Saturday, March 29, 2008

Iraq Beyond the Headlines

As I prepare to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan for another tour, I reflect on my last assignment and the significant events that have occurred since my return. In 2004, I arrived in Fallujah during Operation Vigilant Resolve, which ensued shortly after the terrorists ambushed and murdered four American contractors working for Blackwater. I soon discovered a huge disparity between what was really happening in Iraq and what was being reported to the world. However, America’s misunderstanding of Iraq became very apparent when I read emails or letters from my family and friends back home and I was forced to dispel myths about Iraq as I encountered them—and there were a lot.
During that deployment, I felt that what was being reported was often inaccurate, just plain false—or simply just a few pixels of a much larger picture where what was missing told the real story. Everyday we found weapons cashes, captured insurgents, and helped rebuild local infrastructure. Yet our countless tactical successes went unreported, failing to give our armed forces the credit we deserved. Instead, journalists provided narrow or distorted accounts of what was happening—filled with hasty and unqualified commentary on things they did not fully understand. What is more, journalists focused only on casualties, violence, and Iraqis expressing anti-American sentiment. All of this helped create a mythology about the conflict that adversely influenced public opinion on the war.
I quickly began to grow very frustrated with the media and it did not take very long for me to realize that Americans were not getting the full story about Iraq—or Fallujah for that matter. My original blog, Patriot Log, came from an effort to explain to my family and friends the real story of our military and Iraq—the story that the media is not telling. In this new format, I endeavor to continue telling the story of Iraq the media is not—from my own eye witness perspective.
To understand the Western media’s failure to accurately report the war in Iraq, I will briefly recap six years of observation and research.
During Coalition operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, the few Western journalists attempting to cover the conflict could not get close to the fighting to accurately report what occurred. Many became reliant Arab journalists or al-Jazeera, the dominant Arab satellite station, for material. Al-Jazeera dominated media coverage with reports sympathetic to al-Qaeda and Taliban.
In an effort to overcome this failure, the Western media committed nearly a thousand media personnel to covering the Iraq War, “embedding” them with Coalition forces. This unprecedented media effort gave the world full reports of the war from every front. Meanwhile, a few unembedded, or unilateral, journalists in Baghdad were controlled by the Iraqi Information Ministry and provided contradictory reports. Nonetheless, Al-Jazeera exceeded the Western media effort, recruiting hundreds of Iraqi journalists across the country, and in the end dominated Iraq War coverage.
When Coalition forces liberated Baghdad, most Western journalist went home. Those few who remained dis-embedded themselves, and reported from the safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone fearing death and kidnapping. Instead of going out on patrols with Coalition forces, they began to monitor the Arab media, and hire local Iraqi reporters, called stringers, to gather information and sometimes ghostwrite reports. Therefore, a year later when terrorists murdered and mutilated four Americans working for Blackwater in Fallujah, only al-Jazeera was on hand to record the gruesome images and cheering crowds. Western journalists, without any real knowledge of what had transpired, wove reports from fragments of hearsay, and used al-Jazeera for material.
Intelligence operatives had quickly identified those responsible for the murders, and U.S. Marines planned to use let covert action deal with those responsible and ordered an attack. However, the incident evoked public outrage was viewed as the last straw in a long series of events. CentCom overruled the Marine’s plan and ordered an attack.
As U.S. Marines closed on the city and confidently took out enemy strongholds confirmed by covert operatives with coordinated assaults and precision bombs, they also helped Fallujans evacuate the city.
Not surprisingly, al-Jazeera dominated news coverage and provided a drastically different view, making it look like U.S. forces trapped Fallujah’s population in the city and massacred them indiscriminately. Few Western journalists accompanied troops into the city, and only one television crew represented all five major U.S. television networks. Western journalists reporting from the safety of the U.S. Marine base outside the city never seemed to grasp what they reported. They provide factual errors, blatant distortions of events, and incomplete reports. They dismissed government reports, instead preferring to report al-Jazeera’s narrative of events.
Believing al-Jazeera’s accounts of Fallujah, both the Iraqi and Arab leaders demanded an end to the fighting. U.S. Marines were close to securing Fallujah and decisively defeating Fallujah’s guerrilla forces when ordered them to end their assault. Fallujans and Jihadists alike proclaimed victory and celebrated in front of al Jazeera’s cameras. Thus, for the second time in two weeks, the United States changed its position based on misleading or sensationalized media coverage. The result allowed guerrillas and terrorists inside Fallujah to regroup while delaying the inevitable. Those who understood history quickly compared the sudden change in support for the war following the series of incidents in Fallujah to what happened in the Tet Offensive during Vietnam where the media portrayed America’s victory as a defeat.
The Iraq I return to is significantly different than the one I left. Following the important elections in 2005, Iraq suffered a period of sectarian violence as Shia and Sunni extremists, neither representing their respective majorities, sought for control of Iraq—particularly the important Muslim city of Baghdad. Despite this, Sunnis in al Anbar province and Fallujah began to see al Qaeda for the terrorists they were and began to turn against them in what became known as the awakening. Meanwhile, U.S. troop increases combined with targeted operations and a revised counterinsurgency strategy have succeeded in providing security and stability in Iraq. Nonetheless, the work in Iraq is unfinished. With al-Qaeda greatly diminished, but not out, Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia fights a determined proxy war for Iraq. Except for a surge of journalists covering key events like Iraq’s landmark elections, only a handful of journalist cover events in Iraq, most remaining on the scene for only a short time. Moreover, they continue to report from the safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone, and rely on local Iraqi journalists to compile their reports. NOTE: The preceeding summary is carefully documented in my definitive study The Battle for Hearts and Minds: A Case Study of Media influence in the Iraq War.