War diary

Oliver North

5/2/2003 12:00:00 AM - Oliver North

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It's good to be home. After covering Operation Iraqi Freedom for more than two months for Fox News Channel, Radio America and this column, I've now had the opportunity to reflect on what my colleagues and I saw and how it was reported, and see some of the effects of that reporting back here at home. It's also an opportunity to correct a few misperceptions -- some of them, my own.

First, my personal error in understanding. Every old soldier wants to believe that the best of the best were those he served with under fire. I must confess I felt that way when I went off to cover the U.S. Marines and our Army in Iraq. I should have known better, for I spend much of my life among them for my television series, "War Stories." But even I had to see for myself how they perform under the most adverse of circumstances: combat.

Now, having lived with them for 67 days, it is evident. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines serving in Iraq are without parallel. There has never been a brighter, better trained, better equipped group of men under arms than those who responded to our country's call in this war. No military force in history has ever gone so far, so fast, with so few casualties as this group of young Americans.

And while "major combat operations in Iraq have ended," as President Bush said this week aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, Iraq is still a very dangerous place for tens of thousands of young Americans.

Second misperception: Too many of the "embedded" reporters became "flag waving advocates" and failed the ultimate test of objectivity. Time Magazine's James Poniewozik, among others, scalded those of us who covered the war from the U.S. perspective, branding us "biased" for the way in which we reported the swift victory over the vaunted Republican Guards and the Saddam Fedayeen. And Harper's magazine publisher John MacArthur, citing the event in which we covered a U.S. Marine scaling a giant statue of Saddam and draping the black metal sculpture with Old Glory, accused not only the embedded media -- but the U.S. military as well -- of being "propagandists" for the Bush re-election campaign. But the reality is considerably different.

Most of us simply allowed the young Americans fighting the war to tell the story in their own words. That they are honored to be in the service of their country, proud to liberate a repressed people, and modest about their courage and military prowess was evident -- not because we had lost our objectivity, but because that's the way the troops really are. That may come as a shock to the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper's and Time magazines -- but it doesn't surprise the people of America, who raised these young men and women to those values.

Misconception No. 3: If we don't discover weapons of mass destruction or find the body of Saddam Hussein, the war was wrong. As expected, some in the "Blame America First Crowd" are already saying so. But those who do weren't there the night after the battle at Saddam's Baghdad Palace.

Just a few hours after the fierce fight along the Tigris, I was riding out of the city with an infantry battalion commander, headed north toward Tikrit. Seated beside me was the sergeant major of the Marine unit -- a tough, grizzled veteran of two wars and a good number of gunfights in between.

The armed convoy paused at an intersection, and suddenly the street was full of cheering Iraqis, waving signs "America No. 1," Good for Bush" and "Marines equal Liberty." No reporter could have missed the fact that the people were cheering -- not jeering. They were throwing flowers -- not stones or grenades. Suddenly, a little girl was at the sergeant major's side. She reached up, handing him a hand-drawn American flag and said, in perfect English, "We love you."

As I watched, this hard old sergeant major brushed away a tear and explained -- "a little dust in the eyes." Later, after we had exited the city, he turned to me and volunteered, "This is proof," he said holding up the child's rendering of the stars and stripes, "that we're doing the right thing here in Iraq." The old warrior was on the mark -- and every one of his colleagues serving in Iraq knows it. So do most of the Iraqi people -- finally freed from a brutal dictatorship. But it's probably too much to hope that the American media elite would come to the same conclusion.

Bill Mauldin, the late, great, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist of World War II, once wrote, "Peace is the absence of shooting." Well, in Iraq today, young Americans are still being shot at. And it's likely that the "Reconstruction Phase" of this conflict will produce more of the same -- sharp, harsh gunfights in which young men in harm's way are tested.

Unfortunately, now that the embedded correspondents have returned home, it also appears that we are also going to have "more of the same" when it comes to the reporting on the effort of America's armed forces still in Iraq. Those who now have their quills in barrels of poison ink have the forum. Expect fewer interviews with heroes -- and more criticism of their commander in chief.