If there is one overarching symbol of where it's all gone wrong in Iraq, it is surely the city of Fallujah. Fallujah first entered our consciousness last spring, when a howling, bloodthirsty mob set upon four American contractors, killing them, mutilating and burning their bodies, and flinging their remains over a bridge. Fallujah is where American forces pulled back, allowing local militias to take over in what was touted as a new model for governing an ungovernable country. And Fallujah is where the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reportedly set up shop, planning suicide bombings and carrying out ghastly, videotaped beheadings.
So it was with a sense of almost desperate resignation that we watched as American forces invaded Fallujah earlier this month. Most of the city's 350,000 residents had already fled. So, too, had most of the terrorists. But never mind, said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. This wasn't about defeating the terrorists; it was about denying them sanctuary. With American and Iraqi troops bursting into the city hospital and minarets falling and God-knows-how-many innocents becoming caught in the crossfire, an old, ugly, Orwellian phrase from the Vietnam era came to mind: We had to destroy the village in order to save it. It's not clear that anyone actually said those words back then, but they perfectly encapsulated the insanity of an insane time. So it is with Fallujah in November 2004.
The offensive came to an end, more or less, on Sunday, Nov. 14. The next day's papers, from New York to Los Angeles, from London to Doha, proclaimed the American victory. But though U.S. forces had won -- and, of course, there was never really any doubt of that -- it was considerably less clear exactly what they had won. The press, even among backers of President George W. Bush's pre-emptive war, was notably devoid of triumphalism. Indeed, the near-universal assessment was that the battle of Fallujah had created at least as many problems as it was supposed to solve: a humanitarian crisis in the city itself, a rebellion that's spreading to the northern city of Mosul and elsewhere, and deepening hostility on the part of Iraq's Sunni majority.
What little diversity the national and international press expressed was in what various news organizations chose to emphasize. For the American press, Iraq may be seen from many points of view -- but the most important, always, is that of the United States. Consider, for example, the front page of the following Monday's New York Times. Beneath the headline "Rebels Routed in Falluja; Fighting Spreads Elsewhere," reporters Dexter Filkins and James Glanz wrote, "American forces overran the last center of rebel resistance in Falluja on Sunday after a weeklong invasion that smashed what they called the principal base for the Iraqi insurgency." The story was accompanied by a photo of American Marines driving down a ruined street and a news analysis by Eric Schmitt on the challenges now facing U.S. forces and Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi.
In contrast, for people of the Arab world, the war in Iraq is far more likely to be seen as something that outsiders are doing to them. Consider the English-language Web site of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab news service, which led on Monday with the headline "Aid Convoy Barred From Starving' Falluja." According to the report, Red Crescent trucks carrying food, water and medicine had been turned away by the American military, despite claims by relief agencies that "hundreds of families are trapped inside Falluja." Al-Jazeera also reported that the American and Iraqi forces who raided Fallujah Hospital had abused those inside. The hospital had been identified in the Western media as a terrorist redoubt. But Asma Khamis al-Muhannadi, an "assistant doctor," was quoted as saying, "The hospital was targeted by bombs and rockets. I was with a woman in labour. The umbilical cord had not yet been cut. At that time, a U.S. solider shouted at one of the national guards to arrest me and tie my hands while I was helping the mother to deliver. I will never forget this incident." (Al-Jazeera skeptics, take note: Alissa Rubin reported in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, Nov. 15, that, according to a doctor she interviewed, "Iraqi national guardsmen and US Marines ... had entered the hospital, handcuffed the doctors and were forcing the patients out to the parking lot." The Marines, she wrote, later untied the doctors.)
Immediately following the end of the U.S.-led offensive, Al-Jazeera even had a daily poll: "Have US-led forces lost control of central Iraq?" With more than 28,000 readers responding, the results were running 59 percent "yes," 30 percent "no," and 11 percent "unsure."
No war is easy to report, and the war in Iraq may be more difficult than most. On Nov. 12, journalists' jobs became even tougher, when the Iraqi government's Media High Committee, citing Allawi's recently declared 60-day state of emergency, ordered the news media to distinguish between "innocent citizens of Fallujah" and the insurgents; to refrain from attaching "patriotic descriptions to groups of killers and criminals"; and to "set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear." In a statement posted on the Web site of the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the group's executive director, Ann Cooper, said in response: "We are very troubled by this directive, which is an attempt to control news coverage through government coercion." Cooper might have added that the edict makes a mockery of Bush's oft-repeated pledge to bring democracy to Iraq.
Despite this blatant attempt to control and manage the news media, the big story from Fallujah involved an American Marine who had reportedly executed an unarmed Iraqi insurgent being held prisoner. According to The Associated Press, the Marine Corps has begun a war-crimes investigation into the incident, which was captured by an NBC News team embedded with the Marines. "He's f--king faking he's dead. He's faking he's f--king dead," one of the Marines is reportedly heard saying just before someone finishes the prisoner off with a shot to the head.
Naturally, none of the U.S. broadcast or cable networks would show the video in its raw, unedited form. Americans are far more comfortable with abstract concepts such as "fighting terrorism" and "spreading freedom" than they are with watching a man's brains being splattered on a wall behind him. And who wouldn't be? It's certainly not something I want to see. But at a certain point, shouldn't we be forced to look at what's being done in our name?
Among the U.S. press, The New York Times has provided the most comprehensive, authoritative coverage. On Monday, Nov. 15, I counted six Times stories on such topics as the fighting in Mosul, the not-so-trustworthy Iraqi police and security forces, and the harried staff of the American military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to which injured soldiers were being airlifted. There was also an editorial warning that if Iraq's Sunni minority is not made to feel more included in the country's future, the disorder could grow even worse.
But if no one can throw as much sheer reportorial firepower at a story as the Times, that doesn't mean other newspapers haven't provided some valuable coverage. Particularly impressive has been The Boston Globe's two-person Baghdad bureau, Anne Barnard and Thanassis Cambanis, who have done a good job of showing us the humanity of the people of Iraq in general and of Fallujah in particular.
Barnard wrote about refugees of the city who had been caught in the crossfire. She told the story of Salehma Mahmoud, the 43-year-old mother of four daughters, who'd fled the city after her husband was killed fighting the Americans. Given Mahmoud's anti-American background, her description of what happened when an Iraqi soldier set upon her oldest daughter, Fatima, was somewhat startling. Wrote Barnard: "To Mahmoud's surprise -- because she had been told that US troops would beat and rape her -- a US patrol rescued them. An American soldier pulled the Iraqi soldier away and yelled at him." On Sunday, Cambanis and a Globe correspondent, Sa'ad al-Izzi, wrote about Uthman Mohammed al-Qaisi, a freelance Iraqi journalist who feared he would be killed when he got caught between the two sides.
That Monday's Washington Post carried a shocking front-page story by Karl Vick on the outbreak of violence in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq where tensions run high between native Kurds and Arabs who were imported by Saddam Hussein to establish his regime's dominance in the region. It was in Mosul that Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed by U.S. forces in July 2003. In a reminder of the grotesque anti-Semitism that lies just beneath the surface in many Arab and Muslim societies, Vick wrote of an attack on an armored SUV last Thursday: "Witnesses said that after its Western passengers were chased into a police station, the driver was burned alive atop the vehicle as the attackers shouted Jew!' The city of 1.8 million people then devolved into chaos. Thousands of police officers abandoned their precinct houses. The governor's house was set alight. Insurgents took the police chief's brother, himself a senior officer, into his front yard and shot him dead."
The deterioration is so marked that even the conservative Washington Times is having a hard time spinning events in favor of the White House. For instance, Rowan Scarborough reported the Pentagon's assessment that "the anti-coalition will last for years, although not at the current level where it musters 100 attacks per day" -- an improvement, to be sure, but not exactly the sweets and flowers that Ahmad Chalabi had promised.
And in what struck me more as a temper tantrum than a serious piece of commentary, a former military official named Martin L. Fackler wrote in The Washington Times last Friday that just as the U.S. "lost" Vietnam "by the treason of our news media," so, too, may it be losing the war in Iraq by emphasizing negative news. "The American people need to ponder, long and seriously, the consequences of freedom of the press unfettered by responsibility, accountability or rational perspective -- the freedom of the press to commit treason. We could afford to lose the Vietnam conflict. We cannot afford to lose the war on terror."
Even though American newspaper reporting has evolved considerably in recent decades, it still adheres to the "five W's" of journalism -- who, what, when, where and why -- to a much greater extent than do its European counterparts. So, for some perspective on Fallujah, I turned to the British press. The liberal Guardian and the conservative Daily Telegraph were unexpectedly flat. Not so the liberal Independent and Rupert Murdoch's Times.
The Independent assembled a uniformly dour package on Fallujah. Here, for instance, is the lead of a piece by Andreas Whittam Smith: "In a narrow, almost meaningless sense, American troops have won the battle of Fallujah. But in so doing they have proved beyond doubt that they cannot win the war in Iraq." And beneath the headline "A City Lies in Ruins, Along With the Lives of the Wretched Survivors," Michael Georgy and Kim Sengupta reported: "A drive through the city revealed a picture of utter destruction, with concrete houses flattened, mosques in ruins, telegraph poles down, power and phone lines hanging slack and rubble and human remains littering the empty streets. The north-west Jolan district, once an insurgent stronghold, looked like a ghost town, the only sound the rumbling of tank tracks."
Of course, The Independent's baleful take is somewhat to be expected. So perhaps of more significance is the downbeat assessment in the Times of that paper's former editor, William Rees-Mogg, who compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler -- and then backed away. "Hitler was out of Saddam Hussein's class in every respect," Rees-Mogg wrote. "Hitler was a genius of evil; Saddam is a relative mediocrity. Hitler aimed at world power, and fought a world war to achieve his ambition. Saddam was a local tyrant, though both aggressive and genocidal. The world had no reasonable choice but to defeat Hitler. Both the original decision to invade Iraq and the justifications that were used will always be matters for historic debate; my own support for the action at that time is now a minority view in Britain."
Ah, but what about the French? Unfortunately, I can't read the language. However, Le Monde publishes a separate edition, Le Monde diplomatique that you can get in English every month on the Web (http://mondediplo.com). In the September issue, Alain Gresh wrote an essay that attempted to explain why Iraqis detest both Saddam Hussein and the Americans and that placed it all in a historical context. How French is that? "Iraqis are happy to be rid of a loathsome dictatorship and free of the sanctions that for 13 years drained the life out of Iraq," Gresh wrote. "All they want now is a better life, freedom and independence. But the reality is that no promises made about postwar reconstruction have been kept. Iraqis have no interest in living under an occupation that they suspect of being interested only in oil and regional strategic domination. The days of colonialism are over. The 1920 revolt against the British has been celebrated in Iraq over the decades and has as strong a hold on the popular imagination as the Resistance and the Liberation have in France."
But enough of theory. "News Dissector" Danny Schechter's Weblog on Nov. 15 led me to the most human cry I've encountered about the battle of Fallujah. Schechter pointed to "Baghdad Burning," a blog by Riverbend, a young Iraqi woman. On the weekend of the offensive she wrote: "They say the people have nothing to eat. No produce is going into the city and the water has been cut off for days and days. Do you know what it's like to have no clean water??? People are drinking contaminated water and coming down with diarrhea and other diseases. There are corpses in the street because no one can risk leaving their home to bury people. Families are burying children and parents in the gardens of their homes. WHERE IS EVERYONE??? Iraqis will never forgive this -- never. It's outrageous -- it's genocide and America, with the help and support of Allawi, is responsible. May whoever contributes to this see the sorrow, terror and misery of the people suffering in Falloojeh."
This is horrifying on two levels: the suffering that Riverbend documents and the sentiment behind it -- which doesn't exactly augur well for the Bush administration's hopes of eventual success in Iraq. On Nov. 9, the conservative, pro-war National Review published an editorial grumpily endorsing what it saw as the White House's long-overdue assault on Fallujah. "Crushing the Fallujah rebellion will, the administration and Allawi hope, allow moderate Sunnis to be able to participate in the political process without intimidation. That process is in better shape than is widely acknowledged." If only it were true.
The impression is unavoidable that the Americans decided to invade Fallujah because the options are so few, and because Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. couldn't think of anything better to do. But by destroying Iraq in order to save it, they are destroying the lives of real people -- and eventually, as with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara, themselves.