A look at the writings of “war blogger” Michael J. Totten

Michael J. Totten has made the jump from blogger to major media journalist, published in LA Weekly, Reason, Commentary, the NY Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, and this week in the New York Times.  As one of the best known war bloggers, and with a long publication record, we can understand more about this important phenomenon by looking at his work.  These blogs play an increasinly large role informing Americans about the war, not only via influential sites such as the Instapundit but also through the mainstream media.

I reviewed the posts on Totten’s website, Middle East Journal, concerning Iraq from July 2003 – June 2005 — when the decisions were made embedding America in Iraq for the foreseeable future.  Forecasting is one of the most difficult games, so we will not use our advantage of hindsight to play gotcha.  Let us look at these with the perspective time gives us, evaluating the quality of his analysis now that many of these debates of this period have cooled.

Today Totten skillfully writes from Iraq about his personal experiences, properly acknowledging that much of his information comes from talking to soldiers.  However, he seems unaware that this provides a one dimensional picture of the war.  A vivid one, but as in the blind men and the elephant, it does not reveal the overall picture.  (Today was omitted from the original text)

The period I examine predates his time in Iraq.  Here are a few conclusions, subjective of course.

  1. Lacking that connection to on-the-spot soldiers, it looks like mostly pro-war cheer-leading — almost propaganda.  Cherry-picking good news to create a false impression. 
  2. Totten displays little evidence (in this period) of actual knowledge about Iraq.  For example, he seldom bothers to identify the sect or ethnicity of the Iraq people he discusses; usually there are just Iraqis and terrorists
  3. He writes as we were fighting a unitary enemy in Iraq, unlike reality in which we fight — at various times — Shia Arabs, foreign jihadists, Sunni Arabs, and criminal gangs of all sorts.  He also ignores that some of Iraq’s insurgent groups have large bases of popular support.
  4. Totten shows little awareness of the limits of American power or limitations on our right to re-shape other peoples to fit our mold.


It is a cartoon version of the war, of the world.  His posts about Iraq during this period seem undeserving of the attention they received, especially by comparison with experts whose commentary proved far more accurate and prescient.  I recommend reading them and decide for yourself; a link is given for each so you can see Totten’s full post.

Here are 23 excerpts from Totten’s posts about Iraq.  Some are significant but difficult to accurately summarize, so only the link appears.  They are representative posts from his blog during this period, not picked to give a skewed picture of his views.  This is just a fraction of his posts, as he discussed a wide range of subjects on his blog (e.g., the American elections).  I did not examine his articles from this period at Tech Central Station (now TCS Daily), as most of Totten’s links to TCS did not work — nor could I find his articles on the TCS site.  A few that were re-posted at other sites appear below.  This post examines his writings — not the man, who is obviously well-educated, widely traveled, and has long experience in the Middle East.

This is the sixth in a series about war bloggers, and how they have influenced public opinion about the Iraq War.  The context for this series was laid in the previous chapters; links to them appear at the end.  Please note that in previous posts I described the war bloggers valuable contributions to our understanding of the war, especially by reporting on the lives of the American men and women in uniform serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

Turn-about is fair play.  My articles from this period can be found here.  They are fewer but longer.  Comparisons, either way, are welcome.  Please post in the comments any of Totten’s excerpts from this period that you believe showed actual knowledge about Iraq or significant understanding of the war. 


Michael Totten kindly responded by email (also in a comment).  I have reformated our email exchange into a Q&A and posted them seperately (with his permission).

Excerpts from Totten’s posts:  July 2003 – June 2005

A Glass Half Full  (8 September 2003)

If you turn on the news or look at the headlines in the newspaper box, the post-war reconstruction of Iraq looks like a failure.  Look more carefully. The Iraqi summer of 2003 is a violent one, but something wonderful and new is being born.

Ted Rall: Left-wing Terror Apologist   (15 September 2003)

Well, considering that the “Iraqi resistance” is made up of Baath Party remnants and foreign theocratic jihadists, I’d say they are a bunch of evil freedom haters.

Iraq is Not a Quagmire  (1 October 2003)

A Snake that Eats its Own Tail  (29 October 2003)

I am not a religious person. I don’t believe in any tangible thing called Evil, at least not in the Satanic or Biblical sense.  That aside, there is no better word to describe the thugs who are wreaking destruction in Baghdad. They are evil.

I’m also with Zeyad on this.  They’re dumb.  They’re made blindingly stupid by their own evil.  Utterly incapable of winning popular support, they thrash about violently consuming themselves and others around them.  It is no way to win a popularity contest.  If we faced a genuinely popular insurgency in Iraq, we’d have one hell of a serious problem.  But this crowd is the absolute scum of the earth, and most Iraqis know it.  If we don’t run away, they are not going to win.

Notes on the Resistance  (3 November 2003)

I have a question for those who think the Iraqi “resistance” is popular. Why would we create an armed Iraqi security force of 200,000 people if they hated us? Wouldn’t that be like arming the Vietcong? Do you really think we’re that stupid?

No Plan  (10 November 2003)

One of the most common criticisms of the Iraq occupation is that Bush has no plan.  Patrick Lasswell says that’s a good thing.

Iraq is not Vietnam, posted at Military.com  (21 November 2003)

Notes on Iraq:  So how goes the quagmire?  (29 December 2003)

In the Washington Times Andrew Apostolou says the Iraqi insurgency is made up almost entirely of Sunni Arab Baathists, and that they most likely will fight to the finish.  It will be a tough slog, but they aren’t likely to win.

“[T]he insurgents are probably a minority within a minority. The U.S. military estimates their numbers at around 5,000 men. There are more Sunni Arabs fighting with the coalition in the new Iraqi police force.”

Once the insurgents are defeated, and they almost certainly will be, the prospects for a decent future look pretty good.

Missing the Point  (9 February 2004)

Iraq is critical for strategic reasons.  The Middle East will continue cranking out terrorists until its political slum has been renovated.  We are not going to be safe as long as the Middle Eastern status quo is tyrannical.  Slum-clearance had to start somewhere, and no dictator in that region had as pernicious an influence as Saddam Hussein.

The Id of the Right  (6 April 2004)

The insurgency in Iraq is getting nasty.  Baathists killed 12 US Marines in Ramadi. And Shi’ite fanatics took over Najaf.

These people are idiots. They are minority factions disliked by the majority. Now they’re going to get themselves killed and conveniently remove themselves from the scene. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, if they want to be martyrs, we’re here to help.

“Quagmire” Watch  (8 April 2004)

With the fighting heating up in Iraq again, this is a good time to take a fresh look at how often in the past two-and-a-half years the media have shown up as hysterical Chicken Littles.

Loser  (14 April 2004)

Well, so much for this guy.

“The fiery radical at the heart of Iraq’s Shia revolt sued for peace yesterday, buckling under the twin pressures of a massive build-up of American forces near his base and demands for moderation from the country’s ayatollahs.  Moqtada al-Sadr, who raised the standard of anti-American revolt 12 days ago, sent out envoys from the holy city of Najaf carrying his peace terms.”

Iraq is not Vietnam, okay?

Saud-Free Arabia   (17 May 2004) — This is a copy, as the link on Totten’s site to TCS does not work.

… Saudi Arabia is not a part of NATO, not a real part of the Coalition of the Willing, not a moderate Arab state, not pro-American, not democratic, not anti-terrorist, not a friend, not a partner, not an ally, and not even a neutral.  It’s time to let them find another patron and sponsor.  The Axis of Evil has a position available.

President Bush’s foreign policy is adrift.  Perhaps he could flush the Saudi bats out of the attic in his next public address.  If the Saudis won’t clean up their rank political slum (and there’s little reason to believe they will) it’s time we publicly declared their country the triangulating back-stabbing terror-mongering rogue state that it is.  Give ’em the rogue state treatment while we’re at it: termination of diplomatic relations and American support for the democratic opposition — such as it is.   It would be a risky move, to be sure.

… The upside is we’ll be on the right side of history, taking the side of our natural allies against all the bad elements in that society. …

Al-Sadr Becomes Pat Robertson  (16 June 2004)

The insurgency of Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s fundamentalist fanatic-in-chief, is toast. …

He’s damn lucky he’s breathing.

So it looks like he’s decided to become a “mainstream” Religious Right figure now. He’ll be Iraq’s Pat Robertson instead of Iraq’s Ayatollah Khomeini, unless he just can’t resist the temptation to bring the gun back into politics, in which case he won’t be just toast he’ll be burnt toast. If he’s smart he’ll get a TV show where he can rail against Godless heathens, raise money for kooky causes, and call it good.

I suppose this development is fine and all, but there’s a danger here. It could have been al-Sadr’s plan all along to throw a gigantic fit to get in on the action. Other marginalized wingnuts might decide to follow his example and see if it works for them. I don’t expect they’ll be happy with the results if they try.

A Glass Half Full  (1 June 2004)

… I don’t want to pretend there aren’t any problems. There were always going to be problems in Iraq no matter what we did, whether we invaded or not, whether we invaded and occupied differently or not. But the fact that there are problems (which, again, was inevitable) doesn’t mean the project flopped. Imperfection isn’t evidence of failure, and it never has been.

Iraq is a better place this year than it was last year. If Iraq is better off next year than it is right now, it will be nice if the media notice. Anyway, if they won’t I will.

The Real Iraqi Resistance   (28 July 2004)

There is no “resistance” in Iraq except that of the brave Iraqis who pick up rifles and face the jihadists.

Fallujah Strikes Back  (4 August 2004)

Here’s some good news from Fallujah of all places. … This is huge.  Terrorists are now getting their asses kicked by the locals in the biggest hotbed of violent activity in Iraq.  They are not Mao’s famous fish who swim in the “sea” of the people.  They are hunted by the people.

Kill Moqtada al-Sadr  (9 August 2004)

It’s long past time to remove the gun from Iraqi politics.  The irony is that you have to use guns to do it.  If Iraqi liberals (ie, those who wish to replace bullets with ballots) are not willing to kill those who take up arms against them, Iraq will be ruled once again by the ruthless.

Moqtada al-Sadr cranked up his “revolution” and says he wants to fight to his “last drop of blood.”  Fine, then.  Give the man what he wants.

… I say we go to the infinitely more reasonable Ayatollah Sistani and tell him what time it is. Either Sistani and the other Shi’ite clerics find a way to reign in the insurgency or Moqtada al-Sadr gets toe-tagged.

Kill Moqtada Al Sadr – Part Two   (10 August 2004)

As expected, I’m being taken to task in the comments section in my previous post for saying it’s time to take out Moqtada al Sadr.  For whatever it’s worth, at least some people in Iraq are with me on this.  Obviously, some Iraqis like al-Sadr and sympathize with this goals, but they are part of the problem.  I, for one, don’t wish to let them run roughshod over those who want a secular democratic Iraq.  If Pat Roberton or some other right-wing nut raised an American militia to overthrow the government and impose a theocracy, I’d want him and them taken out, too, not negotiated with or appeased.  Call me crazy.

Terror and Victory  (21 September 2004)

Those who keep insisting we or one of our democratic allies will actually lose a war have been wrong for a third of a century now.  I am thirty four years old. The last time the doom-mongers were right I was three.  They have been consistently wrong throughout my entire living memory.  (Am I forgetting something?  Have we lost a war since Vietnam?)

It’s always the same refrain.  Only the details are different.  That doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong about Iraq.  Iraq could turn into an actual quagmire. It does happen sometimes.

… A few days ago I linked to Victor Davis Hanson who started off his essay by quoting Georges Clemenceau:  “War is a series of catastrophes that results in victory.”

Indeed. It isn’t always this way.  Sometimes, albeit rarely, we do lose wars.  We lost in Vietnam, after all.  But we almost always win.  And when we do it is first by enduring a gut-wrenching series of catastrophes.

Winds of Change at Home and Abroad  (7 March 2005)

This image of today’s left-wing Independent is just too much fun not to steal from LGF.  {Headline:  “Was Bush Right?”}  These headlines are becoming more and more common these days.

Rupert Cornell, who wrote the cover story, says “As Syria pulls out of Lebanon, and the winds of change blow through the Middle East, this is the difficult question that opponents of the Iraq war are having to face.”

Sorry, I don’t mean to gloat, and I shouldn’t.  It’s still possible that the whole thing will blow up in our faces and I’ll be the one who has to eat crow.  I don’t think it will turn out that way, but I don’t know that it won’t.  Nobody does. …

Actions speak louder..   (9 April 2005)

… The Iraqi people have defied the insurgent/terrorists by turning out by the thousands to protest terrorism, participating in elections, shooting insurgents and spitting on their dead bodies. Many of the insurgents aren’t Iraqis. By their actions, Iraqi citizens have shown that they do not support the terrorists who murder their neighbors and their children.  

Cedar Revolution Exported to Syria  (18 May 2005)

Recently I wrote the following in a Tech Central Station column:

Anti-regime protests in Syria were unthinkable just a few weeks ago. They aren’t any more, not because Syria is more open to dissent than other Middle Eastern countries – it’s arguably the most oppressive state in the region now that Saddam’s regime has been dismantled – but because the Lebanese protests and Assad’s cringing response prove he is far more vulnerable than almost everyone thought. He doesn’t win every battle. He can lose and his enemies don’t even have to fire a shot. This is news in Lebanon, and it is news in Syria. If he loses the showdown in Beirut – and he’s well on his way to doing just that – he might find he’s facing one in Damascus.

And so it comes to pass. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution is reverberating powerfully inside Syria. If the Baath regime falls in Damascus as it did in Beirut, chalk Syria up as a domino.

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).

For more information about the War Bloggers and the Iraq War

  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. Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War — My articles, and links to several by Niall Ferguson.
  13. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq

2 thoughts on “A look at the writings of “war blogger” Michael J. Totten”

  1. Michael J. Totten


    Thanks for the heads-up.

    I heartily agree that my older work is a lot more simplistic than what I write now. I didn’t jump from blogger to journalist based on those old posts you reference, but from my reports in the field. I don’t know what your point is in the piece you just wrote, but it reminded me of how much I have grown and why I wanted to get away from armchair commentary in the first place.
    Fabius Maximus: Thank you for the reply, and giving us additional context about how work from that period relates to your current work. Your writing about the lives of our soldiers makes a valuable contribution, and I — and your other readers — wish you the best of fortune in the future.

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