The second death
Bing West, writing about the battles of Fallujah in No True Glory noted that the biggest American urban battles since the Tet, actions which resulted in the defeat of an entrenched enemy force, had been portrayed by the press in the same tone as a traffic accident.
In World War II the Western press -- believing in its cause -- had extolled the Greatest Generation of Americans. The warriors who fought in Iraq would not be called the Greatest Generation, because America was divided about the cause for which they were dying. The focus of the press was upon their individual deaths as tragedies. This was an incomplete portrayal. The fierce fighting at Fallujah attested to the stalwart nature of the American soldier ... There will be no true glory for our soldiers in Iraq until they are recognized not as victims, but aggressive warriors. Stories of their bravery deserved to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deed will die.
The power of the press to inflict a Second Death was evident again in the coverage of Operation Swarmer. A Time article entitled How Operation Swarmer Fizzled complained that it was anticlimactic: there were no explosions, no frenzied yells, no victims dying.
Four Black Hawk helicopters landed in a wheat field and dropped off a television crew, three photographers, three print reporters and three Iraqi government officials right into the middle of Operation Swarmer. Iraqi soldiers in newly painted humvees, green and red Iraqi flags stenciled on the tailgates, had just finished searching the farm populated by a half-dozen skinny cows and a woman kneading freshly risen dough and slapping it to the walls of a mud oven.
The press, flown in from Baghdad to this agricultural gridiron northeast of Samarra, huddled around the Iraqi officials and U.S. Army commanders who explained that the "largest air assault since 2003" in Iraq using over 50 helicopters to put 1500 Iraqi and U.S. troops on the ground had netted 48 suspected insurgents, 17 of which had already been cleared and released. The area, explained the officials, has long been suspected of being used as a base for insurgents operating in and around Samarra, the city north of Baghdad where the bombing of a sacred shrine recently sparked a wave of sectarian violence.
But contrary to what many many television networks erroneously reported, the operation was by no means the largest use of airpower since the start of the war. ("Air Assault" is a military term that refers specifically to transporting troops into an area.) In fact, there were no airstrikes and no leading insurgents were nabbed in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a photo op. What’s more, there were no shots fired at all and the units had met no resistance, said the U.S. and Iraqi commanders.
I'd like to write another version of the Time dispatch, perhaps the version they would have preferred.
Four Black Hawk helicopters landed in a wheat field and dropped off a television crew, three photographers, three print reporters and three Iraqi government officials right into the middle of a scene of carnage. Iraqi soldiers draped across blazing humvees, their hopeful green and red Iraqi flags riddled by bullets, had just been ambushed from a farm now littered by a half-dozen dead cows and a sobbing woman huddled by the remains of a mud oven.
The press, flown in from Baghdad to witness what the Iraqi officials and U.S. Army commanders explained was the "largest air assault since 2003" in Iraq using over 50 helicopters to put 1500 Iraqi and U.S. troops on the ground, saw instead a demonstration of the inability to come to grips with an elusive and deadly enemy. In exchange for heavy losses the Coalition Forces netted only 48 suspected insurgents, 17 of which had already been cleared and released. The area, explained the officials, has long been suspected of being used as a base for insurgents operating in and around Samarra. It apparently remained a defiant symbol of the Resistance.
But contrary to what many many television networks erroneously reported, the operation instead of employing "Air Assault" (a military term that refers specifically to transporting troops into an area), turned instead to become the greatest carpet bombing campaign of the war. White Phosphorus, napalm and high explosive was used time and again in response to frantic calls from panicked American commanders in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a demonstration of impotent fury. The U.S. and Iraqi commanders said that they had met "heavy resistance". They had met more than that.
I rewrote the paragraph to pose a number of serious questions. How would the press have portrayed Swarmer if instead of the "cordon and search" operation it was planned to be, it turned out to be pitched battle? A severe defeat. And how does the press account for the absence of American casualties and the feeble performance of the fabled and invincible Resistance in Samarra itself, where in years past dozens of Americans had died in combat and into which Iraqi government forces dared not go? A "fizzle".
What Time refused to see is an Iraqi government increasingly able to control its territory. Not completely, for then Iraqis would not have needed an air assault to capture suspects, but fundamentally, in the sense that they could go anywhere they wanted and detain whoever they purposed. Iraq is in the zone between where you needed a 500-lb bomb to break down the door -- as in 2004 -- and where a firm knock and a flashed badge would serve the purpose. The fruits of peace, no less than the sacrifices of war, need to be recognized. But as Bing West so eloquently puts it, "unsung, the noblest deed will die".