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Five O'Clock Follies Redux
Iraq's Bright, Shining Liars

They love us, don't they?

Even today when Washington admits to the great discrepancy between its prolonged optimism and the obviously serious existing situation, it talks in the most superficial terms about increases in terrorism and post-coup command changes, rather than facing squarely the substantive factors which, step by step, determine the pattern and rythm of defeat.
          —From The Making of a Quagmire, by David Halberstam (1965)

“That’s when it hit me,” Specialist Firth, 29, said the next day. “To feel the weight of one of your comrades, to lift the dead body of a fellow American, you can never prepare yourself for that.” For a moment, he fell silent. “It wakes you up to reality, you know?” he said as tears welled up in his eyes. “There are people dying here.”
          —From a Juliet Macur report in the Oct. 1, 2005 New York Times.

“Since February, Iraqi and coalition forces have conducted more than 200 joint operations against al Qaeda objectives, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 terrorists and the detention of more than 400 others. More importantly, Caldwell said, more tips are coming in from Iraqis, who are increasingly standing up to these terrorist forces.”
          —From a Centcom news release, March 13.

So back in August 2005, when the war was in its third year but reality was still not setting in for quite a few Americans, Rosemary Goudreau, the editorial page editor at the Tampa Tribune, was tizzing over this e-mail she’d received over and over for a couple of years, as had so many of us in the trade: “Did you know that 47 countries have reestablished their embassies in Iraq? Did you know that 3,100 schools have been renovated?” Did you know that 22 million Iraqis woke up this morning? And so on. You know the sort. Anonymous. Panglossian. Impossible to verify. Most of all, irrelevant: Who gives a shit if fifty thousand schools have been renovated if the neighborhoods around them are still getting cluster-bombed à-la-Anbar Province, if their teachers are getting executed and their students getting kidnapped, raped, mowed down or enrolled in the early-draft plans of one of a few dozen militias running the country’s after-school programs, if cities like Ramadi, Samarra, Tal Aafar, Mosul and Fallujah and the near-totality of western Iraq are as good as no-go zones for American patrols and their Iraqi shadows? Well, it’s all about projecting the right impressions, as parachute propagandists so easily do on the Pentagon’s dime. “The standard tour for visitors was three weeks,” Ward Just wrote back in 1968, about that other war. “Three weeks was sufficient time to learn the ambiguities. One’s attitude depended a good deal on what expectations one brought to Vietnam . It was no trick to find the facts to back up the impressions, or the preconceptions: facts were everywhere, and with suitable discrimination could be used to support almost any argument.”

Not to risk feeding into the impression that the media only report the bad news — and splendidly pandering to the perception that most of our media generals are pandering fools — Ms. Goudreau shot off the factual email to Mike Silverman, managing editor at the Associated Press, to see if maybe, well, the AP’s reporters “in country” could do something about these wonderful happenings in the best of all possible Iraqs the anonymous emails are referring to. (The emails are not anonymous of course but collated shards of Pentagon propaganda a year and two year out of date, from the same administration that buys and packages fake news with our tax dollars but that’s another story.) Silverman’s quote to the New York Times in the Times story that reported this little exchange: “We’re there to report the good and the bad and we try to give due weight to everything going on… It is unfortunate that the explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries on some days seem to dominate the news.”

I’m sure the fatalities think it’s unfortunate they dominate the news too, when there should be at least equal time given over to the infinitely important daily news that while, say, fifty-five Iraqis and maybe six GIs got clobbered, twenty-two million Iraqis and one hundred thirty-nine thousand other GIs did not. Time and space should be given over to the fact that the sun rose on a hundred muezzins in Baghdad yesterday too, and if the sun set on only ninety-nine of them, well, that’s ninety-nine better than the “negative” media have been willing to report. And didn’t a teachers’ institute open in Rasheed? At least that’s what Centcom tells us. And what was that about the diminishing coalition? Didn’t the president of Georgia offer to triple his commitment—to two thousand troops? A suicide bomber takes out half a police station and orphans a dozen families? Report those traffic jams all over Baghdad , a sea of cars shimmering in the normalcy of unregulated exhaust fumes. It is, it really is unfortunate that the explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries on some days seem to dominate the news. A few more pictures of smiling Iraqi children on their way to school, thumbs up (like Borat), would only be fair to the photo editors who can use a live shot of the next day’s morgue gallery.

Unlike McClatchy’s reporters, or a few from the Times, or every one of them from the UK Independent, t he AP has never been off the optimism bandwagon though. Its reporters, like those from every news organization covering the Pentagon’s Five O’Clock Follies in Baghdad and Washington , are always ready to fill inches with the face-value fantasies of starry-eyed briefings. A few weeks before Goudreau’s fizz over those mass emails the AP was happy to report that “U.S. and military forces have ‘mostly eliminated’ the ability of insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity attacks in Baghdad,” according to Maj. Gen. William Webster, the (then) top U.S. commander in Baghdad (he didn’t last). “There are more threats ahead,” he said. “I do believe, however, that the ability of these insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity operations as they did last year, we’ve mostly eliminated that.” Two days later a suicide bomber killed forty people. A Time cover asked, two years too late two years ago, whether any of this was winnable anymore.

I note all this because a few days ago the Lord and Savior himself, President Bush, put most of the blame on the “deteriorating” situation on the bombing of the Shiite shrine in February 2006. That’s been the administration’s new narrative, which most media have not picked up on. There was a golden age in the occupation. Then the sectarian violence began with that bombing. It’s been hell only since then. A bogus story, but it’s the necessary preface to the ongoing escalation, designed, supposedly, to pull back those evil sectarian forces and restore… what, the calm that reigned pre-February 2006? The news media have followed along, jumping on Centcom’s manufactured “positive” news day after day. This week, even as one Pentagon hand was finally owning up to the fact that Iraq is in a civil war, another hand was peddling the “off to a good start” escalation as if it was a little retreat for the local city commissioners about to decide the fate of their park system. The media, as always, fell over each other to report the “positive” news. As always, as Ward Just wrote, Washington is always “a mirror-image away from reality.” At what point does impulsive objectivity become rank distortion? That point was reached in Iraq four years ago when Jessica Lynch’s blond highlights became this war’s bright, shining lie.

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