Ah, the happy world of Iraq, as seen through U.S. military press releases. Iraq could be exploding—in fact, parts of it still regularly are—but the press-release view would still be that of policemen graduating, officials cutting ribbons, and grateful citizens leading security forces and their U.S. advisers to weapons caches. The few press releases that do bear any relation to the reality we reporters see on the ground (“Iraqi Special Operations Forces Continue Operations Despite Budget Challenges”) are almost instantly recalled. The regular background briefings and press conferences that once helped put the ongoing violence into context are so last year. In a country with 130,000 U.S. troops fighting a war that still costs tens of billions of dollars a month, the military might as well be invisible. And for the most part, it seems to want it that way.
This wasn’t the case a short time ago. From early 2007 to late 2008, when Colonel Steven Boylan, the public-affairs officer at the U.S. Army’s Battle Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was General David Petraeus’s spokesman in Iraq, part of his job was to lay down a more realistic scenario for the American public. Faced with the certainty of more American casualties as the U.S. launched offensive operations as part of its military “surge,” the generals told their officers to engage with the media.
Petraeus “told the commanders that sixty percent of the fight was to be for and about information,” says Boylan. “In the area of media, he expected that the commanders would be open and accessible to the me-
dia. If needed, they would send their helicopter to LZ [Landing Zone] Washington, pick up the reporters, meet the helicopter when it landed in their area, talk with them, make sure they saw what they wanted to and needed to, and then fly them back to LZ Washington so that they could file their stories.” Boylan’s
other goal was to improve trust with a press corps disillusioned by talking points that, in earlier phases of the war, consistently contradicted what they could see with its own eyes.
That effort to court the media seems extraordinary now. On January 1, 2009, the end date of the U.N. resolution that was the legal basis for the presence of U.S. troops, Iraq assumed full sovereignty, and American soldiers became heavily armed guests. Next came the June 30 deadline for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from populated areas. These shifts seemed to leave military public-affairs officers, and many commanders, at something of a loss to explain the role of the thousands of troops still in the country. With the main military effort shifting to Afghanistan, the military finds itself in the disconcerting position of still being heavily involved in Iraq but unwilling to acknowledge it.
Mostly they’ve retreated into non-communicativeness, and worse. Reporters who visited an Iraqi camp
near Baghdad after January 1 were asked by the military not to photograph the U.S. soldiers supporting the Iraqis, to avoid giving the “wrong impression.”
Does this matter? Yes. This is more than journalists’ angst at a declining story or a residual sense of entitlement fostered by what now seems a golden age of military-media relations. At a minimum, most of us who have covered this war for the past six years want to make sure its painful lessons aren’t lost, and
that we don’t forget the ongoing cost. Forgetfulness is a danger. According to the Pew Research Center, by March 2008, only a little over a quarter of Americans knew that more than four thousand U.S. servicemen and women had been killed in Iraq, let alone more than thirty thousand injured. (As of mid-August, the total number of Americans killed was 4,318.)
This latest phase has coincided with both the financial crisis and turmoil in the media industry. Time magazine was the latest bureau to shut its physical bureau here, in June. The TV networks maintain skeleton staffs—often with no correspondents. Still dangerous, Iraq has become a way station for new reporters on their first foreign assignments. For the most part they expect very little from the military, and that’s generally what they get. This lack of access means that journalists—and by extension, Americans in general—are much less able to determine what’s happening there beneath the surface. And in Iraq, almost everything important happens beneath the surface.