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Why did the pundits keep claiming the military campaign was in trouble?

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Thursday, 17 April 2003


Second, the coalition has misjudged the Iraqis as a fighting force. This is no battle for Kuwait. It is a US-defined life and death struggle that denies Hussein any exit. Why be surprised if his security state fights with ferocity against its own liquidation? The air campaign has yet to disable the regime. The number of prisoners of war is not high, with future defections an uncertainty. Most analysts believe the Republican Guard will fight to the end.
- Paul Kelly - The Australian, March 29

Now that American, British and a few Australian troops are cleaning out what remains of the opposition in Iraq, after achieving the regime's collapse in around three weeks, we can look at one of the major puzzles of the war: which war were our media reporting?

In the media version of the war, the US military suffered enormous casualties in a battle plan that went wrong, in part due to the dogged resistance of the Iraqi army culminating in a Stalingrad-style struggle in the streets of Baghdad.

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In Baghdad, the coalition forces confront a city apparently determined to resist. They should remember Napoleon in Moscow, Hitler in Stalingrad, the Americans in Mogadishu and the Russians at Grozny. Hostile cities have ways of making life ghastly for aggressors. They are not like countryside - they seldom capitulate, least of all when their backs are to the wall.
- Simon Jenkins - The Australian, March 29

That version was clearly at odds with the basic facts of miniscule casualty figures reported by the coalition, very few "battles" of any consequence which, in any case, were all grossly one-sided, and the speedy advance of the Coalition forces. The Iraqi army did not even bother to blow up bridges across the country's major rivers before deserting them (not that it would have slowed the coalition much). Republican Guard units melted away. Something like this happened in the first Gulf War when the bulk of the Iraqi soldiers simply went home rather than face days of aerial bombardment. They later returned to their units (or were rounded up), so the Iraqi army quickly returned to its pre-war strength.

The only real opposition came from a handful of extremists, the Fedayeen milita, and non-Iraqis who volunteered to fight the Infidels. The latter group were brave but untrained and virtually unarmed, got very little assistance from the military, even less support from the Iraqi government and nothing but hostility from the populace.

Not only did the bulk of the journalists covering the war (there were honourable exceptions) rise above all those mere facts but, even after the facts became obvious to the proverbial person-in-the-street and all but die-hard opponents of the war, they continued to talk about "fierce" or "stiffening" opposition, "morale-sapping casualties", and about battle plans that had gone wrong, almost to the final collapse of the Iraqi government. This apparent refusal by the media in general to see reason, or at least be objective, culminated in some of the silliest stories I have seen in newspapers in recent times, as US forces closed in on Baghdad, comparing that city's siege with the battle for Stalingrad.

Since Stalingrad and Berlin in World War II, to the US assault on Hue, Vietnam, in 1968 and on to the war zones of Beirut or Nablus, Belfast or Mogadishu, urban warfare has become a central part of the underdog's arsenal - a fight without scruples for the high ground of propaganda that exploits civilian losses and denies the intruder's superior might. It is precisely that messy, manipulative and murderous kind of fighting between conventional forces and elusive defenders that the Americans might face in Baghdad.
- Alan Cowell, - New York Times printed in The Age March 28

Such a comparison is almost a disservice to the memories of soldiers in General Chuikov's 62nd army - the real heroes of Stalingrad - who fought the Germans not just building-by-building but room-by-room, in months of bitter fighting while General Zhukov in Moscow prepared his trap. However, as the publication or transmission of the first such comparisons almost coincided with reports of the Republican Guard defenders of Baghdad running away, some in their underpants, we were spared more stories of the kind. (And there would have been more such stories. I have been told that one of the authors of two recently published histories of the Stalingrad siege said in a TV interview that he had been inundated with requests from editors for articles comparing the sieges of Baghdad and Stalingrad.)

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There may be some excuse for journalists in that stories comparing Baghdad with Stalingrad may have been written before the Republican Guard's collapse became painfully obvious. However, given the performance of the Iraqi army to that date and the obviously vastly different circumstances between the two sieges, the writers should have known better than to make the comparison in the first place.

After this lengthy history of being not just wrong but at odds with most of the observable facts of the campaign, the media-on-the-spot faced a major dilemma when the Iraqi populace made its true feelings known with wild jubilation over the demise of the regime, and by displaying signs saying "Thank you Bush". One could almost sense the media representatives collectively grinding their teeth, trying to work out just how to present the event as a defeat for the Coalition. They quickly found something to be critical about by reporting extensively on the looting which the coalition forces were allegedly failing to stop. Whether there was any failure on the part of the US or British troops in that respect I do not know and, given the general tenor of reporting to that point, I am reluctant to accept the media reports on looting without independent verification.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the media's part in the war is that many of the negative stories circulated in Western news outlets were reprinted in the mainly government-controlled Arab and middle-eastern world's media, and were believed! As a consequence, I understand that the Arab world was shocked when Baghdad fell so easily. One can only hope that they regard the incident only as a hard-won lesson in trusting what they read in the Western media.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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