Monday, June 21, 2004

Missing in Iraq: Thing One

The first bar fight I ever started was in the wildly mis-named Friendly Saloon in Ardmore in 1983. Some yuppie puke buttonholed me and declared that "the media lost the Vietnam war." I was a newly minted reporter at the time. It was mostly clutch-and-grab; there wasn't much room to swing anything and the bouncers moved fast. That was back when we did this job on typewriters.

Nowadays I'd probably just let him blab. I'm too disillusioned with the media to defend it at the risk of getting tossed from a good roadhouse.

We're biased, but it's not like you think. Media bias is not plotted and rehearsed. It's a natural outgrowth of the fact that people who gravitate to a career, and who get along well enough with the other people in that profession to make a lifetime job out of it, tend to see the world in the same tones.

For instance, major media are written with an essentially secular world-view. If your neighbor wraps his car around a telephone pole and walks away unhurt, the newspaper account of it might say he was saved by his seatbelt or you might read a quote from the township police corporal saying he was damned lucky. You won't read that his mother's daily prayer for his safe return moved God, who dispatched a guardian angel to the scene a split second before impact.

That's appropriate; people go to the media for a rational explanation of the world. Yet most Americans do believe in the efficacy of prayer and the reality of the supernatural. So the media deliberately breaks step with the reader's world-view, but most readers, I think, accept it in that case.

But a bias based on political position, or contempt for authority in general, is not, I think, what serves the media well. And I think it alienates readers.

After Sept. 11, for the first time, I found myself breaking from the media herd. Some of my peers felt the attacks were something we had earned. Many thought the Afghan invasion to overthrow the Taliban was a horrible crime against humanity, and they thought (hoped) it was doomed to fail. At least three of them took time off to march in anti-war protests.

There is an essential split in America today. On the one hand are people who think that 9-11 was a new Pearl Harbor, and it ushered in World War IV. And we should behave as a nation (if not a civilization) at war for its survival. On the other hand are people who -- well, I'm not one of them so I hesitate to say what they think 9-11 was, but suffice it to say they do not think it was a call to arms for Americans.

To the people who believe we are at war, the others will look like the enemy's useful idiots at best, like traitors at worst. To the others, my side will like like bloodthirsty sadists. I can parse the difference between being "against the war" and being "for the other side" (and some people ...cough, cough, michaelmoore, cough... clearly cross the line). I accept that you can be an honest pacifist, or can be angry about 9-11 but also be angry about invading Iraq, and still be a good citizen and an honest person.

But I don't think one of those views ought to rule in the major media of a free nation, to the near exclusion of the other view.

I've seen outright editorializing in news stories, and it is vile. But what I see more often is a continuous decision to play up certain stories, and play down or ignore certain others. Over the long run, this is more damaging. It's the kind of bias that doesn't jump out at you. It oozes, and most people never notice.

Specifically, I'm missing two things in all the media coverage I see from Iraq. The absence of them -- the choice not to cover them, or report on them -- reflects a media bias, if not against the war, against the administration that runs the war. And I'm afraid this will have consequences for that administration, and, more tragically, for the American and Iraqi people.

The first missing piece of the coverage is the Coalition soldiers themselves, along with their Iraqi allies. The Ernie Pyle style was so execrated by the Vietnam era correspondents that by now they seem to have tuned out entirely the fact that there are 138,000 or so U.S. soldiers in Iraq. I actually read AP "battlefield" stories during the Shi'ite uprising in May that went on for 30 inches or more, quoted al-Sadr militia fighters, quoted Mark Kimmitt back in the Green Zone, and didn't have a single word from a U.S. soldier about the fight.

I had a brief brush, earlier today, with some folks I used to chat with in an online discussion group. It was military history-based, and the news from them was that the topic has switched to Iraq, but they're as fractious about the present as they were about the past. My ally in there has been plugging away at the modern media the way she used to shell Lincoln.

I wondered if the guys there, who are at least nominally interested in military matters and history, feel cheated that their media didn't report that, in May, east of Amara, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders mounted an old-style bayonet charge.

It was the first British bayonet charge since before the birth of most of the soldiers who did it. They routed more than 100 al-Sadr thugs from mortar positions, killed at least 20, captured nine, and suffered only three injuries, none serious. With textbook British understatement, the official spokesman merely confirmed that the Mehdi army "took a pretty heavy knocking."

Their local newspaper did a nice write-up on it here, but I only knew about it from reading milblogs. Nary an article in AP or Reuters, that I saw. My gods, if I were a military reporter, I'd bite into this with all 32 teeth. This is the gem of a story that elevates a penny-a-liner into the history books. Why didn't anyone cover it but the local media? I guess there were no American women holding leashes. Now that's news.

Another great heroism story most people missed is the Salvadoran corporal who single-handedly held off a pack of attackers with a switchblade. To its credit, the AP did cover this one. The story was written by Denis D. Gray, and take a bow to him; he's done some of the AP's best work this year. But the editors back in New York didn't play it up at all in their budget, and consequently very few stateside media ended up running it. I didn't see it anywhere in print, in fact. Here's Gray's opening:

NAJAF, Iraq – One of his friends was dead, 12 others lay wounded and the four soldiers still left standing were surrounded and out of ammunition. So Salvadoran Cpl. Samuel Toloza said a prayer, whipped out his switchblade knife and charged the Iraqi gunmen.

In one of the only known instances of hand-to-hand combat in the Iraq conflict, Toloza stabbed several attackers who were swarming around a comrade. The stunned assailants backed away momentarily, just as a relief column came to their rescue.

"We never considered surrender. I was trained to fight until the end," said the 25-year-old Toloza, one of 380 El Salvador soldiers whose heroism is being cited just as criticism is leveled against other members of the multinational force in Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently the Central American unit has "gained a fantastic reputation among the coalition" and expressed hope that they will stay beyond their scheduled departure.

Phil Kosnett, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority in this holy Shiite city, says he owes his life to Salvadorans who repelled a well-executed insurgent attack on his three-car convoy in March. He's nominated six of them for the U.S. Army's Bronze Star medal.

"You hear this snotty phrase 'coalition of the billing' for some of the smaller contingents," says Kosnett, referring to the apparent eagerness of some nations to charge their Iraq operations to Washington. "The El Sals? No way. These guys are punching way above their weight. They're probably the bravest and most professional troops I've every worked with."

And so on.

And of course 90 percent of the Coalition soldiers spend 90 percent of their time not fighting. Among the other things they're doing is interacting with Iraqis, building or rebuilding. Where's all that? Can you name three U.S. military people (lower rank than general) in Iraq? If you can, they're probably the Abu Ghraib idiots. Newsworthy, of course, but was that truly the only remarkable thing done in Iraq this past year? Why did our "New York Times" and CNN and "Washington Post" make Lynndie England a household name, but never mention Marine Capt. Brian R. Chontosh?

While leading his platoon north on Highway 1 toward Ad Diwaniyah, Chontosh's platoon moved into a coordinated ambush of mortars, rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire. With coalitions tanks blocking the road ahead, he realized his platoon was caught in a kill zone.

He had his driver move the vehicle through a breach along his flank, where he was immediately taken under fire from an entrenched machine gun. Without hesitation, Chontosh ordered the driver to advanced directly at the enemy position enabling his .50 caliber machine gunner to silence the enemy.

He then directed his driver into the enemy trench, where he exited his vehicle and began to clear the trench with an M16A2 service rifle and 9 millimeter pistol. His ammunition depleted, Chontosh, with complete disregard for his safety, twice picked up discarded enemy rifles and continued his ferocious attack.

When a Marine following him found an enemy rocket propelled grenade launcher, Chontosh used it to destroy yet another group of enemy soldiers.

When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others.

Isn't he part of the story, too?

For that matter, our media constantly tell us the new Iraqi defense forces are no damned good, and showing endless reels of Iraqi thugs celebrating burning U.S. convoys. Did you read anywhere about Private Imad Abid Zeid Jassim of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps?

“I was walking beside the Marine, then we heard gunfire, and I saw that the American Marine was shot. Then I realized it was just me and him, so I quickly started shooting at the enemy." Jassim's citation for bravery reads, in part:

"...[A]s the firefight ensued, under a hail of enemy fire that was accurately targeted on the wounded [U.S.] Marine, and without regard for his own safety, Private Imad Jassim moved forward into the enemy fire and came to the aid of the wounded Marine. He dragged the wounded Marine out of the line of fire to a covered and concealed position...reengaged the enemy...aggressively pushed forward...dislodged the enemy fighters.... His efforts clearly saved the life of the Marine...."

Isn't that part of the story, too? Isn't that part of what you need to know to decide whether the grand, messy experiment of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is working, or not? Or whether the incumbent of the White House deserves the next four years to keep working on it?