Michael's Dispatches


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A Small Battle in the Media War

Morning run: Basra Air Station, Iraq.

As we drive to meet the Merlin helicopter, our vehicle displays a British flag on the dash. We pass teams of British soldiers at Basra Air Station as they conduct morning runs, preparing for the next combat, perhaps only hours away.

Numerous British units are stationed in Basra, including the Queens Royal Lancers, whose motto is “Death or Glory.” There is no assurance of Glory. I spent most of April 2007 with the Brits, which turned out to have been the most deadly month for British forces since the beginning of the war. The loss of any fallen soldier is significant. We lost about a hundred; the Brits lost about a dozen. The word “about” is not used to suggest a casual callousness about the fallen, but for a more specific conveyance: persons who are listed as wounded in action often later succumb.

While progress in Anbar is robust enough to make mainstream news reports, down in southern Iraq, the enemy is resurging. They are well-resourced, resilient and intelligent, and capable of landing hard punches. They recently “shot down” a C-130 with IEDs planted by the landing strip. The enemy may be good, but American and British forces are much better. On my previous two missions with the British Army, with the 2 Rifles first and the next day the Duke of Lancaster Regiment, they killed roughly a total of 40 enemy fighters, and they did so without sustaining a scratch to a British soldier. On the next mission with British forces, the enemy would successfully engage us, taking two British soldiers.

As the British increase their forces in Afghanistan, they are drawing down in Iraq. Although the drawdown in Iraq is based on pragmatism, the enemy apparently is attempting to create the perception of a military rout. So while the British reduce their forces in southern Iraq, they are coming under heavier fire and the enemy makes claims of driving “the occupiers” out.

In reality, the Brits were about to transfer authority over the Maysan Province to the Iraqi government. Thus, the day’s purpose, although seemingly more ceremonial in nature, was to counterpunch in the perception war, by focusing on the progress being made by the Iraqi Security Forces in the region. Some of the biggest battles in Iraq today are being fought not with bombs and bullets, but with cameras and keyboards. For whatever reasons—and there are many—today, when Western media is most needed here, it’s nearly gone.

Trees falling in the forest

One by one, the 18 provinces of Iraq are being turned over to the Iraqis. The big event for today was the handover of Maysan Province to Iraqi control. Media were all invited. Dozens of reporters came from places as far apart as Tehran and Los Angeles, though the few Western journalists would easily fit into a single helicopter. And that Merlin helicopter would fly us from Basra Air Station to FOB Sparrowhawk where the ceremony was to occur.

Flying in Iraq can be an adventure. The enemy has surface-to-air missiles. I was present in Mosul when American forces captured more than two dozen such missiles, and I recall a different day, rolling on a mission in Baghdad, when a radio announced that there was another “Fallen Angel.” Minutes later came another call. No survivors.

Tail-gunner view from Merlin helicopter on 18 April 2007.

Flight to Maysan

British and American commanders readily say that those who were previously seen as liberators are now increasingly perceived as occupiers. Some of the shift in perception follows merely from being here so long that our moves are increasingly likely to be interpreted negatively. Though I have seen British and American soldiers treating Iraqis with respect and kindness—often putting their own lives at risk to reduce danger to Iraqis—the simple act of moving from point A to point B often creates frictions, even when we are moving by means of the smallest possible footprint, in this instance by flying.

Smaller helicopters often fly very low using maneuverability as cover. Larger aircraft usually fly a little higher, and rely more on countermeasures to foil missiles. Countermeasures can be seen activating from helicopters over Baghdad every single day. This is no secret: Millions of Iraqis must see the flares popping out of aircraft to foil surface-to-air missiles. Yet, the countermeasures often seem to pop for no apparent reason. No missile is tracking us. Pilots say that the sensors still can be foiled by a glint off the water, or a refinery gas fire, for instance.

And so that morning, at 0912, countermeasures activated while we flew over water.

Three minutes later, they activated again.

Twenty-five minutes later, more flares activated. This time over a field where women were working.

The flares rain down on the field and the women scramble. The women, who could clearly be seen from the helicopter, appeared to be fine and un-hit.

Near misses like this are one of the faces of that ugly part of war that our American and British commanders keep talking about. These are moments when, with no ill-intentions whatsoever, we go from being liberators to being occupiers. I’ve been with American forces when we accidentally killed the wrong people. I’ve also seen American commanders, and now British, go to nearly ridiculous measures to avoid innocent loss of life. But sometimes, despite their heroic efforts, it still happens.

Perhaps the women in the field below us thought we shot at them. Maybe the perception for miles around would be that helicopters swooped down and fired missiles at women in the fields. This perception of being occupiers is largely why British officers insist that it’s time to reduce their own footprint in Southern Iraq, and concentrate on Afghanistan where the fight is more serious for British forces.

And so on 18 April 2007, Maysan Province was officially being turned over to Iraqi authority during a ceremony denoting the handover to “PIC”: Provincial Iraqi Control. Media coverage was critical to this event. Whether Maysan was ready for PIC is uncertain, but clearly more and more Welcome mats are saying Unwelcome. British commanders wanted Iraqis to know—including hopefully such people as those women we just flew over while pelting their field with countermeasures—that their day was here. And of course politicians at home wanted to paint this as a success.

Yet even as some journalists were only arriving, Murphy’s Law asserted itself: at home in the United States, the latest public massacre had occurred on a college campus in Virginia and would directly affect media coverage of the Maysan transfer. The dramatic unfolding story of a madman at home had an impact on media coverage of the war.

Nevertheless, to their credit, journalists from important publications were arriving at Maysan. On this British helicopter, for instance, were Alex from The Los Angeles Times; Philip from The Wall Street Journal, James from The Times (London), and others. All the journalists on our Merlin helicopter were experienced hands in Iraq.

Parades as media events: Merlin Helicopter disgorging journalists at FOB Sparrowhawk. (British Army Photograph)

Sparrowhawk: Dangerous little base

Just recently, a car waited outside the joint Danish-British-Iraqi base called Sparrowhawk in Maysan Province. The kidnappers swooped in, prepared to whisk off a Danish soldier. They moved in, carrying a rag, apparently doused with chloroform, and a syringe to sedate their sparrow. They tried to take down the Dane, who fought back and ran out, barefoot and naked, and narrowly escaped what could have been a brutal fate, and one that undoubtedly would have become a media bonanza. Myself, I prefer the story about the lone naked Danish soldier fighting off a team of insurgent kidnappers, chloroform and all.

When we landed at Sparrowhawk, the wash from the Merlin helicopter pelted the same shower room only about 50 yards away. The risk of attack today was severe, and Westerners were not to walk even short distances without an armed soldier. This would be a great day to blow up a lot of people. Just recently, a rocket attack while Maliki was speaking was broadcast worldwide. This would be the photo-op of the entire war if terrorists could successfully attack.

Local leaders at the Maysan handover.

With summer approaching, the few remaining journalists will mostly evaporate to cooler climes.

Talkers talked. Around the world, newspapers quoted the speech Maliki had prepared for the ceremony but which was actually delivered on his behalf by Iraq’s National Security Advisor, Mowafaq al-Rubaie.

Eyes of the world.


Without the cameras and pens, politicians have little voice. . . .

But all these cameras were competing with cameras focused on bad news in Virginia and Baghdad.

I’ve been reading General David Petraeus’ Ph.D. dissertation between missions. The title page looks like this:

A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the
Post-Vietnam Era

David Howell Petraeus



October 1987

In his dissertation, General Petraeus (Ph.D.) writes:

The Importance of Perceptions

Perceptions of reality, more so than objective reality, are crucial to the decisions of statesmen. What policy-makers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters—more than what actually occurred. . . .

Wielding the words sword: Alex Zavis from The Los Angeles Times. Her piece titled “British hand over province to Iraqi control” was one of only a handful of news stories to feature the province transfer in the headline, and one of only two to actually focus on the transfer.

The mighty little pen.

Life isn’t fair: As a general rule, the biggest media gun remains the still-camera.

Proximity is king.

Handshakes: Maysan is now yours . . . British Major General Jonathan Shaw and provincial governor Adel Maliki make it official.

The parade.

Like magic: Turning a few dozen flags into millions.

Camera as copy machine.

After the PIC there was a feast.

Throughout the day, some Iraqis made motions with their hands like they were cutting throats. Vigilant British commanders interpreted this ominously.

Others seemed more festive and used their own cameras to capture the moments.

After the feast, Iraqi soldiers surrounded Alex and wanted their photo taken with her, until she escaped to come and sit with the journalists in the sand, but the Iraqi soldiers kept coming, as if they were at a petting zoo.

The politicians were not finished and made themselves available one last time, before making the obligatory “I gotta go ’cause my helicopter is waiting” comments. It’s important to be seen as important in order to actually become more important. Perception matters. That is why media matters.

Alex behind the pen: How would all this translate?

And that was it: no big drama. The journalists all disappeared. The important political people went back to Baghdad or wherever, and few people seemed to notice that another Iraqi province was turned over. A sampling of the resulting coverage of the ceremony might explain why the handover of authority to Iraqis in a fourth province did not resound as loudly as one would think, given the phalanx of reporters and camera crews.

The transfer of authority did not even make the cut for news for most US publications and networks. Of those which included the story in their news reports, most mentioned it only as part of an overall report about the day’s activities in Iraq. Many of those included it in reports which were headlined or sandwiched with bad news about the violence in other parts of Iraq.

The Washington Post’sBombers Defy Security Push, Killing at least 158 in Baghdad” briefly mentions the transfer in a sentence in the seventeenth paragraph. Likewise, The New York Times’Bombings Kill at Least 171 Iraqis in Baghdad” mentions the transfer of the province somewhere in the sixth paragraph.
This general theme carried over in the UK media coverage as well. The Guardian offered “‘We’ll be in control by end of 2007’ say Maliki. [sic] In Baghdad, carnage continues.” The Independent headline blared “Hundreds killed on Baghdad’s day of bombs and blood.” Not to be outdone in the dramatic headline competition, The Mirror gave the world “BLOODIEST DAY: 191 dead and hundreds maimed as 5 bombs rock Baghdad.”
The BBC article titled “Iraq troops to take over security” reported on statements made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in the speech prepared for the Maysan ceremony, (delivered by Iraq’s National Security Minister) about the schedule for turning over additional provinces to the control of Iraqi security forces. But before describing the ceremony and without ever providing any details about the province or the Iraqi security forces who now control it, the article inventoried recent attacks and included a mention of the withdrawal of Sadr loyalists from the Iraqi parliament.

On the day after the ceremony, the BBC mentioned it in the sixth paragraph of an article titled “Two UK soldiers killed in Iraq.” The next day it was mentioned again in a BBC article titled “UK soldiers killed in Iraq named,” although this time it was relegated to a mention in the nineteenth paragraph. No details about the ceremony were given in either article, both of which also referenced recent US and UK military casualties, civilian casualties and sectarian violence.

Along with Alex Zavis’ “British Hand Over Province to Iraqi Control” in The Los Angeles Times, two other reporters wrote stories headlined with the transfer ceremony. The Telegraph’s Thomas Harding filed his “200 killed as province returns to Iraqi control” from Camp Sparrowhawk, although he didn’t get around to anything about the transfer ceremony until the 20th paragraph. James Hider’s piece in The Times, “British put the ‘Wild West’ back under control of Iraqis,” was the only other news story about the transfer that was actually about the transfer.

While the journalists and all the rest headed back to their worlds in big helicopters, I flew deeper into Maysan desert with the Queen’s Royal Lancers where, in less than 24 hours, our patrol would be attacked with the largest array of bombs I ever encountered in Iraq, and where two UK soldiers would die.


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