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The media put the worst possible spin on any event in military conflicts

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Tuesday, 11 May 2004

The American military learned many lessons from the war in Vietnam, but one lesson it may have to relearn at its cost in Iraq is that the media can distort anything so comprehensively, that the truth can be buried for decades, if not for ever.

A prime example of how reality can vary from reported truth is the Tet Offensive in 1968. When it was launched by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong the offensive caught the American military mostly by surprise and certainly resulted in losses but the Americans fought back to inflict a comprehensive military disaster on their opponents. Yet the media at the time snatched a political victory for the North Vietnamese from the jaws of that defeat by painting it as a devastating blow for the Americans. A few damaged buildings in Saigon were filmed many times to give the impression that the whole city had been devastated. To this day Tet is often thought of as a defeat rather than a victory for the Americans.

Now in recalling this incident, which can be checked in any of the many histories of the war, I am not defending American involvement in Vietnam. I am also not arguing that America or Australia should be in Iraq. Those are separate issues. Instead I am complaining about the media coverage of the conflict which invariably puts the worst possible spin on every incident. This tendency towards overstatement – to make a bad situation worse, and a worse situation apocalyptic – is mostly institutional but also partly the result of simple bias on the part of commentators, which can flare up into a full-blown hatred of anything American.


As one illustration of this almost overwhelming hatred that certain soft-left commentators apparently feel for America, I can point to an article by Richard Neville, former Oz Editor, in the Sydney Morning Herald issue of May 3. In that article he slaps together two almost unrelated, unchecked pieces of information in media reports, to charge Marine sharpshooters around the Iraqi town of Fallujah with the crime of mass slaughter of women and children. The horrific accusation, presented almost as proven fact, is made casually to illustrate another theme about how student demonstrators are no longer concerned with world affairs. It seems that any accusation, no matter how wild, far-fetched and at odds with other, admittedly patchy first hand reports, must be true, provided the crime involved is sufficiently horrific and it involves the American military.

For the record, and as far as anyone can tell at this distance, snipers are being used at Fallujah precisely because they minimise civilian casualties. They pick their targets, can see each individual they are shooting at, work to rules of engagement, and rarely waste a round. The American military also very likely held back because of the real risk of massive civilian casualties (not to mention some of their own), had they chosen to come storming in. To suggest that the rabble in Fallujah could really hold off assault teams armed with tanks and helicopters, among other things, is ludicrous.

Undoubtedly the Americans have made major mistakes, if not massive ones, in their handling of matters in Iraq, but with commentators intent on accusing them of everything, no matter how ridiculous, it is quite difficult to work out what is happening. It is all wrong and “spiralling out of control”, there is no hope, it is a morass, and it is just like Vietnam. Yeah, right.

Leaving aside the efforts of reporters to report on the conflict and scanning the back blocks of newspapers, the opinion columns and pieces contributed by academics, about the only suggestion I have read that makes any sense is that Iraq has several factions, all of which have militias that they have been busy building up, using military personnel abruptly kicked out of a job when the Americans disbanded the Iraqi army (a mistake, it seems). The current flare up is due to one of these militias trying to grab power, somewhat prematurely. The flare-up means nothing from a military point – if this faction wants Fallujah, and insist on murdering any Westerner sent to help them rebuild, then let them have it - but it may mean everything politically. The faction seen as being most strongly opposed to the Americans is likely to attract a great deal of support in post-occupation Iraq, if not admiration. There is a lot to say for being a resistance hero.

As the militia making all the fuss is just one of a number, including the Kurds, and the Allied-trained army and security forces have not covered themselves with glory – certain units reportedly refused orders to put down the rebels – post-occupation Iraq may well be interesting.

The reporting on Iraq to date may be bizarre and only distantly connected with reality but I do not blame the bias of reporters for all the resulting media mess. Stories which say that the Iraqi people throughout the country (or most of it, anyway) are waiting, sullenly, for the occupiers to go away, will not go very far. Editors do not want them, and are unlikely to send reporters who will write that kind of story. Such stories also do not sell newspapers – a highly relevant consideration.


There is less excuse for some of the nonsense that has been written by academics about the conflict, including many of the books now crowding book store shelves. One in particular, "Fundamentalist World The New Dark Age of Dogma" by English academic Stuart Sim, excels in battiness. Sim describes himself as a post-Marxist (he believes in the ideal but rejects the excesses of Marxist Governments) and, when discussing fundamentalism includes belief in free markets as a form of religious fundamentalism to be guarded against. He also explains Islamic fundamentalist grumpiness, in part, with condescending lectures about the Crusades. Come again? The last of the Crusader states vanished at the end of the thirteenth century, their fate having been sealed by the massive defeat of a Crusader army at Hattin in 1187. For Islamic fundamentalists the Crusades would seem to be more of a rallying cry rather than a grievance. The Infidels invaded and behaved badly and, quite rightly, were sent packing. As an excuse it is certainly a very tenuous one indeed, especially as there are plenty of much fresher grievances for both sides to choose from.

It would seem that any accusation against the West in general and Americans in particular is proven, provided it is bad enough. Any excuse for the Muslims, no matter how feeble, is acceptable. The concepts of balance and sense of proportion do not enter into it.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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