Time magazine recently published an article headlined How Operation Swarmer Fizzled about the ongoing Operation Swarmer in Iraq. The reporters presented it as an attempt by the US military to provide a photo op rather than conduct a serious counter terrorist operation.

In fact, there were no airstrikes and no leading insurgents were nabbed in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a photo op. What’s more, there were no shots fired at all and the units had met no resistance, said the U.S. and Iraqi commanders.

For someone who has been following military events in Iraq it was pretty clearly a negative report that showed little understanding of the operational context. Bill Roggio deals with it here.

The reporting on Operation Swarmer is a microcosm of the sub-par reporting on the Iraq war. Events are immediately placed into a political context. Commentary is often mixed in with reporting. There is little understanding of operational intent or how the military even works. Operations are viewed as individual events, and not placed in a greater context. Failure and faulty assumptions are the baseline for coverage and analysis. Success is arbitrarily determined by a reporter or editor’s biases. The actions of the U.S. and Iraqi military are viewed with suspicion and even contempt.

If you don’t believe me, just read the “objective” reports from Time’s Brian Bennett and Christopher Allbritton. Would they have preferred a bloody battle? Should the military sought their advice in advance to determine the size and composition of the assault force?

And if you don’t believe Yankeewombat that the Time reporters were bagging the operation here is their concluding paragraph dripping with, er….conclusions:

Before loading up into the helicopters for a return trip to Baghdad, Iraqi and American soldiers and some reporters helped themselves to the woman’s freshly baked bread, tearing bits off and chewing it as they wandered among the cows. For most of them, it was the only thing worthwhile they’d found all day.

But the point I want to make in this post is that these reporters are not interested in the actual military events in Iraq and any progress or lack of it. They are looking for events that fit a predetermined plot or story line. So this story does not follow the actual ongoing military story in Iraq but instead follows the Vietnam story line. As someone who lived through the Vietnam war and followed it quite closely through the media, I remember clearly that 1968 Tet offensive was a turning point. As military historians are quick to point out it was not a defeat for the US. The US defenses held and the Viet Cong – the South Vietnamese guerilla army – exhausted themselves. But that’s not the way it played in the media and I don’t entirely blame the media even in retrospect.

Up to Tet the US military and the Government in general had painted a picture such that there should have been no Tet offensive possible. When it came, it seemed to give the lie to everything the government and military had been saying. I can remember my own disappointment that the Viet Cong were capable of such an offensive and my anger at what we had been told. After Tet, skepticism and cynicism prevailed. Everything the government and the military said was regarded as false and in denial of the reality on the ground. They no longer got the benefit of the doubt; they got doubt and disbelief. The 5 PM military briefing became the Five O’clock Follies among a press corps that felt driven to cynicism. The problem today is that the military and the government are still being seen through the lens of that cynicism even though they have changed the way they deal with the press. For anyone interested there is plenty of information about the actual military strategy behind the ongoing series of counter insurgency operations in Iraq and how they are faring – and there is plenty of real news good and bad.

Richard Pyle reported the Vietnam war, and both gulf wars. He discusses the ongoing difficulties between the press and the military here. He writes of the Five O’clock Follies from the perspective of a person who went through them as a reporter and his view pretty well confirms my personal memory.

The foundation of reporting in Vietnam was the famous — or infamous — “Five O’clock Follies,” the daily briefing where military officials provided news releases and verbal accounts of battlefield and air activity. These briefings were much ridiculed, and there were many valid criticisms. But some of the loudest complainers in the press were those who rarely, or never, went into the field.

For all their failings, the Follies were not the pack of lies that some critics suggested. The best reporters and news organizations recognized the value of an on-the-record, official version of events to compare with information from field reporters and other sources.

Earlier in the article Pyle traces the progress of cynicism thus:

The press in those early days was not particularly critical of the United States commitment to the small Southeast Asian country, but it was beginning to question the methods — and to doubt much of what U.S. leaders insisted was true.

Again and again, official assertions of “progress” on the battlefield proved hollow; the “body count” became a metaphor for exaggerated victory claims.

That “credibility gap” remained a fixture of the Vietnam War. It took on new meaning in the communists’ Tet Offensive of early 1968, in the later invasions of Cambodia and Laos, right up to May 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks finally crashed the gates of South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace and helicopters lifted the last desperate evacuees from the U.S. Embassy roof.

A key characteristic of the media is that they deal in stories that communicate quickly. Stories have plots and the way we understand stories and grasp them quickly is precisely because they have familiar plots. If the media reported what happens in all its chaotic variety we would have a hard time sorting it out. They and we need those familiar plots to quickly grasp what is going on. Sometimes the media over do it and impose the plot on the events. They keep fitting what they report to a plot when there is actually a quite different story taking place. The underlying plot (sometimes called a meme) of this Time story, and so many others, is that the US military is caught in a Vietnam like situation (i.e. quagmire) that they can’t win. This plot requires a Tet like turning point and the Golden Mosque attack provided it for a while. However, even the most enthusiastic Iraqi proponent of civil War, Muqtada al-Sadr, backed off abruptly when he saw that the Iraqi government and combined US and Iraqi forces were quite up to the task of stopping it. But the press didn’t allow military events on the ground to stop it advancing its story. The ‘civil war’ was established as the turning point and when the news cycle was exhausted it was time to move on. The next element of story is showing that, as in Vietnam, military operations are a sham. The beauty of this is that every time Tet doesn’t really happen the press can move on to the Five O’clock Follies meme to make anything the military does appear futile and wait for the next spectacular enemy attack and run the cycle again.

Unlike some on the right I don’t think this antiwar media is necessarily disloyal in intent, but is a complex outgrowth of both the Vietnam war and the Watergate experience. Something very like it even happened before – during the Civil War. But that is another story.

2 Responses to “After Tet, the Five O’clock Follies”  

  1. 1 Yankee Wombat | An American in Oz
  2. 2 Jenin, Jenin….whose Jenin? « The Better Part of Valour

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