Published: Monday, 22 October 2007 00:00
[Note: A german language translation of this dispatch is available by clicking here.]
October 22, 2007
Resistance is futile: You will be (mis)informed.
A parallel universe.
All describe the bizarro-world contrast between what most Americans seem to think is happening in Iraq versus what is really happening in Iraq. Knowing this disconnect exists and experiencing it directly are two separate matters. It’s like the difference between holding the remote control during the telecast of a volcanic eruption on some distant island (and then flipping the channel), versus running for survival from a wretch of molten lava that just engulfed your car.
I was at home in the United States just one day before the magnitude hit me like vertigo: America seems to be under a glass dome which allows few hard facts from the field to filter in unless they are attached to a string of false assumptions. Considering that my trip home coincided with General Petraeus’ testimony before the US Congress, when media interest in the war was (I’m told) unusually concentrated, it’s a wonder my eardrums didn’t burst on the trip back to Iraq. In places like Singapore, Indonesia, and Britain people hardly seemed to notice that success is being achieved in Iraq, while in the United States, Britney was competing for airtime with O.J. in one of the saddest sideshows on Earth.
No thinking person would look at last year’s weather reports to judge whether it will rain today, yet we do something similar with Iraq news. The situation in Iraq has drastically changed, but the inertia of bad news leaves many convinced that the mission has failed beyond recovery, that all Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, or are waiting for us to leave so they can crush their neighbors. This view allows our soldiers two possible roles: either “victim caught in the crossfire” or “referee between warring parties.” Neither, rightly, is tolerable to the American or British public.
Today I am in Iraq, back in a war of such strategic consequence that it will affect generations yet unborn—whether or not they want it to. Hiding under the covers will not work, because whether it is good news or bad, whether it is true or untrue, once information is widely circulated, it has such formidable inertia that public opinion seems impervious to the corrective balm of simple and clear facts.
In fact, the trend across the country is clearly positive. Further, each new development can be seen to set into motion other additional developments which are combining kinetic forces faster than even the best reporters can keep up with.
Anyone who has been in Iraq for longer than a few months, visited a handful of provinces, and spoken with a good number of Iraqis, likely would acknowledge that the reality here is complex and dynamic. But in the last six months it also has been increasingly hopeful, despite what the pessimistic dogma dome allows Americans and British to believe.
I wasn’t back in Iraq three days before this critical disconnect rocketed up from the ground and whacked me in the face. There I was with British soldiers, preparing for a mission with a duration of more than ten days in the southern province of al Basra, when someone asked me about the media reports alleging that Basra city had collapsed into violent chaos. Not wishing to trust solely to my own eyes and ears, I asked around and was able to quickly confirm what I’d already noted: conditions in this region had improved dramatically in the months since my previous embed with the Brits.
When “Maysan” was published, that milestone event had to compete with bad news coming from a college campus in Virginia.
That month-long experience was marked by “Jaish al Mahdi” (Mahdi Army or JAM)-related attacks on British soldiers. These attacks were further fueled by enemy media operations which distorted the long-planned draw-down of British troops in Basra city, something I noted in the dispatch “Maysan”:
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.
Several upcoming dispatches will focus on how the situation in Southern Iraq has dramatically improved over past months. Ironically, the character of this improvement is distinguished by the lack of violence, as well as the increasing order and normality as Iraqi Security Forces step up to greater responsibility for security in the region. Though the local leadership picture in downtown Basra is fuzzier now that British forces have pulled further back to begin performing their long-planned overwatch phase, it is clear that this natural progression in turning Basra over to Iraqi control has not catapulted the city into chaos.
Nic Robertson of CNN was recently down here. I saw him out on the Iranian border. When Mr. Robertson and I appeared jointly on CNN, his reporting was accurate and in context.
No one who’s actually been to this area in the last month could honestly claim it was swarming with violence. I’ve been with the Brits here for more than two weeks, during which time there have been only a few trivial attacks that could easily have been the work of an angry farmer with extra time on his hands and a mortar in his backyard. As to serious attacks on British forces, in the last eight weeks, there have been exactly zero. So, any stories that make it sound like Basra is in chaos are shamefully false.
Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. I’ve written often about the near complete failure of most media reporting—as the craft is most typically plied over here—to capture the truth of Iraq and accurately portray it in an increasingly commercial news environment.
I came to Iraq in December 2004 specifically because friends in the military had been telling me about the disconnect between the situation on the ground and the media coverage about it. This is partly why I have remained focused enough on this problem to write about it dozens of times, beginning with an early dispatch about how many news reports “from” Iraq are generated . Later I described the expensive and exasperating embed process that makes long-term on-the-ground reporting next to impossible for most small or medium media outlets, and just plain impossible for most freelancers and independents.
I called it “Catch-22 Redux” in a dispatch earlier this year, writing about how “my new work space has no internet capability, no surface for work, not to mention the obvious problem with secure storage for the heavy pile of incredibly expensive gear needed to cover this war the way it should be covered. Can’t run a mission AND keep an eye on it, and can’t do the work the way it needs to be done without running missions to see and hear it firsthand.”
I’ve written about the small and petty ways the military’s Public Affairs Offices can sour even the most earnestly and positively-inclined reporters. I’ve written about how the military’s entire approach to media has failed utterly to serve both the particular mission in Iraq and the greater cause of an informed and vibrant democracy. I’ve written about reporters who got the story right, about those who got it all wrong, and also about those whose reports, good or bad, never saw the light of day.
I’ve written about why an effective and engaged media is especially crucial for the kind of counterinsurgency strategy only now being applied comprehensively in all areas of Iraq. I’ve written about how the current system of over-reliance on questionable sources creates a pressure to rush to judgment.
I’ve written about how dangerous this war is for reporters who claim there is no real consumer demand for articles about Iraq that would justify the risks. The internet erosion of the mainstream media subscriber base and advertiser support doesn’t reduce demand for news from the ground in Iraq, but it does dry up funds for anything but local stringers with spotty notions of accuracy.
But it wasn’t until I spent that week back in the States that I realized how bad things have gotten. I believe we are witnessing a conspiracy of coincidences conflating to exert an incomprehensibly destructive force on the free press system that we largely take for granted. The fact that the week in question also happened to be when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were delivering their reports to Congress makes me wonder if things are actually worse than I’ve assessed, and I returned to Iraq sadly convinced that General Petraeus now has to deal from a deck clearly stacked against him in both America and Iraq.
I’ve called it The Green Gator Phenomena.
This tendency for average people to put unwarranted stock in any information—including an outright falsehood—that is reported as true by many sources, seems now to dominate both the mainstream media and a majority of the consumers of its Iraq product line.
Clearly, a majority of Americans believe the current set of outdated fallacies passed around mainstream media like watered down drinks at happy hour. Why wouldn’t they? The cloned copy they get comes from the same sources that list the specials at the local grocery store, and the hours and locations of polling places for town elections. These same news sources print obituaries and birth announcements, give play-by-play for local high school sports, and chronicle all the painful details of the latest celebrity to fall from grace.
To illustrate the absurdity to which this conceit of the collective has grown, I’m tempted to borrow from the boy in the fairy tale, only this time pointing to and shouting at the doomsday-sayers parading by: “Hey, they aren’t wearing any clothes. . . . ” Except in this case, I realize I am not a lone voice. Furthermore, with the help of other clear-eyed individuals, I may actually be in a unique position to do something to remedy this, if the experience I had with the AP response to my challenge to investigate and report on the disturbing gravesites in the Al Hamira village is any guide.
Although I can’t answer to the cause of the problem, I humbly offer permission to media outlets to republish excerpts of the dispatch or the dispatch in its entirety, including my photographs from the story (if used as they are in the dispatch) at no cost during the month of July 2007. I only ask that the site receive proper attribution and that any publication taking me up on the offer email the website with the details.
That offer was dying on the vine until Bob Owens at Confederate Yankee took the Associated Press to task for their bungled reportage of a different mass graves news story, using my dispatch as a comparison. Although it took a little back and forth, and some additional pressure from all the other bloggers who started tracking on the topic, the AP finally dispatched a reporter to the scene. The resulting article was picked up by at least one other major media outlet, reaching thousands more people. This got me to thinking: what if I made a similar offer on a more permanent basis to a large media syndication, say, the National Newspaper Association?
Very few of NNA’s 2,700-member daily and weekly papers around the US can afford to send their own reporters and photographers to Iraq. But if they had a source of news and photographs they could tap into that did not cost anything, there would be one fewer obstacle to their running more firsthand news from the ground in Iraq.
Using the lessons learned from “Bless the Beasts,” it probably won’t be enough just to make the news I am reporting available to NNA-member publications at no cost. There may need to be a little irritating sand in order to get a pearl out of this oyster.
This is where my readers come in, at least those among them who share the concern that the distorted picture most Americans have of the situation in Iraq has strategic (and disastrous) implications for this war, our national security, and the stability of one of the most volatile regions on the planet.
Those readers can first check to see if their local paper is a member of the NNA . Because only NNA members will be able to
” . . . print excerpts of Michael Yon’s dispatches, including up to two of his photographs from each dispatch. Online excerpts may use up to 8 paragraphs, use 1-3 photos, and then link back to the full dispatch on his site saying ‘To continue reading, click here.’”
If their local paper is a member of NNA, readers can contact the editor, urging their participation. [If Bob Owens’ experience is a reliable indicator, this might take several prompts.] By encouraging their local daily or weekly newspapers to reprint these dispatches in their print editions, more people without internet access can begin to see a more accurate reflection of the progress I have observed and chronicled in dispatches like “Achievements of the Heart,” “7 Rules: 1 Oath,” “The Hands of God,” and “Three Marks on the Horizon.”
There is a cost to this. By making these stories available to NNA members at no cost, I have to forego any license fees they might otherwise generate. Although the newspapers who participate in this venture won’t have any additional costs, that also won’t reduce the expenses I incur to continue producing work that many commenters say needs to reach a wider audience. But it certainly gives those same commenters an easy way to put some walk behind all their talk.
Reader support is critical and highly appreciated, because I depend on my readers for all the funds required to do this work. I have been trying to thank each and every person who has helped—something of a feat in itself—but I want to say it clearly: Your support is hugely appreciated. In addition to setting up a support link to Paypal, we now also have the ability to accept donations using Visa/MC/electronic checks, and we have added more than 50 new photographs to the gallery.
In a related effort, we are completely reworking the underlying architecture of the website. This is very expensive, but the current configuration makes it difficult for readers to find archived stories, and for us to host a lot of video and audio. This creates an opportunity to also take a giant step forward in reaching a wider audience with these dispatches. In the past two days, readers have come from at least 84 countries: Portugal, China, Japan, Indonesia . . . and on and on. Some days readers come in from over a hundred countries.
In many places where I have traveled in the past year—like Kuwait, Qatar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Iraq and even the United States—all seem to have large portions of their populations who think we are just running amok around the globe. Even our close allies have a distorted view of Americans.
As I travel around the world, I see that even many of our close allies have a false impression of American soldiers as brutally oppressive towards people. Even our great friends in Singapore and the United Kingdom, and the pro-American people on the island of Bali, Indonesia, think we are savaging people. This loss of moral leadership will be costly to Americans on many fronts for many generations to come.
The media memes put us on par with the old Soviet Union.
The only antidote for this toxic press is a steady dose of detailed stories about the amazing men and women who serve in the United States military. People like Lieutenant Jeffrey Pettee, Iraqi Army Captain Baker, USMC SSG Rakene Lee, and LTC Fred Johnson. Each of these soldiers is a credit to every human being.
It is important that Americans let their best and clearest voices be heard around the world. If the world contained only twenty people, only one would be American. We represent about 5% of the world population. What those other nineteen people think about America is truly very important to each one of us. We cannot afford to let the media around the world continue promulgating so many recycled misconceptions about our soldiers and the character of our nation.
Since this website already has a vast foreign readership coming from over ten dozen countries, I’ve decided to try to truly penetrate into these countries by translating the site content into 16 other languages, for a total of 17, including: English, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish.
These languages can reach most of the people in the wired world. As importantly, many journalists visit this website, and frequently reference and quote from it in print, on television and radio around the world, helping the website “radiate” beyond the cyber world. Translation of the site content will also invite commentary from those other nineteen people which can lead to people around the world connecting to exchange information and ideas.
The ill-will being generated against the United States and Britain costs us hugely and in unfathomable ways. Words such as “Made in the U.S.A.” increasingly carry dark undertones. We will never know how often a bottle of fine wine produced in California is bypassed for grapes, perhaps inferior, grown elsewhere. We are allowing our grapes to be soured and our enemies to define us.
As with the syndication project, there will be costs. The total reworking of the website including accrued bills, and the initial translation from past and up to about six months in the future, is roughly $100,000. One thousand people supporting the effort with $125 contributions would make it all happen. And the combined power of the widespread syndication of these dispatches in newspapers across America, with a retooled website reaching a global audience, might just have the thrust needed to break the truth free of the inertia that keeps so many people clinging to so many false assumptions.
Now some people turn up their noses at organizations and individuals who solicit reader or viewer support, but these forms of support have been essential to organizations such as PBS, NPR, and the church I attended growing up. Asking Americans for help is one of the few economic models that always seems to deliver results. More importantly, reader support is the only thing that grants me true editorial freedom.
Other people, especially “professional” journalists, will question the wisdom of placing such faith in my readers, pointing out—correctly—that it is a big gamble. But here again, I don’t have to rely on think-tank studies or media projections. I have direct experience that tells me this is a safe bet. Every time I break a lens, wear through the soles of another pair of boots or need to fly home to attend to a family member’s failing health, my readers step up to the plate. When I need them to help me make my voice heard, they pick up the phone or man the keyboards. It’s humbling, but I am not suffering a conceit that their support is for me, personally or per se, but rather it is an indication of how much value is placed on reports from the frontlines. After all, my readers are funding that effort as well.