Frank Rich: The Peculiar Disappearance of the War in Iraq


The Peculiar Disappearance of the War in Iraq
Published: July 30, 2006

AS America fell into the quagmire of Vietnam, the comedian Milton Berle joked that the fastest way to end the war would be to put it on the last-place network, ABC, where it was certain to be canceled. Berle’s gallows humor lives on in the quagmire in Iraq. Americans want this war canceled too, and first- and last-place networks alike are more than happy to oblige.

CNN will surely remind us today that it is Day 19 of the Israel-Hezbollah war – now branded as Crisis in the Middle East – but you won’t catch anyone saying it’s Day 1,229 of the war in Iraq. On the Big Three networks’ evening newscasts, the time devoted to Iraq has fallen 60 percent between 2003 and this spring, as clocked by the television monitor, the Tyndall Report. On Thursday, Brian Williams of NBC read aloud a ‘shame on you’ e-mail complaint from the parents of two military sons anguished that his broadcast had so little news about the war.

This is happening even as the casualties in Iraq, averaging more than 100 a day, easily surpass those in Israel and Lebanon combined. When Nouri al-Maliki, the latest Iraqi prime minister, visited Washington last week to address Congress, he too got short TV shrift – a mere five sentences about the speech on ABC’s World News. The networks know a rerun when they see it. Only 22 months earlier, one of Mr. Maliki’s short-lived predecessors, Ayad Allawi, had come to town during the 2004 campaign to give a similarly empty Congressional address laced with White House-scripted talking points about the war’s progress. Propaganda stunts, unlike Law & Order episodes, don’t hold up on a second viewing.

The steady falloff in Iraq coverage isn’t happenstance. It’s a barometer of the scope of the tragedy. For reporters, the already apocalyptic security situation in Baghdad keeps getting worse, simply making the war more difficult to cover than ever. The audience has its own phobia: Iraq is a bummer. ‘It is depressing to pay attention to this war on terror,’ said Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly on July 18. ‘I mean, it’s summertime.’ Americans don’t like to lose, whatever the season. They know defeat wh’n they see it, no matter how many new plans for victory are trotted out to obscure that reality.

The specter of defeat is not the only reason Americans have switched off Iraq. The larger issue is that we don’t know what we – or, more specifically, 135,000 brave and vulnerable American troops – are fighting for. In contrast to the Israel-Hezbollah war, where the stakes for the combatants and American interests are clear, the war in Iraq has no rationale to keep it afloat on television or anywhere else. It’s a big, nightmarish story, all right, but one that lacks the thread of a coherent plot.

Certainly there has been no shortage of retrofitted explanations for the war in the three-plus years since the administration’s initial casus belli, to fend off Saddam’s mushroom clouds and vanquish Al Qaeda, proved to be frauds. We’ve been told that the war would promote democracy in the Arab world. And make the region safer for Israel. And secure the flow of cheap oil. If any of these justifications retained any credibility, they have been obliterated by Crisis in the Middle East. The new war is a grueling daily object lesson in just how much the American blunders in Iraq have undermined the one robust democracy that already existed in the region, Israel, while emboldening terrorists and strengthening the hand of Iran.

But it’s the collapse of the one remaining (and unassailable) motivation that still might justify staying the course in Iraq -as a humanitarian mission on behalf of the Iraqi people – that is most revealing of what a moral catastrophe this misadventure has been for our country. The sad truth is that the war’s architects always cared more about their own grandiose political and ideological ambitions than they did about the Iraqis, and they communicated that indifference from the start to Iraqis and Americans alike. The legacy of that attitude is that the American public cannot be rallied to the Iraqi cause today, as the war reaches its treacherous endgame.

The Bush administration constantly congratulates itself for liberating Iraq from Saddam’s genocidal regime. But regime change was never billed as a primary motivation for the war; the White House instead appealed to American fears and narcissism – we had to be saved from Saddam’s W.M.D. From ‘Shock and Awe’ on, the fate of Iraqis was an afterthought. They would greet our troops with flowers and go about their business.

Donald Rumsfeld boasted that ‘the care’ and ‘the humanity’ that went into our precision assaults on military targets would minimize any civilian deaths. Such casualties were merely ‘collateral damage,’ unworthy of quantification. ‘We don’t do body counts,’ said Gen. Tommy Franks. President Bush at last started counting those Iraqi bodies publicly – with an estimate of 30,000 – some seven months ago. (More recently, The Los Angeles Times put the figure at, conservativel

The Discussion: 3 Comments

A larger issue concerning the ethics and motivation of journalists underlies the coverage of the various wars and conflicts around the world. Regardless of whether or not there ever was an “objective” journalistic method (admittedly, a physical impossibility) what remnants of balanced journalism there ever were seem to have vanished into the continuity plans of advertising managers. The “coverage” provided is nothing more than filler between the ads for products and services to which consumers around the world are addicted.

The quest to be informed has always rested with the ones hungering for the information, not the ones doing the reporting. China is an interesting case in point. The vast majority of the population lacks an informed world view primarily because most channels for accessing this information are tightly controlled or non-existant. I would argue that Chinese consumers of information don’t even know what they are missing and therefore don’t require anything more than the pablum fed to them by the likes of CCTV. The same of is true of many Americans. A key difference is that those who do feel the need to be well informed can with minimal effort find a vast array of resources at their disposal.

What can journalists do? Don’t give into editors and advertising managers. Don’t write or produce with an Emmy or a Pulitzer in mind. Do your reporting and research because you really have a thirst for knowledge and not for sensationalism or political expediency. Take a stand about your methods not about that which you are reporting.

July 30, 2006 @ 5:45 am | Comment

Ahmet, I was a newspaper reporter for 10 years before I got tired of being fired and re-trained myself as a nurse. Why did I get fired? At three papers, it was because editors were angry at me because I pushed too hard on corruption stories. I had a thirst for revealing political corruption (not national-level things, just local issues.) It’s unrealistic to think that writers could “not give in” because every word that gets printed, or image that gets aired, must pass by layers of editors. They have their own agendas (and they’re corporate conservative, not liberal.) When a reporter takes a stand, he’s likely to take a walk…

As for Rich, it’s true that there’s hardly ever a LINE in daily Iraq coverage about what and how many soldiers have been killed. They’re dying in dribs and drabs without newspapers bothering to mention it. What disrespect!

July 30, 2006 @ 7:58 am | Comment

Bukko, thank you for comment concerning journalistic ethics and your personal experience. I admire someone like you who stood his/her ground despite ultimately losing your livelihood. Your standard of ethics is exactly the kind to which I think all journalists should hold themselves. Then to have gone on to nursing…a thankless field of service to others without which most medical care would be non-existant also says something very positive about your chracter. If taking a stand leads to the best journalists taking walks then the entire system would colllapse… I would encourage others to follow your example and follow a higher level code of ethics.

August 1, 2006 @ 3:33 am | Comment

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