Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Too Much Information

I've been meaning ot write some stuff on The War, but there's just too much information. While combat was still going on, watching for dispatches was far more interesting than trying to figure out what is "really" going on. War is a horribly confused situation at the best of times; the current "fact" will be contradicted in ten minutes and forgotten in an hour. Things haven't come close to settling down, but they're moving a lot slower now. A few impressions:

The military side of things was carried out quite competently. The only problem was one of expectation; the DoD guys, led by Rumsfeld, predicted that the Iraqis would all run like rabbits. The resistance that they did put up was scattered and ineffective, but folks got discouraged when some of the Iraqi soldiers declined to line up and get slaughtered. Fortunately, the military had a Plan B ...

The hell-for-leather run from the Kuwati border to Baghdad would have been suicide if anybody halfway competent had been in charge of the defense, especially during "the mother of all sandstorms". However, the qualification is critical. With the possible exception of "Chemical Ali", anybody with the smallest military talent had been purged long since.

The amusing side of this was the Minister of Information Saeed al-Sahhaf's hallucinatory press briefings. Turned out that he was just telling the reporters the same information that Saddam Hussein (or his replacement) was getting. When you shoot generals for losing battles, people are really reluctant to give you the bad news ....

The Press did not cover themselves with glory. Aside from the odious Geraldo Rivera, the "embeds" did a pretty darn good job. But the guys back in the studio sometimes got as bad as "Comical Ali" (al-Sahhaf). Fox News was, as expected, the worst, but the others weren't much better. The worst one I saw on Fox was when we got the announcement of the discovery of a "chemical weapons factory". The talking heads at Fox discoursed at length as to the implications of finally finding "Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction". There never was a report of finding weapons; just a factory. Of course, the "chemical weapons factory" itself went away after a couple of days. Like I said, war is confusing. This kind of mistake has to be expected. But the talking heads should at least listen to the reports on their own newscasts.

It's the job of reporters to ask questions, especially the ones that the Powers that Be don't want to answer. This seems to have escaped the reporters covering the war, both at CENTCOM HQ in Qatar and in Washington. In particular, reporters seem to have forgotten the gentle art of the "followup question". Perhaps it's a result of limiting reporters to one question each. You have to have some limits, or a reporter will try to turn a press briefing into an interview, but you have to have some way of following up on unexpected answers.

The coverage of the destruction of the 507th Maintenance Company showed the press at its worst. Basically, the 507th got lost, wandered into downtown Nasiriyah, and got creamed. In particular:

  • "Got lost"? Excuse me? They're in a convoy, with combat escorts. Also, rental cars from Hertz have GPS units; I would expect that every US vehicle in Iraq would have a GPS. This is one that the reporters never picked up on.
  • The Iraqi TV "war crime". Iraqi TV showed the POWs. They looked scared shitless; to my mind, this is rational. They did not look like the'd been badly abused. The injuries that I saw were consistent with being too close to an RPG when it went off. Rumsfeld claimed that this was a "war crime"; looked to me like a good-faith effort by the Iraqis to let everybody know who the prisoners were and that they were (relatively) OK. Presumably Rumsfeld was honked off that Iraqi TV didn't clear their newsfeed with CENTCOM. And, of course, our media was showing zillions of pictures of Iraqi POWs.
  • The Al Jazeera "war crime". Can't show our dead guys. Might give people the wrong idea about what goes on in a war .... It's interesting to combine this attitude with the level of graphic violence in movies and TV.
  • "Saving Baby Private Jessica". In the future, textbooks will be written about this one. I rather suspect that the "facts" will never really be agreed on. In any case, it was an exciting rescue. Unfortunately, the way it was reported was disgusting. At first, it looked like the networks had turned the "society" reporters loose. PFC Lynch was "Jessica", and the pictures of her made her look about twelve years old. I don't know what triggered the change; perhaps Blogistan put enough moral pressure on the networks to get them to give her the respect due a soldier. Also, belatedly, we got some decent coverage of her tentmate, PFC Piestewa, first American servicewoman to be killed in action since WWII. And where did the Washington Post, of all people, come up with that story of her going down with guns blazing? Not with those injuries!

And that's just "the war". It's over now. Saddam Hussein is either dead or laying very, very low. And the media interest is fading fast.

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