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War talk

Two sessions at a recent event hosted by the New York Times Magazine provided insights into the coverage of the Iraq war, and the state of US politics.

Alan Miller

Topics Politics

‘How We See the War in Iraq’, part of ‘Sunday With The Magazine’ organised by the New York Times Magazine (1), featured four journalists – Dexter Filkins, Peter Maass, Michael Massing and David Rieff – who have all written extensively on the war in Iraq.

Michael Massing’s recent Now They Tell Us deals specifically with the press and Iraq, while Peter Maas has written on US commandos, oil and more. David Rieff is senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and Dexter Filkins had just come back from a stint as an ‘embed’ in Iraq.

The chair started by asking them what they would write about if they had complete freedom and were not hampered by considerations of safety. Filkins said he would get more information from the insurgents. While he has spent some time interviewing them in a somewhat sporadic manner, he would like to do far more. He noted that it takes three vehicles, two heavily-armoured with armed escort guards and a decoy vehicle, to enter most areas, thus inhibiting previous forms of chronicling events somewhat.

Peter Maass said he was always interested in the stories of ordinary Iraqis, and David Rieff, comparing the situation in Iraq to Bosnia, said we should be talking about the issue of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Iraq. His view was that ethnic cleansing will be the key problem and the relationship between the various groups will degenerate further in this direction. Before having a chance to be too disappointed by this somewhat simplistic use of a very serious term, which is of course being tossed around by many today to avoid explaining specifics, Michael Massing suggested that there was not enough by way of an ‘alternative perspective’ on the war.

It quickly became apparent that while they shared similar perspectives, Massing and Filkins had some very specific differences of opinion as to how the war in Iraq has been covered. Massing suggested there has been a lack of coverage surrounding mistreatment of prisoners, as well as a reluctance to report on civilian deaths. He argued that until the Abu Ghraib and Haditha stories broke, there had been a general shying away from discussing the nastier side of the war. Filkins argued that it was precisely the extensive coverage of those examples that indicated that nothing was off limits. There was a problem of establishing credible evidence, he said, noting that there had been rumours about what had happened at Haditha, but they were not printed precisely because they were rumours – and the New York Times is not in the habit of printing rumours. (That will be news to those of us who read Judith Miller’s articles on Iraq’s alleged WMD in 2002 and 2003.)

The conversation went on to explore the difficulties involved in working in such dangerous conditions. Unlike El Salvador or Nicaragua, David Rieff pointed out, where one could basically turn up and ‘hang around’ waiting for things to happen and stories to cover, the increasingly perilous nature of Iraq meant this was not feasible. This was partly a product of the insurgents no longer wanting to have the Western press as a voice for their arguments. In contrast, the Sandinistas saw foreign journalists as a conduit for vocalising their fight.

The chair wondered why the Iraqi insurgents seemed not to be interested in having their views expressed by journalists. ‘Well they do’, Filkins pointed out, ‘every time they blow something up’. He argued that what is different in Iraq today when compared with past conflicts is that ‘there is no Sinn Fein office down the road as with the IRA. These insurgents have no program to speak of.’

There was also discussion regarding ‘embeds’ and the role they play. How much, for instance, does being ‘embedded’ with US troops end up compromising the integrity of independent journalism? There was a general recognition that embeds could end up being more sympathetic to the military men who were keeping them alive after all. Filkins admitted that he would be reluctant to put these men in any danger and, indeed, said that camaraderie existed. However, he went on to explain that there has been a massive reduction in foreign press in Iraq, from thousands to ‘around 50, comprised solely of a few Brits and Americans’.

While I understood a point made by Michael Massing – that many things do not get discussed that are not sympathetic to the war aims of the occupying force – it seems these days that people are far more inclined to believe a range of conspiracy theories, so that actually there is a rather juvenile response to the situation in Iraq. The notion that ‘the first casualty of war is the truth’ still holds fast, but increasingly the truth is not so much substituted by the homogenous view of the intervening force, but by a myriad of Armageddon-like theories.

But then, independent thinking and honest critical consideration is not in abundance in very many places these days, perhaps least of all in the last US election. While John Kerry ‘reported for duty’ and tried to out-do Bush, Howard Dean had been presented as someone who could really have made a difference. So I was particularly interested to see Dean in person at a later session.

Packed to capacity, the main hall at The Graduate Center had an air of the holy, with all of the attendant sentiments of those who had come to see the saint, albeit one of a secular bent. The NYT‘s Matt Bai introduced Dean as someone who bridged the old Democratic tradition and the new one. Dean himself explained how his generation of the Sixties, who had fought for so much and won serious concessions, had to alter their perspective to speak to the people who never grew up in the world of Martin Luther King and others. This younger generation were more interested in the here and now and what could be done.

Dean, citing poll data, argued that Democrats had to change their tactics, suggesting that ‘we have to stop speaking from here [at which point he pointed to his head] and start speaking from here [pointing to his heart]. We need a new language. We know that 75 per cent of voters vote from the heart.’ There were nods and some ahs from the audience. Dean went on to point out that the significant changes in American society, from Roosevelt and the New Deal to those made by his generation in the Sixties, were great achievements, but new things are needed now. Indeed.

However, it never really became apparent what these ‘new things’ might be. Having talked a little about the disappointment of his own campaign, he went on to outline what he thought needed to be done for success in 2006 (the Congressional elections) and the US Presidential Elections in 2008. He argued that the ‘definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes time and again and hoping for a different result’, which apparently is what the Democratic Party has been doing. He continued that Republicans have been tremendous at winning elections because they are ‘prepared to keep repeating the same thing regardless of the facts. Whereas Democrats are more intellectually inquisitive and willing to disagree and debate in public, Republicans present a united front.’ This, in turn, makes them terrible at governing, he argued. ‘We need to create more think tanks…we need new ideas.’

When I questioned him about the apparent contradiction that seemed to emerge from what he had said about speaking to the hearts and not the heads – while then going on to say new ideas were needed – he brushed this off by saying they could work together. I also suggested that there seemed to be a larger problem about disengagement and cynicism surrounding politics.

It was apparent to me that there is an exhaustion in contemporary politics – and the Democrats have very little to say that might convince people why they should be interested in politics. Replacing one set of managerial technocrats with another is simply not good enough. While some seem to believe there are raging differences in the programmes and perspectives of the leading parties, the reality is that most of America seems to be in general agreement about most things today (2).

Dean recognises the impact of the decline of labour unions on the Democrats. However, the widely-held view that politicians, in fact humans generally, are thoroughly flawed and more likely to do harm than good when in any position of power, needs to be challenged and overcome. That will not be done by repeating the same old behaviour.

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon (www.nysalon.org). The NY Salon is presenting Is There a Culture of Corruption in Politics and Business? at The Society for Ethical Culture on Wednesday 21 June 2006.

(1) Sunday With The Magazine
(2) Morris Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America

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Topics Politics

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