What really happened in Fallujah was a great deal different from what was portrayed in the news media, said Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic Monthly, the only reporter embedded with the Marine company (Bravo, 1st Battalion of the 5th Regiment) that led the advance into the heart of the city in the pre-dawn darkness of April 6.
The Marines won the battle in the streets, only to lose it in the news accounts, Kaplan said in an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal May 27.
"Whenever the Marines with whom I was attached crossed the path of a mosque, we were fired upon," Kaplan said. "By the standards of most wars, some mosques in Fallujah deserved to be leveled. But only after repeated aggressions was any mosque targeted, and then sometimes for hits so small they often had little effect. The news photos of holes in mosque domes did not indicate the callousness of the American military; rather the reverse."
"I was in the city for the first days of the battle. The overwhelming percentage of small arms fire -- not to mention mortars, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades -- represented indiscriminate automatic bursts from the insurgents. Marines responded with far fewer, more precise shots.
"The only time I saw angry or depressed Marines was when an Iraqi civilian was accidentally hit in a crossfire -- usually perpetrated by the enemy," Kaplan said. "The humanity of the troops is something to behold."
Far from being driven from Fallujah, the Marines were boxing in the insurgents against the Euphrates river at the western edge of the city when the cease fire was announced, Kaplan said.
"As disappointing as the cease fire was, the Marines managed to wrest positive consequences from it," he said. "As soon as the Marines left Fallujah they headed for al Karmah, a town about half the size of Fallujah strategically located between Fallujah and Baghdad. They moved inside, patrolling regularly, talking to people, collecting intelligence and going a long way toward reclaiming that city."
If al Karmah is reclaimed and Fallujah remains calm, "the decision not to launch an all-out assault on Fallujah could look like the right one," Kaplan said.
But, he added, "none of the above matters if it is not competently explained to the American public. The public was never made to feel just how much a military threat the mosques in Fallujah represented, how far the Marines went to avoid damage to them and to civilians, and just how much those same Marine battalions accomplished after departing Fallujah."
Kaplan blamed the Bush administration for this failure.
"The administration should have been holding dramatic slide shows for the public ... explaining how this or that mosque was being militarily utilized," he said. "And had the administration adequately explained to the public what the Marines were doing after Fallujah, there might have been less disappointment and mystification about quitting the fight there."
"Without a communications strategy that gives the public the same sense of mission that a company captain imparts to his noncommissioned officers, victory in warfare nowadays is impossible," Kaplan concluded.
I agree with Kaplan's criticisms and his recommendations for reform, particularly for flattening the military's public affairs bureaucracy. Prying information out of the Army -- even if it is information favorable to the Army -- often is agonizing. (The Marines are much more forthcoming.)
But if the news reports coming out of Iraq are misleading, surely some of the blame for that must rest with the news media. And if some in the media are determined to ignore facts which do not fit their preferred story line, how much can "dramatic slide shows" at military briefings change this?
"I have never been anywhere else in the world where the people were so happy to see an American," said Todd (last name withheld), an airman stationed in Nasiriyah, in an e-mail. "The media never tells that side of the story."
"Almost everybody loves [the Americans]," Maj. Bob Broody, an Army reservist who spent a year in Iraq, told his hometown Rotary Club in the Philadelphia suburb of Coatesville. "The news media doesn't want to tell us about the good side."