The Iraq war: act one

Posted: Apr 01, 2003 12:00 AM

Which comes first, the chicken or the nest egg? Reporters and investors were both unsurprisingly jumpy during the first two weeks of the Iraq War. At first, Wall Street was bullish -- as some made it seem that the caissons would keep rolling along all the way into Baghdad, with flowers strewn in their path by adoring Iraqis. Stocks then tanked after many reporters discovered that war is hell and started suggesting that U.S. tanks wouldn't make it.

Some journalists who were shot at seemed understandably frightened. Some corporate heads expressed concern that worried consumers would not spend money. And some ex-generals turned TV analysts kissed up to media pessimists by acting like Boston Red Sox fans. (I am one, and often used to sit at Fenway Park amid leather-lunged die-easies who yelled out "Down the drain" after the first inning.)

In 1951, Douglas MacArthur told Congress, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away." In 1954, Bing Crosby sang in "White Christmas," "What do you do with a general when he stops being a general?" Today, the answer is obvious: Old generals don't fade away, they go on cable networks and complain about current strategy. But this is only the first week of the baseball season, and the war has also just begun, so it's a little early to conclude that the Yankees will either win the pennant or lose the war.

Recycling has its place, but reporters who are trying to conserve the English language by bringing back the Vietnam War expression "quagmire" are also premature. (Besides, calling a desert a quagmire would seem to be a literary gaffe.) Thinking of Vietnam, I would like to nominate two early contenders for the Jane Fonda aid-and-comfort-to-the-enemy award: Peter Arnett, whom NBC rightly agreed to fire, and Nicholas De Genova, still an anthropology professor at Columbia University.

De Genova told a New York rally: "The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military. I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus." (That's when the forces of a warlord in Somalia killed 18 American soldiers and dragged their bodies through the streets.) The professor said he hopes for "a very different world than the one in which we live -- a world where the U.S. would have no place." Might the rest of us hope for universities in which professors don't try to infect their students with hate-America attitudes?

Professors embedded among leftist faculties are doing worse than reporters embedded with U.S. troops. The experience of seeing that Iraqi soldiers brutalize prisoners of war, hold their own civilians hostage and shoot at reporters may also help some journalists to overcome their liberal presuppositions. Newsweek's Scott Johnson produced one of the liveliest Iraq stories so far after he headed out on his own with a photographer and came under fire, only to be rescued by an American convoy. His article ended: "I'm basically embedded now. I don't have much chance of going independent again and, to be honest, I don't know if I want to."

The Vietnam War parallels that pessimists are beginning to employ may be accurate in one respect. That war was part of a far larger war against communism that lasted for 45 years, from 1946, when the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, to 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. The war against terrorism is likely to last as long, and only God knows whether it will be successful.

We talk a lot about Iraqi morale, but much depends on what media presentations do to American morale. The big broadcast surprise so far is that CBS overall seems to be doing a decent job, and one far superior to carping ABC and NBC. Unsurprisingly, Fox has generally given positive stories about the American war effort, CNN and NPR negative ones, and Arab media lying ones.