It must have been the sandstorm. Remember last week when everyone in Iraq was blinded and baffled by the whorl of dust and darkness? Today we might figure that embedded in those blistering grains of hard dust was a meme, one of those catchy ideas that gets implanted in the human mind and multiplies through the culture like a virus.
The media culture seems to have been infected, as much of what we read and hear doesn't jive with what we otherwise know to be true. Headlines and news stories, for instance, variously tell us that we're in trouble, we're falling behind, our plan has failed, that we're the ones "shocked and awed" by Iraqi resistance.
Yet, on the other hand, we know that this is what's really true: Americans and Brits have secured strategic areas, including oil fields in the south and airstrips in the north; carefully minimized civilian casualties; fed and doctored surrendering Iraqis; uncovered a "torture hospital" and a terrorist camp packed with training equipment for nuclear, biological and chemical warfare; and encircled Baghdad in less than two weeks with less than 50 American casualties.
This is a failed plan? So said formerly employed MSNBC war correspondent Peter Arnett, whose weird interview with Saddam's television station was otherwise notable for its inaccuracies. In another statement, Arnett said: "There is growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war," which is patently false. The most recent polls continue to show that 70 percent of Americans support the war.
To be fair, Arnett did make one true statement when he said that the Iraqi "population is responsive to the government's requirements of discipline." Yessiree, when it comes to behavior management, Saddam is peerless. Do we really need to explain this?
Over the weekend, the media played the meme game to perfection, taking a single quote and spreading it around like a germ, infecting other minds along the way so that by now the homeless hitchhiker "knows" that coalition forces misgauged Iraqi resistance.
The quote du jour, attributed to Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of U.S. Army ground forces, and simultaneously repeated in Time magazine, The New York Times (compliments of columnist Maureen Dowd), and a scattering of other newspapers that picked up the original wire story, went like this:
"The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against," he reportedly said. Well, yes, that seems true enough. So what? Soldiers train to fight other soldiers, not children or disguise artists or cowards strapped with bombs. But that's not how Wallace's purloined statement is meant to be understood.
As framed by Dowd, it was intended to bolster the position that the United States is simply clueless in this war, the implication being that since we were wrong about "Iraqi resistance," we're wrong about everything else. Dowd's parenthetical -"No doubt, that truthful heads up will earn General Wallace a slap down" -is surely unlikely.
I suspect Wallace's military footing is secure. Moreover, his statement, while true within the context of the moment, is hardly the sum total of his thoughts. Here's what else he said several days earlier:
"I don't think we'll know until we get in contact with them," he said when asked whether Iraqi soldiers would fight or surrender. And this: "We've got no business to underestimate this enemy. He's cagey, he's foxy, and he's going to fight."
That doesn't sound like a man who is going to be shocked or surprised. Rather only certain members of the media seem to be. Other Americans, notably soldiers and their families, seem to have far greater equilibrium in the face of war than do their interviewers.
Reporters questioning wounded soldiers on Monday, for instance, were palpably disappointed when a young Marine explained how the war was more than he expected.
"I've seen more and done more than I ever thought I would," he said. You could sense the reporter's mind racing to images of footless toddlers and emaciated grandmothers. Then he continued: "I never thought I would have a chance to fight for freedom." Oh.
Objectively, everything thus far seems in perfect tune with what one might expect from a dying regime composed of torturers, murderers and rapists while coalition forces have performed effectively, bravely and with decency. While Iraqis use civilians as human shields, recruit child-soldiers and suicide bombers, and shoot dissenters and POWs, coalition forces try to liberate Iraqi civilians while protecting them.
That's the reality. The rest is static.