Bumps in the Road
BAGHDADâ€”The Americans have killed two Iraqi journalists inside of a week. One was killed Friday and I just heard news of the other. I know a lot about the first death, but at the request of his family, I can’t publish much because his widow fears retribution for her husband having worked for a Western news organization. But he was killed with a single shot to the head by Americans in a passing convoy.
[UPDATE 30/6/05 11:33 +0400 GMT: The journalist I mention above is Yasser Salihee, who worked for Knight Ridder. The full story is available here. As Tom writes in the copy, “Knight Ridder didn’t previously report on Salihee’s death because his family was worried about reprisal from insurgents, who often target Iraqis working for Western organizations. The family’s wish to have Salihee’s story told now outweighs those concerns.”]
The second I don’t know much about, as I just heard about it. Details haven’t started coming in yet.
[UPDATE 29/6/05 10:38 +0400 GMT: Sorry for the harshness of my above words. I wasn’t trying to say that the first Iraqi journalist was killed by Americans for being a journalist. There is no evidence that he was killed for anything but being near a convoy and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, a single shot in the head does suggest he was definitely targeted and not the victim of a lucky shot.]
I think the Americans have gotten a lot more trigger-happy and twitchy after the campaign of car bombs and other violence that has gripped Iraq for the last, what? Five weeks? Six? I’ve lost track. I can’t tell anymore what headlines from the Associated Press listing the number of dead are new bombings or just updated casualty figures from earlier in the day.
“We have a choice now,” said A., my gruff, scotch-drinking office manager, confidant and mentor in all things Iraqi. “We can be killed by Zarqawi or the Americans.”
Since returning, it feels like I’m listening to the same record I’ve been listening to for a year, only with the volume turned up. Donald Rumsfeld, the American Secretary of Defense, says U.S. is winning the war and that the media are focusing too much on bad news. I know this because the press releases from the American Forces Information Network tell me so:
Progress in Iraq Takes Back Seat to Violence in Media, Rumsfeld Says
By Petty Officer 3rd Class John R. Guardiano, USN
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 26, 2005 â€” The “solid progress” being made in Iraq seldom gets the same level of media attention as terrorist killings and beheadings there, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today.
Moreover, the Iraqi people, he argued, are winning against the insurgency and, with the help of American and coalition forces, will prevail.
“The fact of the matter is that the progress has been solid,” Rumsfeld told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program “This Week.”
“It’s amazing, it’s historic, what’s taken place,” he said. “Twenty-five million Iraqi people have been liberated, and they have now have a sovereign government. And they’ve had a successful election, and the hospitals and the schools are open, and they’re making good progress on developing a constitution. And they’re going to have a final election in December of this year.”
Yet, none of these facts is well known to the American public, the secretary said. “They’re not as newsworthy, apparently, because (they) don’t get reported as much,” Rumsfeld said. “What gets reported is that 10 Iraqis are killed (by) a suicide bomber, or an American soldier is killed.”
The secretary said this is not the media’s fault; it’s just the nature of wartime reporting.
“War is a tough, difficult, dirty business,” he explained. “And when it’s reported, it leaves people with the impressionâ€”correctlyâ€”that it’s a terrible thing. It’s everybody’s last choice, nobody’s first choice.”
Rumsfeld said this has been true throughout American history. “We know that this has been true in the Revolutionary War. We know it was true in the Civil War. We know it was true in World War II (sic) and World War II,” he said. “If all people know is what they see on television or read in the pressâ€”the negatives,” he explained, then they don’t see the progress that is being made.
Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Force Iraq, are the people with the most direct knowledge of what’s transpiring in Iraq, and they “feel very good about the progress that’s being made,” Rumsfeld said.
Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that only “one-tenth of 1 percent” of Iraqis are involved in the insurgency.
“For those of us who have spent many months in the field,” Abizaid told the committee, “we see good progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We sense good progress against the extremism that once seemed so pervasive in the region. … Progress in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist work is not easily recognized. Setbacks, casualties and difficult problems undoubtedly remain ahead. … We will need patience and strength to achieve success.”
But while negative media coverage of war has been the historic norm, television and the modern media may have exacerbated the problem in recent history.
On the NBC News program “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, the secretary noted that according to historian David McCullough, author of a new book titled “1776,” if the American Revolutionary War had had the same type of media coverage as the Iraq war, then “there wouldn’t have been a successful revolution.”
As far as Iraq is concerned, “the progress is impressive,” Rumsfeld said. “I think they’re going to choose the path of lightness. The sweep of human history is for freedom. Look at what’s happened in Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan and the Ukraine.”
The secretary said the American people can be optimistic about a good outcome in Iraq, but the optimism must be tempered with an understanding of reality. “We have to recognize that it’s a tough, tough, tough world, and there are going to be bumps in the road between now and then,” he said.
“Bumps in the road”? Just earlier today, presumably before the Iraqi journalist was killed, an Iraqi member of parliament was killed in a car bomb attack. I can’t even begin to tell you how many Iraqis have been killed in the weeks I was away. And how many more Iraqis, journalists or otherwise, will die because the Americans can’t tell who’s friend or foe? Those aren’t “bumps in the road.” Those are signs that you went off the road without a map a long time ago.
Where do you even begin combatting the head-in-the-sandism, brazen propaganda and revisionism of the above release. (By the way, it’s about the fourth or fifth one I’ve received in the last few days touting the same theme, apparently in concert with President Bush’s push to let Americans know that everything is going hunky-dory.)
News flash: Iraq is a disaster. I’ve been back one day, and the airport road was the worst I’ve ever seen it. We had to go around a fire-fight between mujahideen and Americans while Iraqi forces sat in the shade of date palms on the side of the road, their rifles resting across their laps. My driver pointed to a group of men in a white pickup next to me. “They are mujahideen,” he said. “They are watching the Americans.” Indeed, they were, and so intently that they paid no attention to me in the car next to them. We detoured around two possible car bombs that had been cordoned off while Iraqis cautiously approached.
Rumsfeld’s assessment of “good progress” on the constitution is not accurate, as the committee to draw it up still hasn’t completely agreed on how the Sunnis will take part.
When I was in Ramadi, I found the morale to be lower than expected. It wasn’t rock-bottom among the Marines of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, but it wasn’t great. Most of the ones I talked to weren’t confident they were doing anything worthwhile, and were instead focused on getting home alive. If a few Iraqis had to die to make that happen, well, war is hell.
I’m not sure who’s winning this war, the Americans or the insurgents. But I know who is losing it: the Iraqi people. Those bumps in the road are their graves.