Sometimes, only The Onion gets it right.
The satirical weekly, which does for print journalism what Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” does for cable news, finished off 2005 with a headline that summed up the unspoken reality of last year’s media coverage of the debate about the Iraq War.
The headline read: “U.S. troops draw up own exit strategy.”
It appeared above an article that began: “BAGHDAD — Citing the Bush administration’s ongoing refusal to provide a timetable for withdrawal, the U.S. troops stationed in Iraq have devised their own exit strategy.”
A fictitious Staff Sgt. Cornelius Woods tells the newspaper, “My Marines are the best-trained, best-equipped, most homesick fighting force in the world. Just give us the order, and we will commandeer every available vehicle to execute a flanking maneuver on the airstrips of Mosul. By this time tomorrow, we will have retaken our positions at our families’ dinner tables in full force.”
At the end of a year that saw the U.S. death toll in the war rising toward 2,200, and the toll of wounded go to more than ten times that number, there is still an assumption on the part of much of the media that the U.S. military is enthusiastic about this war. There is also an assumption that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be difficult.
Both assumptions are wrong, as any serious examination of recent events will confirm.
When Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps the most ridiculous cheerleader for the war, visited Iraq just before Christmas, he was confronted by the reality of frustrated troops. Even in the highly controlled context of a meeting between carefully selected soldiers and the vice president, the first comment to Cheney came from Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren, who said, “From our perspective, we don’t see much as far as gains. We’re looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains.”
Of course, Cheney was not listening, as his over-the-top attempt at delivering an applause line to the troops indicated. When he growled, “We’re in this fight to win. These colors don’t run,” not one of the troops clapped, not one of the troops cheered.
While Bush and Cheney are unlikely ever to wake up to the full reality of the mess they have made, some other officials did begin listening in 2005. And when they did they quickly recognized the reality on the ground.
One of the few members of Congress who actually has a history of paying attention to what soldiers say went to Iraq and spent serious time — as opposed to the “photo-op” time devoted to the task by members of the administration — with commanders and their troops. As a result, that members, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., changed his position from one of supporting the war to one of supporting a quick withdrawal.
So The Onion was not far off the mark with its imagining that U.S. troops in Iraq would want to devise an exit strategy.
Nor was The Onion’s imagining of a plan to get the troops out of Iraq at a rapid rate unrealistic. Indeed, one of the worst failings of most major media in the United States has been the acceptance of the Bush-Cheney line that there is no easy nor smart way out of the mess they got our troops into.
Murtha’s call for withdrawal was met with cries of complaint from arm-chair warriors in Washington who said it would be impossible not to mention “disastrous” to exit the quagmire. Yet Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran with close ties to the Pentagon, has devised a plan to get all the troops out of Iraq in six months. He echoes the view of many military strategists who say that the faster U.S. forces and their allies leave, the faster Iraqis will step up to their policing responsibilities and the country will begin to stabilize.
So, as we bid something less than a fond farewell to a year in which the media generally got the story of the war in Iraq wrong, it seems only appropriate to begin the new year by tipping the hat to The Onion for imagining dramatically more accurate coverage of the conflict than what we have gotten — and what we can expect to get — from most of the major broadcast and cable television networks, talk radio and all too many newspapers.
John Nichols covered the first Gulf War and has reported on conflicts in Central America, Africa and southern Asia. His book on American wars of conquest, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published in 2005.