Press Cheerleaders and the War They Didn’t Question

A press eager to cheer on the troops got played in the march to war.

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Smoke covers the presidential palace compound in Baghdad on March 21, 2003, during a massive U.S.-led air raid on the Iraqi capital.

President Bush presented a flawed, even dishonest case for invading Iraq ten years ago in the middle of March. However hollow the "intelligence" on WMD, it worked out nicely as a pretext. Only 25 to 30 senators opposed the march to war. And all along, revenge for the September 11th terrorist attacks was the real reason. Everyone knew the truth in this shaken-up land of ours. We needed something to cheer us up, like a splendid little war. 

As Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld now come under fresh scrutiny and a chorus of criticism (too little, too late), it's worth examining how the mainstream media fell in with the whole thing, and led the American public into a meek compliance. Not having a draft makes it much easier to go to war, as the Pentagon had noticed. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Generals are not the only ones who fight the last war; so do journalists. In a brief burst in 1991, the first Gulf War reporting was full of desert fireworks and gung ho jingoism, undoing the damage the Vietnam War had done to the country's military ego. Army generals were escalated into heroes in press briefings and reports; Colin Powell was one of them. In retrospect, that was very unfortunate when it came to letting loose the dogs of war on Baghdad in 2003. 

For who was it but Powell, as Secretary of State, who staked his good name and reputation at the United Nations when he made the case for WMD in Iraq? Maybe he was cynically used by the three main warfighters, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld—but Powell played along and fooled the whole house, including the Fourth Estate.

The opinionmaker Mary McGrory, a Washington Post columnist, gave great weight to his words. Every journalist, print and broadcast, treated Powell's speech with veneration just because Powell delivered it. To be sure, it was a commanding performance, but few remembered Powell's military culture and stellar career was about giving and obeying orders. He's no dissenter.   

[Read the U.S. News Debate: 10 Years Later, Was the Iraq War Worth It?]

It's clear Cheney, too, had an exalted image in the media coverage in the early days of the war. The storyline from the start was that he was the Bush Administration's steady hand, a sober grownup who'd make sure the younger Bush didn't do anything reckless. In fact, we now know, he was the reckless one. I remember the Sunday show chat about how wonderful it would be to have his experience, linking the presidential father and son. I'd name names, but it would take too long. Really. He was a Washington media darling, hard as that seems to believe. 

Structurally, the shrewd Pentagon plan to "embed" prominent correspondents with the desert troops, in their tanks and tents, led to any number of small-town hero stories that contained no real digging or skepticism about the larger war picture. The Pentagon had learned its Vietnam lessons well, determined to avoid any new versions of the "Five O'Clock Follies," the nickname war correspondents gave to the daily news briefings in Saigon. 

[See Photos: 10th Anniversary of Iraq War.]

The networks played the picture of the Saddam Hussein statue falling a thousand times, but gave precious little time to the looting of Iraq's antiquities museum on our watch. This tragedy raised serious questions about U.S. readiness and planning beyond the first few days of the war.  

We were there to stay a while, but the media did not quickly report on how Rumsfeld's Pentagon excluded the State Department from the entire Iraq War and occupation plan. In fact, there was no coherent plan for the years of occupation which followed. Yes, it was a folly. This time, the media was part of it.  

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