War porn

A fascinating development of the Iraq War are the “war bloggers”, like Michael Yon and Bill Roggio, providing disintermediated news — non-journalists reporting directly from Iraq.  Free from the commercial and political entanglements of the major media, war bloggers can precisely target their audience.  Many of them report events using the narrative that brought Tom Clancy fame and fortune.  It may do the same for them.

Clancy has a well-deserved reputation for technical accuracy, but the action takes place in a world unlike ours.  In Clancy-world the equivalent of Prince Charles is a warm family man.  The equivalent of Michael Gorbechav a wise statesman, steering Russia to a prosperous and democratic future.  The CIA is efficient and effective.  When Federal agents shoot someone, even a bad guy, they feel remorse (no episodes in his books like Ruby Ridge, Waco, or the too-numerous no-knock SWAT teams shootings of innocent people).  Clancy-world is a better one than ours, and that might account for much of his popularity.

Similarly some war-bloggers provide a Disney-like view of the war, imposing a WWII-like narrative on Iraq.  Probably this is what their readers want.

  1. Reporting the war as good guys — our allies — fighting bad guys (al Qaeda).  But, like al Qaeda in Iraq, Shiite Arab and Sunni Arab militias have also done terrible things to civilians — murder, rape, ethnic cleanings (all those incidents reported daily at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment).   It paints a false picture to whitewash the militia in order to make al Qaeda look like the bad guys.
  2. Ignoring or minimizing the economic depression the war has imposed on Iraq, and the hardships causes by deterioration of basic services:  sewage, clean water, electricity, health care.
  3. Ignoring or minimizing the refugee crisis and the effects of the emigration of so many of Iraq’s professional class.
  4. Repeating scraps of good news, often false (e.g., the “refugees are streaming home” rumor — not in large numbers, fewer willingly).
  5. Ignoring the fracturing of Iraq, reporting only about the “Iraq Army” or “Iraq Police”, as if this was Iowa — ignoring the often-vital context of sectarian/ethnic identity.
  6. Ignoring the relentless weakening role of the central government in Iraq, and its replacement by local structures (a corollary of the #5).

Worst of all, they provide analysis of the war looking only at the plus side of the ledger.  This is the fast road to disaster, ignoring the cost in money and blood, damage to America’s strategic position (e.g., rise of Iran’s influence in the Middle East) — even a broad evaluation of the war in terms of the official goals and benchmarks.

For an example of a Clancy-like cartoon version of Iraq, war porn, see “Stake through Their Hearts — Killing al Qaeda” by Michael Yon (March 2008). 

  • Al Qaeda has played a significant role in the multi-player disintegration of Iraq, but by all major reports a minor one both in terms of manpower and damage inflicted.  But one would think otherwise from reading this account, which I believe is broadly typically of Yon’s reporting. 
  • I regret to say, American forces have played a more complex role in the Iraq tragedy than the white knights of Yon’s reporting. 
  • In Yon’s Iraq bombing is done only by al Qaeda, the heavy and somewhat indiscriminate hand of American air power being almost invisible.
  • Likewise invisible to Yon is the problematic nature of American’s “enduring bases“, the tangible expression of our neo-colonial intent.  I doubt the permanent appearance of these is invisible to the Iraq people.

This post describes some general tendencies, and as always there are exceptions.  For example, Michael Yon has posted reports by General Barry McCaffrey — first-class broad-band analysis — and critical analysis of the war by journalist Joe Galloway.  Also, however one-side the reporting, war bloggers provide a valuable first-person account of the war from the perspective of America’s troops.  The major media used to do this, but appear to have lost interest in this important job during the past few years.  

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Update:  another comment about calling militia “Iraq national forces”

Excerpt from “Who are the Iraq Security Forces“, W. Patrick Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired), posted at Sic Semper Tyrannis (26 March 2008):

… The MSM talks as though the “Iraqi Security Forces” are something other than representatives of militia anti Sadrist forces among the Shia.  That is not the case.  The security forces really represent the power of some of the Shia parties/militias being used in this case against the Sadrists.  There is an ongoing struggle among the major Shia factions in Iraq.  One of these is the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr.  Others include the Dawa allies of Prime Ministers Maliki, the al-Hakim faction (SIIC), the Badr Force (generally allied with Hakim) and Fadila in the Basra area.

Need a score card?  Well, the “security forces” are full of Badr Force militia men.  These people belong to an organization that was raised originally by Iran to fight against IRAQ.  They have been recruited into the “security forces” in large numbers. … The US has been treasuring the idea that the apparatus of the Iraqi state is other than a congeries of militia factions and parties.

Update:  Bill Roggio

Here are some posts by the experts on Central Asia at Registan.net (“Central Asia News – All Central Asia, All The Time”) about the work of war-blogger Bill Roggio, Editor of the Long War Journal (LWJ).  Esp note the discussion in the comments section!  (Note:  I know little about these things, but post these as FYI). When you click on these, an error message will appear in the new window (due to an error on their site). To get to the site just add a “/” to the end of the URL in the address window and click send.

Just a Reminder — Uzbekistan does not have ‘huge oil reserves’”  (15 June 2005) — A small correction.

Spinning Waziristan” (25 April 2007) — Disagreement about the narrative.

This is the sort of thing I hate”  (17 March 2008) — Is it propaganda or reporting? 

Pushing Propaganda”  (20 March 2008) — Some good words about the LWJ, and some concerns.  Here is a summary of the author’s opinion:

“Ordinarily, LWJ does a pretty good job of covering the wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq: they have some embedded bloggers for the soldiers’-eye view, some RSS-hounds for the top-level view, and can post on events pretty quickly. Though I am personally uncomfortable with the rather uncritical stance toward military operations, I have a lot of respect for Bill Roggio’s work.”

Update:  another reason the war-bloggers provide a valuable perspective

Long-Distance Reporting“, Jonathan Foreman, National Review Online (27 March 2008) — I do not know if the this is correct, but if so it is an important observation.

Check out the bylines on the news-reports on the fighting in Basra and see if you can find any foreign reporters who are actually in the city they are writing about.  The New York Times’s James Glanzer is filing from a compound in Baghdad. The BBC’s reporters are doing the same. Depending on phone calls to more or less reliable – or partis-pris — Iraqi stringers at the other end of the country, they might as well be filing from Amman or Tel Aviv or New York.

… On the other hand there’s something impressive about reporters who may never have never visited Basra – the country’s second city and an hour’s flight away – sounding authoritative about the place and its atmosphere.  This is mainstream reporting on the Iraq war as it has evolved. It’s why the Michaels Totten and Yon are so important, and the milblogs, and the Iraqi blogs like Healing Iraq.

For more information on this topic

  1. Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant (6 February 2008)
  2. The oddity of reports about the Iraq War (13 March 2008) — Some theories why after 5 years we still debate basic things about the Iraq War.
  3. War porn (25 March 2008) – Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the war-bloggers’ reporting in Iraq.
  4. More views of the events at Basra (2) — bloggers and war-bloggers (28 March 2008) – Contrast the war bloggers’ reports with those of some experts.
  5. A rebuttal to “War Porn” (it takes 2 sides to have a discussion)(29 March 2008) — Someone writes a defense of the war bloggers, and my reply.
  6. A look at the writings of “war blogger” Michael J. Totten (31 March 2008) – extracts of his posts from 2003 – 2005.
  7. An email discussion with Michael Totten (31 March 2008)
  8. Evidence of the war bloggers’ growing influence (2 April 2008)
  9. Basra, a test case: war blogger’s vs. experts (2 April 2008)
  10. Experts’ views about the recent fighting in Basra (2 April 2008)
  11. Sources of the Instapundit’s knowledge — analysis or cartoons? (3 April 2008)
  12. Some comments by Bill Roggio, Editor of the Long War Journal (3 April 2008)
  13. Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War — My articles, and links to several by Niall Ferguson.
  14. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq

7 thoughts on “War porn

  1. My pop-psychology hypothesis is that the moral ambiguity in guerrilla wars cause some people to reflexively view the war in Manichean terms.

    Another uninformed hypothesis of mine is that reporting like Yon and Roggio’s serves to mobilize a certain segment of the population (Right, pro-military, Christian) that sees the conflict in similar Manichean terms. Yon and Roggio effectively function as military spokesmen but with more credibility due to their independent status. Thus they provide ‘independent’ confirmation for what pro-war segments want to believe.
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    Fabius Maximus: Interesting theory! This is a way to reduce the cognitive dissonance I described in this post.

  2. I suspect that this kind of reporting featured heavily in the newspapers up until the 1950s or so. I haven’t looked closely enough to see what the reporting was like during the Korean war. But there has always been demand for this kind of writing – look at the Iliad! I think what has changed is that the mainstream media has become more professional, particularly given the heavy moral ambiguities of the proxy conflicts waged in the developing world during the Cold War (and, of course, the very direct conflict of Vietnam).
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    This kind of *narrative*, would be a better way of describing the Iliad…

  3. Missing elements from the “War on Terror” muthos.

    1) Despite all the celebration of “the troops,” there are no “Willie and Joe” cartoons;
    2) There are no “Romeo and Juliet / West Side Story ” romances between Sunni boy and Shi’a girl or Palestinian boy and Israeli girl;
    3) There is no “noble foe.” No Hector, No Hannibal. No Saladin. No Rommel.

  4. Roggio and Yon and other mil-blogging grunts and officers alike are *balance* for the NYT and for Marxist professors like Juan Cole. They do not need to be balanced in and of themselves. All they have to do is write about the same traditional American warrior virtues Ernie Pyle wrote about and Alvin York exemplified.
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    Fabius Maximus: If they limited themselves to this, as I believe Pyle and his peers did in WWI and WWII, they would be providing a valuable service (that is, Pyle reported more than editorialized or analyzed). However they move beyond that to discussing the conduct of the war, and, as stated above, in what I believe is a highly misleading manner. Their descriptions of the war are cartoons, stripped of the essential context needed to understand its dynamics. For all their faults, and reporting on wars is always difficult, I believe the mainstream media have done an adequate job of displaying both the pluses and minuses — as seen in the fact that their reporting is attacked by both sides.

  5. Two updates have been added to this post:

    1. Some links to articles at Registan discussing the work of war-blogger Bill Roggio.

    2. An excerpt from “Who are the Iraq Security Forces“, W. Patrick Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired), posted at Sic Semper Tyrannis (26 March 2008):

    “… The MSM talks as though the “Iraqi Security Forces” are something other than representatives of militia anti Sadrist forces among the Shia. That is not the case. The security forces really represent the power of some of the Shia parties/militias being used in this case against the Sadrists. There is an ongoing struggle among the major Shia factions in Iraq. One of these is the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr. Others include the Dawa allies of Prime Ministers Maliki, the al-Hakim faction (SIIC), the Badr Force (generally allied with Hakim) and Fadila in the Basra area.

    “Need a score card? Well, the “security forces” are full of Badr Force militia men. These people belong to an organization that was raised originally by Iran to fight against IRAQ. They have been recruited into the “security forces” in large numbers. … The US has been treasuring the idea that the apparatus of the Iraqi state is other than a congeries of militia factions and parties.”

  6. And how may I ask Fabius is your view of the war in Iraq arrived at? Are you there? Were you there? Are you someone like Ricks who claims to be an expert on the military yet to my knowledge has never humped a ruck and 16 in his life?

    You’ll pardon me for taking your “opinions” with a grain of salt. Moreover, please pardon me for respecting the opinion/s of those on the ground with the grunts as opposed to those of someone half a world away. What Yon and Totten do to a degree is show the war at the level it should be seen. Small unit. That is where it is fought and that is where it is won. As for the analysis these mil-bloggers add to the mix what is your issue? They are there. You are not. It would seem to me that analysis based on first hand accounts is far more accurate then analysis based on second, third, fourth, etc.

    Let me give you a bit of advice Fabius. As I sit here in my comfortable chair re-learning how to type with seven fingers (the other three were lost during the month of November 2004) I know in my heart that in Iraq there are good guys and bad guys. Yes in many ways it is that simple. On what do I base this simplistic opinion? One month before I left the suck for good I had the distasteful privilege of searching for the right hand of a beautiful 12 year old girl. It seems that just 20 minutes or so prior to the arrival of my squad and I the little girl had been “relieved” of her hand by an overzealous member of JAM. Her offense? From what we could gather from her parents some mid-level muckity muck in Jaish Al Mahdi had seen this little girl take a candybar offered to her by some lowly Marine Lance Corporal just two days prior.

    Yes Fabius the creature that cut off this little girls hand is a bad man, and if I could have found him and identified him while I was there I would have slotted him no questions asked. And, you know what Fabius….that makes me a good man.

    You see sir…at ground level…at grunt level…we see the good and bad. And, yes it is simplistic. Because war at the ground level…grunt level is simplistic. How simple. Easy. How about the war will be over when any man or woman who would cut off the hand of a little girl because she took a candybar from a stranger is either dead, in jail, or to fucking scared to stick his head above the radar. Yeah, it’s simplistic but….it is what it is.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: this is a wonderful comment (thanks, B. Swiger!), and I have put it and my reply in its own post: A rebuttal about “War Bloggers” (it takes 2 sides to have a discussion).

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