Three recent books about the "fiasco" in Iraq — "Cobra II" by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, "State of Denial" by Bob Woodward and just plain "Fiasco" by Tom Ricks — have attracted a lot of attention, and sales. All three well-written exposes repeat the now well-known argument that our government's incompetence and arrogance have nearly ensured America's failure in birthing democracy in Iraq.
It's worth noting, though, that many of the authors' critical portraits rely on private conversations and anonymous sources. The most damning informants in these books are never identified and so can't be questioned.
The authors, as journalists, are well aware that after The New York Times' problems with Jayson Blair and other high-profile media scandals, the public no longer necessarily accepts what reporters write as gospel. That perhaps explains their and others' apparent adaptation of scholarly methods. Often these days journalists mimic the footnoting of historians — giving the impression that their reporting is history documented by verifiable primary and secondary sources also available to the reader.
Indeed, the verifiability of source material is what distinguishes history from hearsay —and what distinguishes the genre from journalism or first-person recollections. Since the time of the historian Thucydides — who not only recorded what speakers said, but, more controversially, made them voice what he thought they might or ought to have said — historians have developed protocols to ensure credibility. Whether or not historians use footnotes or citations, they at least now agree to draw on information that can be checked by others, who will determine how skillfully, honestly or completely such sources were employed.
But by too often using only the veneer of the historical method, the authors of these three books give their work a patina of scholarly credibility that can confuse the reader. In "Cobra II," for example, some citations at the end of the book state that information came from a "former senior military officer," "former Centcom planner" or "U.S. State Department official."
In "Fiasco," often verbatim quotations are not cited with specific attribution, but only vaguely noted in the text as "said a Bush administration official" or "recalled one officer." Among the endnotes in "State of Denial," we are apprised, "The information in this chapter comes primarily from background interviews with seven knowledgeable sources."