By now, most of us have been subjected to the snuff film CNN received “through intermediaries from the Islamic Army of Iraq” and dutifully broadcast to its international audience. Making an already bad month for the war effort even worse, President Bush then surrendered a crucial piece of the rhetorical battlefield to his detractors, conceding that Iraq and Vietnam may be similar. “He could be right,” Bush said when asked about an Iraq-Vietnam-Tet comparison made by Tom Friedman. “There’s certainly a stepped-up level of violence.”
Whether this tactical retreat might give Bush maneuvering room on some strategic level is debatable—and so are the Iraq-Vietnam comparisons.
Of course, convincing war opponents, especially the far-Left fringe that animates the antiwar movement, of this is virtually impossible. That’s because members of the antiwar movement have a tendency to view everything through the prism of Vietnam. As a consequence of this (or perhaps as a contributing factor to it), they distrust American power and see war itself as the enemy. Through such a prism, Iraq and Afghanistan and Kosovo and Bosnia and Somalia and Desert Storm and Panama and Grenada all start to resemble Vietnam.
Their perspective determines their opinion. And their opinion becomes fact. Never mind the exponential difference between lives lost in Iraq and Vietnam. Never mind the fragmented nature of Iraq’s insurgents versus the solidified North Vietnamese military-political-governmental apparatus. Never mind North Vietnam’s deep reservoir of great-power backing, compared to the Iraqi insurgents’ shifting and isolated base of support. Never mind the questionable legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government and the genuine democratic support for Iraq’s government.
In truth, if there is a similarity between these two wars, it’s found in how the American media turned against both of them, as evidenced by CNN’s decision to broadcast what amounts to enemy propaganda.
It pays to recall the media’s breathless cheerleading as U.S. troops raced to Baghdad in 2003. Much of it was self-serving and self-laudatory, of course, but it still (happily) echoed the “we’re all in this together” attitude of World War II combat journalism. Likewise, despite revisionist histories, the media supported American involvement in Vietnam early on. As Derek Leebaert reminds us in The Fifty Year Wound, even The New York Times argued, “the cost is large, but the cost of Southeast Asia coming under the heel of Russia and communist China would be larger.” After the Tet offensive, the media bandwagon would quickly empty.
What the media failed to report after Tet—or at least failed to give equal print to—was that the U.S. and its allies won the battle and that North Vietnam lost about half the forces it deployed to carry out the massive offensive in South Vietnam, that North Vietnamese death squads executed as many as 4,000 people during the operation. As military historian John Keegan observes in the London Telegraph, “Insofar as Tet was a defeat for the United States and for the South Vietnamese government, it was because the American media decided to represent it as such.” (Keegan details the dissimilarities between Iraq and Vietnam here, as does historian Frederick Kagan here.)
Today, the media are eager to tell only the bleak side of what is happening in Iraq (and there is indeed a bleak side), to broadcast only footage of carnage and chaos (and there is plenty of both), to turn their unblinking eyes only onto the failures in Iraq and away from the successes (and again, there are plenty of both).
In other words, this is not a case of blaming the messenger for delivering bad news—it’s a case of the messenger delivering partial news.
In his attempt to rationalize the segment that aired on his program, CNN’s Anderson Cooper claimed he was providing “a clear and honest accounting” of the war in Iraq and what American troops are up against in that broken land. But a partial picture is neither clear nor honest. And this is worrisome, because most Americans receive their news from media outlets that provide only that partial picture. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long before the British carved out the borders of Iraq and long before the French gave up on Indochina, “Among democratic nations, the private soldiers remain most like civilians; upon them, the habits of the nation have the firmest hold and public opinion has the most influence.”
How often do Americans hear any news about success in Iraq? It’s out there, but they won’t find it unless they go searching for it. Karl Zinsmeister did his best to spread some of the good news during multiple visits to Iraq while he served as editor of The American Enterprise. More good news can be found at DefendAmerica.mil, the Multinational Forces-Iraq website and the State Department.
Thanks to these and other sources, there is at least enough good news from Iraq to call into question the Vietnam parallel:
- In 2005 alone, Iraq held three nationwide elections, including elections for the interim government, a referendum on the constitution and elections for the constitutional government. In December 2005, almost 11 million Iraqis—close to 75 percent of eligible voters—joined in the democratic process.
- Today, there are 300 political parties and coalitions registered with Iraq’s election commission.
- The courts are handling some 10,000 felony cases each year—and administering the trial of Saddam Hussein.
- Iraq’s GDP is climbing: It was $13.6 billion in 2003, $25.5 billion in 2004 and is expected to grow by 17 percent by the end of 2006.
- In December 2005, the European Union began the process of negotiations for a Trade and Cooperation Agreement with Iraq.
- According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “We have now passed four major Security Council resolutions on Iraq, most of them unanimously, pledging the UN’s support for everything from an international mandate for our coalition forces, to an international rejection of terrorism in Iraq, to the goal of advancing Iraq’s democratic process.”
- In fact, after three years of war and counterinsurgency, some 22 nations in addition to the U.S. and Iraq still have boots on the ground.
- Polling conducted by Oxford Research International reveals that 71 percent of Iraqis say life is “good;” more than half say that “life is already better for them than it was under Saddam;” and 61 percent say security is good in their area.
- With the help of U.S. troops, one-third of Iraq’s schools—in peacetime used as places of Baathist indoctrination, and in wartime used as anti-aircraft sites—have been rehabilitated. Plus, there are 628 new schools under construction. All told, some 3,400 schools have been rehabilitated since 2003, and more than 36,000 teachers have been trained.
And the list goes on and on. Yet the bad news—and the bad news alone—gushes out of the mainstream media in an unrelenting torrent. Sometimes, as the pathetic example of CNN reminds us, it even comes specially delivered in a videotape from the newsmakers themselves.
There is a strange, unintentional symbolism in the way CNN’s producers chose to broadcast the video they received from the snipers of the Islamic Army of Iraq: They played the footage of the gunmen targeting their prey, faded out for that brief, terrible moment when the bullet hit a young American soldier or Marine, and then brought the picture back into focus once the target was felled. How apt—yet another partial picture of what is happening in Iraq.
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