5 Years Ago: Press Saw Hints of Iraq Slog to Come

Article excerpt

Coming when it did, the photograph seemed like a cruel joke, or a Photoshop prank, just as nearly everyone in America (except perhaps a few Fox News commentators) was awakening to the bone-chilling reality of a quick war that was threatening to turn into a longer slog. And there, splashed across a spread in The New York Times, five years ago this week, during the second week of the invasion of Iraq, was a picture of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld bending over to shake the hand of an equally buoyant Robert S. McNamara.

Unfortunately, it did not look like McNamara was whispering, "What part of the word Vietnam don't you understand?"

It was a Pentagon luncheon for former defense secretaries hosted by Rumsfeld to discuss the war in Iraq, which seemed to be undergoing more "Vietnamization" by the hour. We had seen it all before: the apparently false claims that we had won the "hearts and minds" of the people; the charges that the enemy was not fighting fair; and a rising toll of dead, wounded, or missing military personnel--and journalists. And that was even before a postwar occupation.

I wrote much of the above, and what follows below, here at E&P at the end of March 2003. A month later, after Saddam fell but as the insurgency began in Iraq -- and it started to look like we might, indeed, be there for awhile -- I may have been the first writer to predict that this would turn into a "quagmire." I was roundly ridiculed for that. Flash forward to earlier this month. In an article marking the fifth anniversary of the war, famed correspondent John F. Burns in The New York Times dryly referred to the "Iraq quagmire" -- as a fact, not an assertion.

Here is the remainder of my March 31, 2003, piece. It also appears in my new book, "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq."*

Of course, it is absurd to compare a war of less than two weeks with one that lasted decades. But still, many hear echoes, faint or strong, of Vietnam. Only a few days have passed since CNN's Walter Rodgers, in Iraq in the early moments of the war, told anchor Aaron Brown, "It's great fun," but that seems like a year ago now.

With the conflict under way--and getting nastier--we thought we'd check back with some well-known reporters we had visited during the long run-up to war.

As with Vietnam, too many in the press follow the Pentagon line, says Joseph L. Galloway, the Bronze Star winner and author who is now military-affairs correspondent for Knight Ridder. "One thing not lacking," he adds, dryly, "is optimism for the game plan, but if it hasn't been cleared with the enemy, it tends not to work." He called the press briefings "bullshit."

Tom Wicker, columnist for The New York Times from 1966 to 1991, tells us that he wonders why more didn't question earlier Rumsfeld's plan for a lighter and quicker force in Iraq when many generals were predicting the war would have to be won with more boots on the ground. …