A Breathtaking Achievement

By Dewar, Mike | The Spectator, March 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Breathtaking Achievement


Dewar, Mike, The Spectator


Over the first week of the war in Iraq there has been a quite extraordinary mismatch between the perceptions of the coalition commanders on the ground and the expectations of the media. The fact that a very small number of British and American soldiers have been killed. wounded and captured is not unexpected. What is quite extraordinary is how few casualties there have been. Media talk of ,significant casualties' is ridiculous. Again, the absurd emphasis on the significance of the small bands of Iraqi irregulars that are operating behind allied lines in southern Iraq is misleading. Some of these elements may be around for months to come. With the relatively small numbers of coalition forces involved in this operation, it is not possible - nor is it the intention - to control every square metre of Iraq.

The media should be concentrating on the strategic war aims of the coalition and whether or not they are being achieved, rather than focusing on irrelevant tactical detail. Probably about 50 per cent of airtime in the first days of this war has been focused on tactical detail that is strategically and operationally irrelevant. Furthermore, while it may be necessary to report briefly that a deluded soldier of the 101st Airborne Division threw a grenade into a tent occupied by his comrades in Kuwait, killing one and wounding several others, the media should have recognised that this incident was irrelevant in the broader context of the war.

Similarly, the fact that half a dozen US soldiers have been captured merits brief mention, but not hours of airtime. And on Day 5 correspondent after correspondent was reporting that the war was `not going as well as expected', that `allied commanders were surprised at the degree of resistance' and that `there remained significant pockets of resistance'. None of these statements was true. The media appear to think that modern warfare is tidy and predictable, without cost in terms of human lives and human suffering. But warfare is untidy, messy, unpredictable and always costly. That is why commanders must remain flexible and pragmatic and must always take the long view. To react to events from minute to minute and to jump to instant conclusions is unproductive and unprofessional. The media would do better to report strategically as trends develop. Reporting on warfare is not for entertainment, and it should not be described as if it were a football match. Sober reflection is required when so many lives are at stake.

Our politicians are equally guilty. They agonise endlessly about the `loved ones of those who have died'; they drone on about the importance of getting humanitarian aid into the country; and they heap unnecessary praise on our servicemen for their courage and bravery. …

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