HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 13, 2007
From Liberty Street

Messages: Sending and Receiving

John Turner


Over the past four years the press has been regularly and vociferously denounced for failing to inform the American people about what has been going on in Iraq. It's true that in 2003 and 2004, the editorial stance of the nation's leading newspapers was despicable. But since then, the reporting from Iraq -- and to some extent from Washington -- has supplied readers with enough factual material to allow them to perceive reality. Certainly, by the end of 2005, no citizen who was reading honestly could doubt that the U.S. incursion into Iraq was, essentially, a criminal enterprise.

Furthermore, sharp and accurate reporting has continued right up until now. On August 12th, for example, the Washington Post ran a detailed article by Steve Fainaru about cost overruns for private security firms protecting Corps of Engineers projects. The United States has paid two British companies $548 million over the past three years to guard the personnel who are attempting to rebuild part of the Iraqi infrastructure. The amount paid is far more than the original contracts called for. Presumably, the U. S. Military can't offer protection for its own work sites.

There may be nothing criminal about the contracts themselves. It seems the two companies have done a pretty good job. But our government has not publicized the truth that we have to hire private foreign firms to do what most American citizens think our army is doing. Nor do many citizens have much grasp of the cost of these services. Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says these half-billion dollar deals are no more than the tip of an iceberg. The Pentagon admits there are twenty thousand security contractors in Iraq and many observers think there are far more than that. The salary and benefits for each of these private soldiers add up to nearly a quarter million dollars annually.  We can have little faith that all the security contractors are doing their work as well as the two British firms reported on by Fainaru because there is virtually no serious accountability for any of them.

In the same issue of the Post, Nathaniel Fick contributed a wonderful op/ed piece about his efforts in Afghanistan to teach American and Afghan officers how to subdue an insurgency. He emphasizes the four paradoxes of insurgency which instruct soldiers how insurgencies differ from so-called regular wars. The goal in countering the kind of resistance the U.S. faces in both Iraq and Afghanistan is not to kill the enemy but rather to convince people that their lives will be better when the fighting stops. Insurgents need to be incorporated into the overall political system. Attempting to destroy them simply wins them more converts.  Fick seems to have little difficulty in making these points to the Afghan officers. But the Americans are another story. The latter remain strongly dedicated to wiping out anyone who opposes them. That's how they have been trained and that's how they think.

These are merely two examples of a torrent of news stories which when pieced together present a mosaic of obfuscation, corruption, cruelty, general indifference to non-American lives, ignorance of alien cultures, and refusal to learn anything that conflicts with preconceived ideas.  It is hard to exaggerate how bleak the overall journalistic account has been for the past three years.

Public communication, though, and public perception of the truth require reception as well as transmission. The power of the press is limited by the reading skills of the electorate. There's no doubt that enough of the story has gotten through to turn a majority against the military occupation of Iraq. But that rejection remains concentrated on the continuing death of American troops and the supposed ingratitude of the Iraqi people. There seems to be a belief among many Americans that officials of the Iraqi government are simply too lazy to form a peaceful, unified, capitalistic state allied with America -- or, in other words, our version of victory.

Americans who think that way have taken in, at best, ten percent of the story. Ten percent is better than zero, which is about where the public was in 2004. But it represents a learning curve too shallow to avoid future miseries. If we come out of the Iraq adventure thinking it was a disaster because there's something wrong with the Iraqis rather than something wrong with us, we will not have learned enough to put our foreign policy on a steady, sensible, humane course.

It was we, not the Iraqis, who selected leaders who devised the most inane, arrogant and ill-informed policies in American history. It was we who continued to support them when their folly was documented beyond doubt. We can blame the media all we wish, and media figures have, indeed, been pathetic. Yet we the people are the ones who failed to read and analyze the main story, which has been there for us all along.


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