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Reflections on the Journalists' War Chatter

Reflections on the Journalists' War Chatter

5 Mins
April 4, 2010

April 5, 2003 -- I am trained as an economist, and so it especially irks me when ignorant journalists attempt to comment on the economy. Many lack even a fairly basic grasp of the mechanics of markets and the possible causes of economic events. Most have little more than a grasp of current rumor and conventional buzzwords.

Now, I am only an aficionado of military history, so it took a couple of weeks of war coverage on Iraq for me to realize that the same situation applies to the war analysis that most journalists offer. This can be seen in the bizarre analogies they drag out of the grab bag of history. For example, the Iraqi strategy of forcing urban fights has been compared to the Battle of Stalingrad of 1942, the high tide of the German invasion of Russia in World War II. Stalingrad certainly shows how an armored assault can bog down in street-by-street urban fighting. But the analogy is strained: The Russian army was huge and increasingly well equipped. Their tanks were superior to the Germans'. And the Russian victory there occurred not so much because the Germans bogged down fighting in the city as because a massive Russian counterattack collapsed the flanks of the German army and left the spear point in Stalingrad cut off from supplies. So Stalingrad tells us that city fighting is good for the defense. But that's about all the relevance to Iraq, where the quality of the Allied equipment totally outclasses the Iraqis, and where the Allied flanks are covered by Special Forces in the Western Desert, not threatened by a Iraqi counterattack from there.

So the journalists' analyses of the war—with a few notable exceptions—have shown all the bad traits of most economic reporting in peacetime. They call any combat in which guns are fired "fierce fighting." They deem a few killed-in-action to be a "setback." A handful of P.O.W.s presents a "crisis" for morale. A few snipers and suicidal fanatics are a "guerrilla" war like Vietnam. In historical context, these are simply inaccurate assessments of the first two weeks of the war. This is not to say that there have been no disappointments in the Iraq campaign, nor that setbacks will not occur. They may. But it is unfortunate that many professional observers seem congenitally incapable of boning up on the basics of the science that applies to their subject. The embedded reporters provide us with invaluable eyes on the fighting. But the commentators' inability to accurately put events in context deprives their audience of a solid grasp of the meaning of what they are seeing.

Journalism is often this way because journalists are first and foremost reporters of events. They train to put themselves in a position to observe facts, and then to recount those facts in a straightforward manner. For analysis and interpretation, they often rely on experts whom they can quote, playing differing analyses against each other. They are not trained to analyze cause and effect. For them, explanatory theory is floating verbiage, not our best approximation of natural laws.

Often, this merely degrades the value of the 24-hour war coverage. But it also results in genuine outrages, and sometimes it descends to the ridiculous.

One of the more ridiculous analyses was another laughable analogy to the World War II Russian Front. I heard it on the BBC World Service on Sunday, March 30. The Iraqi defense-in-depth around Baghdad was like the Battle of Kursk, the commentator said. Now, the Battle of Kursk is not well known in the U.S., but it should be. It was a definitive moment in World War II. In this immense battle of July 1943, the Russians defeated the last and biggest German offensive in the East. It was the biggest tank battle in history, involving thousands of armored vehicles and aircraft. The Russians absorbed the German tank assaults with mile upon mile of heavily fortified defensive lines. The Russians had air superiority, far greater numbers of troops, and continued to match the Nazis in the quality of their equipment. They fought a mobile defense: a very effective plan that used massive artillery barrages, air attacks, and tank maneuver to grind down the elite of the Nazi forces. The casualties were massive: More died in the first hour of Kursk than in the first two weeks of the Iraq war.

And the comparison is absurd in other respects. The Iraqis have not been able to inflict significant casualties at any point in the campaign so far—in the first two weeks, about as many Allied soldiers died from friendly fire or accidents as died by enemy intent. And the Iraqis have not held ground by tenacious defense: Rather, they have held areas where Allied fears of harming Iraqi civilians have restrained the Allied forces. Were the defensive rings around Baghdad like the Russians' at Kursk? Now that the Allies have cut through those lines like butter, we know how silly that simile was.

As to outrages, consider the case of Peter Arnett, fired by NBC news and National Geographic Explorer for reporting on Iraqi state television that the U.S. "war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan. Clearly, the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces." Arnett, an experienced observer of war, should have known better. But he seems to have been thinking like a reporter.

Arnett gave a strong impression that he had no idea what a war plan is made of or what counts as success in war. Let's return to World War II for an analogy that is hopefully apt. The German blitzkrieg through the Ardennes forest in 1940 broke the Allied line in half. In two weeks, the Germans drove to the English Channel. Only a remnant of the French army remained between the panzers and Paris. But the British and French trapped in the north fought a skilled retreat and fell back on the seacoast at Dunkirk. There the renowned British sealift extracted hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, albeit stripped of their heavy equipment, which had to be abandoned. Had the German plan failed? On the June 1, 1940, the Germans had yet to reach Paris, and the British remained defiant.

The key here—that Arnett's comments did not reflect—is that there is a difference between the best possible outcome and the basic success of a plan. In Iraq, the much-hoped-for best outcome was a 100-hour cakewalk à la the 1991 Gulf War. This did not happen: Baathist resistance did not disappear immediately, and the Republican Guard ringing Baghdad did not surrender on demand.

But what was the main goal of the plan? For the Germans in 1940, smashing the Western front open and setting up a further advance on Paris was the goal of their initial offensive. In Iraq in 2003, it seems plain that the opening ground offensive was designed primarily to advance significant ground forces into contact with the Republican Guard divisions ringing Baghdad. If the Guard did not immediately fold, as it did not, the plan probably called for consolidation and resupply on the ground for a short period while the full force of Allied airpower—operating now from bases in Iraq captured in the initial offensive—could be brought to bear on the enemy. Not a coup de main, but still so far looking like an easy conquest by any realistic standard. Arnett may have been fired for being unpatriotic, but he deserved to be fired for grossly exceeding his analytical competence.

Journalists need not, and indeed cannot, be experts in every field of science and art. But there is a need for greater humility among telecasters and front-page raconteurs when they address subjects with complex causes. Journalists who have not mastered the basics of a technical field like economics or military history would do better to address topics in those fields as reporters, focusing on the events that have happened and the stories they can reliably relate. And those who have such work in prospect would do well to apply themselves seriously to developing their grasp of the field in question on the level of an advanced undergraduate from a good college. It is a shame that the constant war coverage has consisted so much in unreflective punditry, when there was so much wonderful first-hand information to recount.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.

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