Ten years ago, as the US invasion of Iraq began, and I was the editor of Editor & Publisher, I turned to veteran war reporter (then still at The New York Times) Chris Hedges for insight on what was going on—and what was likely coming. On most questions, his was a minority voice. Also, as it turned out, quite prescient.
He told our reporter Barbara Bedway that the US military’s use of embedded reporters in Iraq had made the war easier to see and harder to understand. Yes, “print is doing a better job than TV,” he observed. “The broadcast media display all these retired generals and charts and graphs, it looks like a giant game of Risk. I find it nauseating.” But even the print embeds had little choice but to “look at Iraq totally through the eyes of the US military,” he pointed out. “That’s a very distorted and self-serving view.”
To Hedges this instantaneous “slice of war” reporting was bereft of context. After a few days passed and the US made its relenteless way toward Baghdad, he told Bedway that reporters have a difficult time interviewing Iraqi civilians, and many don’t even try, he says: “We don’t know what the Iraqis think.” The reporters are “talking about a country and culture they know nothing about…. My suspicion is that the Iraqis view it as an invasion and occupation, not a liberation. This resistance we are seeing may in fact just be the beginning of organized resistance, not the death throes of Saddam’s fedayeen.
“I’ve witnessed how insurgencies build in other conflicts—good guerilla leaders [could appear] who are unknown to us now. They know the landscape. It reminds me of what happened to the Israelis after taking over Gaza, moving among hostile populations.”
Then he expressed what might turn out to be the single most prescient line on the war: “It’s 1967, and we’ve just become Israel.”
The real “shock and awe” may be that we’ve been lulled into a belief that we can wage war cost-free, according to Hedges: “We lose track of what war is and what it can do to a society.”
A few days later, US forces surrounded Baghdad Airport. But even as Saddam fled, the conflict was hardly over. Resistance to the US occupation continued to grow but most Americans, and members of the press, still took it lightly—more as an annoyance than anything to worry about longterm. But Hedges had a different view.
“Postwar coverage has actually been better than the jingoistic war coverage, which was abysmal,” Hedges told Bedway in early May 2003. “There have been some stories—too few, but some—that have given us a sense of the human cost of this war, both to Iraq and to the soldiers who carried it out.”