It is a pity the major news media have not convened a commission of inquiry to examine their own mistakes and derelictions concerning the war in Iraq. Wouldn’t it be instructive to go back now and re-examine the “documents” the press and television provided Americans to understand why the United States must invade and conquer? Many of the news stories would sound quite naïve and gullible (also hysterical) in light of present events. The patriotic banners that accompanied TV news reports would look irresponsibly biased. Remember those investigative reporters uncovering Saddam’s secret weapons like bomb-sniffing dogs? Remember the bellicose columnists and editorial writers who called for war with grotesque self-confidence?
Of course, news people don’t look backward. No time for self-examination when they are caught up in the “new” news–a commission in Washington examining whether the White House failed its duty to thwart terrorism; the bloody unraveling of “nation-building” in Iraq. Both are suspenseful stories and compete for the main headlines.
Why do I feel melancholy rather than excitement? When reporters reach an advanced age, they sometimes become burdened by memory (assuming their brains are still functional). One can begin to recognize that much of the news is actually an old story–recycled versions of the human folly committed by previous generations. To my eyes, the insurrection under way in Iraq looks like “little Tet”–a smaller version of the original Tet offensive the Vietcong staged in 1968. It shocks Americans in much the same way. Iraq is a “little war” compared with Vietnam, but Americans are learning, once again, that the indigenous people we “liberated” do not love us. Many want our occupying army to withdraw. Insane as it may seem to Americans, they are willing to die for this objective. But what about the schools and roads we built for them?
Every day I hear echoes from the past. George W. Bush even invokes the same phrase–“stay the course”–that four decades ago was understood, ironically, as an expression of official obstinacy and ignorance. A prominent newspaper columnist, one of the most ardent advocates of this war-for-democracy, scolds the “silent majority” in Iraq, urging them to stand up against the killers and proclaim their solidarity with the US troops. He seems angry at their cowardice. His kind of frustration was a constant theme during Vietnam too.
When popular resolve among the Vietnamese disappointed Washington, US strategists would change the government in Saigon. The US proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, fired the interior minister in charge of the Iraqi police we trained to maintain civil order, because they fled the police stations rather than shoot it out with their countrymen. The “hearts and minds” thing was never resolved in Vietnam either. After the Americans withdrew, they discovered that some of their Vietnamese employees (even in news bureaus) had been Vietcong agents all through the war.
What did you learn from that war, Grandpa? Like most Americans, I never saw the battlefield in Indochina, but I did learn painful, indelible lessons as a citizen. My grandchildren are watching this war on television, so I will tell them: I learned that the government sometimes lies to the people–big lies with awful consequences–and sometimes government begins to believe its own lies. As a reporter, I learned with embarrassment to listen to the people in the street, because sometimes they tell you things the government is concealing. Again and again, antiwar dissenters and civil-rights activists told me the FBI and CIA were spying on them, tapping their phones, infiltrating their ranks and disrupting their organizations. The stories I dismissed as paranoia all turned out to be true. I also learned that military conquest, regardless of the stated intentions, seldom succeeds in creating democracy.