Disappearing Iraq

After a period of openness that benefited both the military and the media, the door is closing

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.

Iraq is no longer raging with violence, but it is a broken country. More than a million of its citizens have fled, a few of them with government money. Many government ministries, divided among political and sectarian factions under a system devised by the U.S., are barely functioning. A budget crisis is depressing everything from expansion of the army to the repair of decrepit schools. In the bigger picture, the U.S. has
found itself in the middle of Kurd-Arab tensions it helped create by disbanding the Iraqi Army and deploying Kurdish forces to secure unprotected areas in 2003. All of this in a country pivotal to U.S. interests in the region.

Although its role has diminished, the U.S. military is still involved in almost every facet of Iraqi society, particularly in rural areas, where soldiers, marines, and special forces do everything from mediating disputes to providing drinking water to conducting combat operations. Counterinsurgency operations have essentially been placed off limits to the press. Reporters asking to cover specific missions are directed to
ribbon cuttings. This reduced access and reduced engagement with reporters has perpetuated the convenient fiction that the servicemen and women in Iraq are simply waiting around to go home. They’re not.

The U.S. still has perhaps the most transparent military in the world. Almost no other country allows the kind of scrutiny on the ground that the U.S. allows reporters during combat operations. Yet a confluence of factors—relief that Iraq is out of the news, the reality that the U.S. is taking a back seat, and the press-averse commanders who are no longer being required to engage with the media—has had the same effect. In the waning days of this six-year-old war, young men and women are being killed out of sight and apparently out of mind.

Journalists in Iraq cherish the memory of embed invitations from the days when the military was courting the media. They seem like quaint anachronisms today. The best of them read like spa menus—offering different options for one-, two-, or three-day stays. Now reporters must fight for military approval and then potentially spend days waiting for flights, all for uncertain access in the end. This has led many reporters to abandon embedding as a reporting tool.

Colonel Boylan, who saw the length of the average media embed shrink from more than five days to less than two after he left Iraq, has a different perspective on the decline of embedding. News organizations face cutbacks and shrinking staffs, he says, as well as declining reader interest in the war at home. “I think there is a tiredness on the part of the units with a microscope looking over their shoulder when the reporter isn’t willing to put in the time or effort to get to know who they are,” he says. “The embed process for the most part is dead.” The part about the shrinking staffs is certainly true. About two dozen reporters from U.S. news outlets are in Iraq on average, a fraction of the number at the height of the war.

Yet the military is increasingly reticent to deal with those who do remain. Even driving onto some military bases for interviews requires embed approval—a form which asks reporters, including those based in Iraq, to submit samples f their work and story ideas. Coverage is often killed by bureaucracy.

Embedding aside, the turnaround time for requests for basic information has gone from the same day, normally—essential for most stories—to three or four days, or more. An acknowledgement that the requests have even been received is considered a victory. Six years into the war, the public-affairs offices for entire Army divisions in Iraq send out contact details to journalists that indicate they have “no commercial number.” A note at the central press office says, “News media representatives are always encouraged to call to check on the status of their query.” The phone number listed routinely disconnects callers when they enter the extension. U.S. officials occasionally refer reporters’ queries to Iraqi officials. But some of those Iraqi officials then ask how the reporter got their name and number, and refer them back to the U.S. military. It would be amusing if it weren’t so disconcerting.

Baghdad is still a tale of two cities: the Green Zone, where most public-affairs officers and many military and State Department staff spend their entire time in Iraq, and the rest of Baghdad, where the Iraqi and Western reporters live. A mid-level officer who had been deployed in the Green Zone for the better part of a year recently wondered to me how it was that Iraqis fill their cars with gas since she had never seen a gas station (and presumably the long lines that go with them). Another embassy person admonished guests invited to a reception not to come too early, seemingly unaware that it’s impossible to determine how long it will take to get through the multiple checkpoints from what U.S. officials still call “the red zone.”

The elaborate system of controls keeping U.S. forces, embassy staff, and contractors well inside the protected zones where the U.S. military and embassy are based also helps keep journalists out. In the broad-brush view of the military rules, all reporters and their local staff are considered potential suicide bombers. At a parking lot where journalists are dropped off to be escorted into Camp Victory, the military takes away cell phones—essential for coordinating pick-ups.

American reporters since last year have been denied the access badges that are given to any U.S. contractor. The badges prevent them from having to wait in areas most vulnerable to suicide bombers in order to enter the Green Zone. That is one reason most Western reporters have boycotted the new press center inside the Green Zone. That and the several intensive body searches required before you get in. I am glad to be able to report some progress here: a letter from the Baghdad-based media hand-delivered to General Raymond Odierno in June resulted in a promise that a limited number of the badges would be issued to the Western media.

The basic U.S. message here is that Iraq is safe again. That is debatable. The twenty-minute ride from the airport to the Green Zone, on what has become one of the safest roads in Baghdad, is nonetheless considered too dangerous for U.S. officials, who fly in instead. The heavily armored shuttle used for the ride to the Green Zone by embassy staff members who can’t get a helicopter flight still requires body armor
and a helmet.

One of the ironies is that as coverage of the U.S. military has waned, the military has taken on more complex tasks. Many of the U.S. troops appear light years ahead of where they started. The first troops I covered in the spring of 2003 jumped out of planes into northern Iraq and were so badly prepared that they spent the night huddled together to keep from freezing, after being told they were landing in desert. Among the standouts I met was the sergeant who told me, “This is my interpreter,” patting his rifle when I asked how they got by without someone to translate for them. And the non-commissioned officer who told me earnestly when I’d asked why he’d volunteered to fight in Tallulah: “I like explosions.”

One benefit of closer proximity to the military—so much harder to come by now—is that after spending time with soldiers, you realize that for every comment like that one there’s a sergeant who knows more history than you do. Two years after Fallujah, during one of those interminable waits for a convoy, I listened in admiration to two noncommissioned officers explain to a third the definition of “wasta”— the
concept of using influence to get things done that is essential to understanding how things work in the Middle East.

But if the sophistication of the troops has increased, it’s not always mirrored among military public-affair officers, who tend to have far less contact with Iraqis. At a press event earlier this year at Saddam Hussein’s former palace at Camp Victory, a buffet laid out for the mostly Iraqi reporters prompted the usual question about what meat they were being served.

“It’s ham,” said the press officer. “How do you say ‘ham’ in Arabic?” The Iraqis politely demurred, backing away from the table.

Early this year, at the transfer-of-authority ceremony for the second-highest-ranking general in Iraq, responsible for all ground forces, only two Western reporters of the dozens in town decided it was worth the hours of waiting and security checks to cover the event, where the intensely private Lieutenant General Lloyd J. Austin III turned over his duties to the even more private Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby Jr. It was made clear to the American reporters who were there that they could expect even less accessibility from the new deputy commander. In fact, Jacoby’s first interview in Baghdad—three months after arriving there—was not with a journalist. It was with Stephen Colbert, during a taped appearance for The Colbert Report.

Some officials say the war is over. It isn’t. It is a different war and a much different story—one that Americans are being encouraged to forget.

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Jane Arraf is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor who has covered Iraq since 1991. As CNN's senior Iraq correspondent, she was embedded with U.S. forces during the battles for Fallujah, Najaf, Samarra, Tal Afar, and other military operations. As the 2005-2006 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, she specialized in counterinsurgency and military-media relations.