only once. Precisely fifty-eight words on page A13. Below the fold. Only five dozen words and a few inches of column space that day on Trade Minister Falah al-Sudani’s resignation amidst allegations of corruption. On the Journal’s front page, news of Pyongyang’s pomposity, an article on “The Culture of Bling” (lamenting that hard times have hobbled Hip-Hop artists’ ability to buy diamonds and gold), and a center-page expose on our own crack-down on corporate bribes, corruption and scandal. This front page layout confirmed what I already knew: the North Koreans are unpredictable, “The Culture of Bling” is ridiculous, and corruption in government is not limited to Baghdad. And just fifty-eight words on Iraq.
All of this struck me as interesting (and sad and shameful) because there is actually a wealth of good news to report from Iraq these days and the American public isn’t hearing these stories. Instead of “good news from the front”, the stories that received the ink and press real estate that day in the Journal (and every other paper of record for that matter) were features on American Idol, drug abuse in baseball, and another plunge on Wall Street.
These days, fifty-eight words on a corrupt Iraqi Trade Minister. Just 18 months ago, 5800 words on civil war, death, chaos, ethno-sectarian violence and the aimless Iraq war that would have no chance for victory. Pundits would daily pound soft fists on keyboards in passionate defense of why America would lose in Iraq. And at times they were right. We did enter the war with bad intelligence. The Bush Administration did choose to focus on WMD. The Pentagon did not predict the effects of a post-invasion peace, a disbanded army, home-grown violence or Al Qaeda infiltration. The State Department did not have the answer to the challenges of Kirkuk, the rough tides of ancient tribal politics, or introducing democracy to the non-secular Islamic masses. And the Bush Administration never seemed to deliver a clear message to the American public. Things were bad. They often are in war. But things got better…and the stories stopped.
What happened in Iraq since 2005 and why is no one writing about it?
What happened was a lot of things all at once. Al Qaeda over-played their hand, destroyed the Askariya Shrine, revealed a truly corrupt and bankrupt ethos, and alienated Sunni sympathizers; Sunni and Shiite battled each other in the streets of Baghdad, tired, and sought détente; SOCOM relentlessly pursued high value collaborators and enemy leadership; the Sons of Iraq patrolled their neighborhoods and pushed AQI to the seams, Marines and Soldiers walked the earth during the Surge; security tightened; violence dropped by 80%; the Iraqi army grew and was trained; local governments moved forward; the population eased; 300 new businesses started in the first half of 2008 alone; schools re-opened; oil revenue grew; refugees moved home and literally scores of other pivotal factors and turning points of personality, social condition, money-politics, tribal diplomacy, a lot of time, a little luck, and a inestimable degree of hard work and sacrifice by thousands upon thousands of U.S. servicemen and women, happened.
As for why no one is writing about Iraq these days, I see two reasons: 1.) Journalists aren’t historians and 2.) Integrity is lost in the main stream media.
To start, journalists are professionals trained in the art of capturing a single moment. They lack the historian’s eye trained to capture and make sense of a series of moments. Where the pundits, politicians and journalists have always found the chaos of war anomalous, historians have always understood it as the way of things. Historians understand that beneath the fabric of that chaos are the factors and conditions that will determine outcome, or in some cases, have determined outcome.
Historians will write their judgments of Iraq once they gain the perspective they require to complete their complex calculus. Journalists don’t have that kind of time. The Iraq story is less-violent, less-messy, and less-provocative than it was last year. It’s altogether less-interesting. And so they turn to more marketable stories of American Idol pageantry, Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring, and greedy Wall Street tycoons drying off from their morning shower with piles of your 401k money.
And while this is all very frustrating, I get it. Totally understandable. Cash, violence, and live entertainment…what can I say, I’m a Marine, it sounds like a good night of liberty. But then there’s this lack of integrity thing, which is a little harder to stomach.
If journalism was in fact a business first, it would make sense to me that they write whatever it takes to sell papers (about things like drugs, violence and bankers showering with money, for example). But I don’t think journalism is about business first. I think journalism is about discovery first. It’s about honest and fair reporting. It’s about digging up stories, holding people accountable and other things I can’t remember.
I do remember what Bob Woodward told me when I met him back in 2003 as a Midshipman in Admiral Crowe’s National Security Studies class at Annapolis. He told me that a free press is the bedrock of any free nation and that journalists should aspire to be the watch dogs of this country. I also remember thinking he had a nicely cut grey suit, great hair and that he must have had plenty of pretty girls chase after him in his day.
But the steel-eyed and measured approach of an iconic Woodward is lost to a bumbling and soft new age. And what we have is a story in Iraq that isn’t over being lived, but finished being told. While it is true we are morally, fiscally, spiritually, politically (and really in all ways) exhausted with Iraq, there is still reporting to be done. Integrity includes “finish what you started,” “dance with the girl ya brung”, or any related measure of sound southern wisdom. Americans are still fighting this war. Still losing sons and daughters. We still have a great stake in how this story ends and deserve to hear how it unfolds.
And then I wonder if editors across the nation missed a chance to write 5800 words on the great progress in Iraq? Or if the Wall Street Journal got it right in what their fifty-eight words implied and only a few short years ago I would have never believed:
Today a member of the Government of Iraq (an internationally recognized government most said could never exist) broke the law (a law that was ratified by a democratically elected Iraqi Congress in an open election) and will be tried before his fellow citizens (with due process and the full rights of the accused) and if found guilty (in an independent Iraqi court), will be held accountable for his offense.
Now that I read it this way, fifty-eight words was just enough.