Victor Davis Hanson

But who are these "seven knowledgeable" sources? Since Woodward so far won't name them, how do we really know that they are "knowledgeable" or even "primarily" used? Is the answer because they talked to Woodward (and not to others?), or were pre-selected because they happened to agree with his own views?

In "Cobra II," we wonder why one "former Centcom planner" would talk while others (more numerous?) choose not to. And in "Fiasco," is the talkative but unnamed "Bush administration official" getting even at his rivals by offering only his interpretation of shared past conversations?

There are a number of other things wrong with all this gossip.

First, note the disturbing pattern in this resorting to anonymity. Usually the unidentified source supports the author's critique — and thus is almost always critical of the present policy in Iraq. Rarely do these journalists quote unnamed sources who dissent from their own views, although there are surely pro-U.S. Iraq policy candid voices among the thousands of retired generals.

Second, here is the cardinal rule for anonymous sources in this new genre of pseudo-history: Talk to reporters as soon as possible "off the record" in hopes that they will be sympathetic. If you keep quiet, some of your loudmouth enemies might unload on you from the safety of anonymity, ensuring their narrative, not yours, will become authoritative.

Third, we are not reading accounts of golf or fashion but the most important event since the end of the Cold War as it unfolds. When one writes military history in the middle of a war, there is a responsibility to be extra careful. Real-time interpretations don't just offer lessons about the past but may change the very course of events as they happen.

These past couple of weeks, current and former officials have been protesting that they were unfairly characterized in Woodward's book — and have argued that conditions in Iraq are not as bad as alleged by anonymous sources. And while there have been on-the-record critics of all three books, none of the unnamed accusers cited in them has come forward.

These virtual histories all allege a "state of denial" and lack of accountability on the part of government officials. Perhaps — but how odd then that the authors of "Cobra II," "Fiasco" and "State of Denial" have used the very secrecy and subterfuge they claim to deplore in their targets.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.