Thoughts on the Iraq War

by Roger White, copyright May 2003


First, my sincere congratulations to the US military for doing a first-rate job. My anticipation was for a six-week war with 10,000 casualties. The military far exceeded my expectations, and demonstrated that the lighting fast, low casualty, Gulf War of ten years ago was not a fluke.

Clearly the US military was a winner in this conflict.

Just as clearly there are three losers in this conflict.

The Winner

The US Military has done something extraordinary for a military: they prepared to fight this war, not the last one. The military was allowed to plan this war well, and their execution was, by any historical standard, flawless.

First "problem" with our troops performance is that between the Gulf War, Afghanistan and this Iraq War, they have significantly raised the bar on what the military is expected to do. They have succeeded in making war for US citizens a fairly entertaining and fairly painless process. It's still fiscally expensive, but it's not something of endless body bags and endless frustration as the Vietnam War was. (The US citizens have really not been presented with the final bill for this war yet. The expense will take a year or so to percolate through the economy.)

The second problem is much more real, and much more serious. This flawless execution will strongly tempt Bush and his successors to use this "tool" again. That temptation will strongly concern those who feel the tool might be used against them, such as Syria, Iran and North Korea, and it will also strongly concern our international friends as well. This concern will heighten with time because, now that the dust is settling, it appears that Saddam, in effect, simply "looked cross-eyed" at George W. Bush, and he paid for it with his rulership, and perhaps his life. (more about this in the loser section.)

So, the US now has demonstrated that it has a potent military as well as a potent economy. Can it now demonstrate that is has the restraint to keep from brandishing that military every time it gets frustrated? If it cannot demonstrate restraint, the consequences will be "surprising". My guess is that more threats of military action will precipitate an arms race, and the hottest competitors will be the "civilized" nations of the G8. With further threats of military invervention, they will percieve that Afghanistan and Iraq are not isolated acts, and that Iraq did not signal any sort of "closure". Instead the Iraq War seems to be revealing a new pattern of US foreign policy, and they will want to be sure that they can respond advantageously to that pattern in the future.

The Losers

The Media

The media coverage of this conflict was abysmal, and that abysmalness centered on three problems: the first was the huge mood-swings of the reporters. Their moods ranged from elation to accusal and back in roughly half-day cycles until the statue toppled in Baghdad. The second was their terrible treatment of the pundits they would parade on the screen to provide background information. The third was their choice of who they picked to present as experts.

The mood swings

An example of the mood swing problem occurred about four days into the conflict, when the US forces were about 50 miles from Baghdad and chose to hold up further advances while supplies caught up. When the media was briefed on this matter, they treated the pause as some sort of scandal.

"How could you let those soldiers go unsupplied? Was there a mistake in the planning?" was the mood of the media in the briefings that day.

It finally got so ludicrous that a military briefer asked a particularly insistent reporter, "Mr. Reporter, has the distance from Kuwait to Baghdad changed since this war has started?"

"... No." Replied the reporter.

"And you're now asking me if the US military didn't take that distance into account while we were planning for this operation? Would you, perhaps, like to rephrase your question?"

The "controlling question"

Equally frustrating to me as a viewer was when the media personality would parade out a pundit, and start the interview with the pundit with a question such as, "Mr. Pundit, as you have heard, the American forces have just crossed XYZ bridge which is a key point on the route to Baghdad. Can you tell us about why this bridge is important?"

The pundit is forced to reply something to the effect of, "Well, Ms. Anchor, it's important because it's a key bridge on the route to Baghdad."

And before the pundit can show off any real expertise, they are cut off with, "Thank you, Mr. Pundit. Now we have more breaking news from our embedded reporter."

The media personality would always start the interview by describing tightly what the pundit should talk about, and what attitude the pundit should take about the subject matter. With that much decided, why bother with the pundit? The pundit becomes a "yes man" to the anchor personality.

This works... sometimes.... if the media personality knows what he or she is talking about. But in the case of this war, they didn't. The result was the mood swings and the foolish-sounding interviews we were subjected to.

Why do the anchors follow this format? The answer is easy: Job survival. If the anchor does not sound like a credible expert day-after-day, competitive pressures will force them to be replaced with an anchor who does. This works as long as the news covers familiar ground, which it usually does.

Picking Pundits to Interview

Closely related to this controlling the interview issue is the picking of pundits interview. The pundits appear to be picked based on their pliability, and their willingness to make spectacular statements, not on their credibility or insight. Pundits act like an intelligence service for the media, and suffer the same problem that an intelligence service faces when serving a government. (covered a bit later in this essay)

What could the media have done better?

A fast moving series of battles, like this war was, is better perceived as a sports contest than a news event. Sportscasters know how to handle reporting an event with lots of motion punctuated by random highlights. Sportscasters know how to drone on through the dull parts, and they know how to work with a "historian." In particular, they aren't afraid to let the historian make some significant points about what is going on, so they aren't slaves to the "I'm telling you what we are talking about" - format that is the news anchor staple. A sports historian covers issues such as who's scoring, who's injured and what the team's records are. A war historian would cover things such as leader bios, country bios, military capabilities and events leading up to the war.

If the Iraq War had been reported as a sports contest, there would have been a lot more interesting background information presented in the lull periods, and the mood swings would have been dampened -- any sportscaster can tell you that up's and down's are part of the game.

Reporting the last war

The military may have been prepared to fight this war, but the media was surely not prepared to report it. The media, rather than the military, was the organization that looked as if it was prepared to deal with the last war. (In this case, that "last war" was the Vietnam War.)

Bush and the Intelligence Services

The last loser in this war is President Bush, his top advisors, and the US Intelligence Services. Why? Because these people were "dead sure" there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and now we find none. Not only can't we find large quantities of weapons just waiting for the right order to be rained down on humanity, we can't even find traces of any! Without weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush is transformed from a savior of humanity (from weapons of mass destruction) into a world-class bully.

The Intelligence Services are losers because they supported Bush. They gave him the "evidence" to justify this war.

What we have here is a case of "Group Think" just as severe as that afflicting John F. Kennedy and his advisors as they promoted the Bay of Pigs invasion to solve the Cuban Crisis of the early 60's. In both these scenarios, the Intelligence Services have come across as highly paid sycophants -- yes men -- who exist merely to confirm what their leader has already decided.

For all their legendary abiltiy to discover things, it appears that intelligence services are typically allowed to discover only what their leaders want to be discovered. This will appear even more so if Saddam actually survived the bombings directed at him.

Likewise, the media pundits -- the media's "Intelligence Service" -- acted equally syncophantly. They pronounced what the media anchors wanted to hear. The media pundit's subjugation to the media anchors is somewhat more understandible given the fact that they are paid by the media specifically to sound good, but the result is just as credibility shattering to all involved: the media, the anchors and the pundits.

The moral of this essay

The Iraqi War experience brings home these lessons for me:


Had Bush forced Saddam out with threats and diplomacy, I would have ranked him a great president. But... he used force, which dropped his rating, in my eyes, to average. In my mind he confirmed himself as a president with rather average capabilities and a "cowboy" mentality, rather than being a president with superb capabilities and an excellent diplomatic poker player. Now, without any weapons of mass destruction to show for this show of force, his rating has dropped again. Here is a president who is now borderline fanatic, and a thug. He's been trying to kill a head of state who, it turns out, didn't have the weapons of mass destruction he was supposed to have.

Saddam may have been a brutal, personality-cult dictator, but he was no more serious a threat to world peace than Castro or Khadaffi. Without weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it appears he has been sent into oblivion only because he "looked cross-eyed" at Bush at the wrong moment in history.

That does not speak well for Bush's judgement, the nation's intelligence services' competance, or for our nation's judgement. Worst of all, the guilt-mongers are going to have a field day with this one for decades.