August 22nd, 2007 | Published in Reporting commentary
I have been watching with increasing amusement the MSM and the Democrats – particularly Hillary – pick up on ‘the surge is working’ narrative. And I am likewise amused by Republicans who take the shift in narrative seriously. I am amused because I follow what is happening Iraq as closely as I can through independent journalists. The short and the simple of it is that there are good and bad things happening. Whenever I read about ‘the debacle in Iraq’ or about ‘unalloyed success’ I turn off – I know I’m reading bulldust. ( That isn’t just a euphemism – it is also a metaphor. Bulldust is the fine powdery dust in potholes on Australian bush tracks that fills the air with blinding clouds as you drive through it.) With the notable exception of John Burns of the New York Times who always gives his honest assessment of the situation the best way to get a sense of what is going on in Iraq is to read the independent journalists in the blogosphere. Right now Michael J Totten has just returned from an embed in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne. He has two sequential posts that penetrate the bulldust.
The first post is called Balance of Terror. Trying to pin down a rumor that the reason the outpost he is visiting does not get shelled by the Mahdi Army is because the Iraqi soldiers who live in the next building are its allies, Michael demands, and gets, an interview with the intelligence officer. Here is the intelligence officer:
“It’s true,” he said. “Many of the Iraqi Army soldiers here are supporters of JAM.” JAM is military shorthand for Jaysh al Mahdi, or Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia. “They aren’t in JAM cells necessarily, but they are sympathizers. They may let JAM guys through checkpoints, for example. They aren’t out kidnapping Sunnis or anything like that. They are sympathizers, not direct actors. Almost all the Iraqi Army soldiers here are Shias.”
“Is their presence here the reason we aren’t getting mortared?” I said. “Because the Mahdi Army doesn’t want to blow up their own people?”
“We think that’s probably so,” he said and nodded with confidence.
I didn’t hear that in the briefing when I first got there.
Totten’s next post How To Spy In Iraq is about an all night intelligence gathering operation by elements of the 82nd Airborne is the same general area of Baghdad. Here is Totten’s short overview that encapsulates the new narrative:
General David Petraeus fared better than other American commanders in cracking the code of Iraqi society and reducing the insurgency in Mosul from an explosion to a simmer. I saw some of the results of his strategy’s expansion to Baghdad with troops in the 82nd Airborne Division. Instead of staying on base and training Iraqis while security disintegrated outside the wire, they moved into a neighborhood in Baghdad where they now live and work among the civilian population 24 hours a day.
And here is another out take that surprises and demonstrates in a different way why independent journalism so successfully competes with the standardized product served up by the media.
After eating we returned, stuffed, to the couches. Nathan, our interpreter, was needed outside. To my surprise, Lieutenant Pitts continued his conversation with our Iraqi hosts, unaided, in Arabic.
“How long did you study Arabic?” I said to him during a lull in the conversation.
“I haven’t studied it,” he told me.
He hadn’t? Most non-native speakers can’t hold down a conversation until they have studied Arabic formally for several years.
“I just listen very carefully before our interpreters translate,” he continued, “and I’ve been picking it up. I still need Nathan to help with the nuances and specifics, but I understand basically what they are saying. And they understand me even though I am not speaking correctly.”
The Army has come a long way since they first arrived in Iraq, and Lieutenant Pitts was shaping up to be a real American Arabist.
There are a lot of reasons why that sort of reporting probably gets filtered out of mainstream journalism. It’s bit too personal and perhaps it sounds too atypical. Except it turns out that another soldier in the room, Sargent Roma, has also learned Arabic. Our guys are not just picking up PTSD and wounds – they’re also picking up the language and the culture. Suddenly I have a feel for how these soldiers of ours have grown since 2003 that I don’t pick up in the MSM. It is the kind of detail that just sits there reminding the reader that success and failure in Iraq is made up of little things – good and bad – like this and the ambiguous situation with the Mahdi Army, that mount up over time. And it is regularly reading accounts of this quality that makes predigested narrative obvious.
By way of further example, Bill Roggio’s The Fourth Rail has a couple of posts here and here by daily Princetonian reporter Wesley Morgan covering a day touring the battlefield with General Petraeus. The arresting thing is that Morgan is studying in the departments that Petraeus is connected to at Princeton. Petraeus discusses Morgan’s upcoming Fall courses and who is teaching them at one point. The reader gets to see Petraeus through the eyes of junior colleague – someone who knows the theory behind the theory that the General is trying to put into practice. This piece of independent journalism is brought to us not by CNN, Fox News, the liberal Washington Post or conservative Washington Times but by Bill Roggio’s new media organization Public Multimedia Inc (PMI) “a nonprofit media organization whose mission is to provide original and accurate reporting and analysis of The Long War (also known as the Global War on Terror).”
The bigger picture here is that independent journalists are providing a better service than the MSM. My experience is that taken together their reporting has more juice and less predictable narrative than the competing product. As someone familiar with the ideas of Marshal McLuhan I can see that the Internet has changed the media environment. Now anyone with a computer and a connection to the Internet can write about the war. As McLuhan predicted any time the media environment changes you can count on old ways of doing things falling by the wayside and new ways of doing things emerging. The MSM monopoly is broken and it turns out that there is talent out there that not only can produce a better product, but even grow new institutions like PMI. That new institution, a few months old, has now embedded a reporter with a lot in common academically with the man of the hour – General Petraeus. War is fun – especially when we get to watch one part of the Eastern Intellectual Establishment outmaneuver another part of the Eastern Intellectual Establishment.
Cross posted at yankeewombat.com