Of Howard Kurtz, Media Narratives, and Historical Myths

In a recent column, Wapo media guru Howard Kurtz commemorated the high- and lowlights of news reporting in the first decade the 21st century.  It contained some commonplace observations about the development of the Internet, the obligatory journalistic self-adulation, and ended on a sour note about the decline of the legacy media and their rather dim prospects in the decade to come.  There were some entertaining bits, however, not the least of which was a paragraph citing what Kurtz called “the two biggest disasters of early-21st-century coverage” which “remain a permanent stain on journalism.”  The first of these was unexceptional:

…the media did far too little to spotlight a shadow banking system built on preposterously exotic risks and federal regulators who blithely looked the other way.

However, the second one brought a smile to my face:

The failure to challenge the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq — and an accompanying tendency to dismiss antiwar voices — is now regretted by the news organizations themselves.

It’s a remarkable example of a “sharashka” as defined by Solzhenitsyn in “The First Circle:” A lie so big that, in the end, even those who invented it believe it. This yarn about how the U.S. media were too “pro-war” has always been absurd on the face of it to anyone not suffering from the flavor of cognitive dissonance peculiar to journalists.  Since the days it was first invented it has passed from being a useful lie to a constituent element of the legacy media’s ideological narrative to its current status of historical myth, believed by the journalistic faithful as what Stalin referred to as “a well known fact,” something like the “well known fact” that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery taught in southern schools in the 1920’s.  One might call it the Jingoistic Media Myth (JMM).

I’m not quite sure when the JMM made its first appearance.  It was, of course, necessary to allow a decent interval to elapse so memories could dull before legacy journalists could “repent” for having “dismissed anti-war voices” with a straight face without drawing peels of laughter from their listeners.  Eventually, however, it became possible to recite it to the proper audiences without the least embarrassment, shedding crocodile tears about the “shame” of it in the process.  Among other things, it fit right in with the fairy tales the European media were peddling to their clientele about the evil American’s “yellow press” at the time.  Of course, as anyone who didn’t fall off the pumpkin wagon yesterday is aware, the legacy media was never, in any way, shape, or form “pro-war” in the case of Iraq.  Why, then, invent the JMM?  Among other things, it provided ideological camouflage.  Assuming one swallowed the myth, it became the “duty” of the legacy media to “atone for their sin.”  One did this by giving prominent coverage to any expression of anti-war sentiment and to any story that could be given an anti-war spin.  In other words, one did it by making the news fit neatly in the ideological box the legacy media has occupied since at least the time of the War in Vietnam.  Any mutterings about “defeatist propaganda” could be faced down with a fine show of virtuous indignation, and pious remarks about the need to re-establish “balanced reporting” after the shameful, jingoistic lapses following the first days of the invasion.  

In the upshot, this “balanced reporting” was turned on full blast.  The upper right hand column on the Wapo’s front page became the preferred venue for any story that could be given an anti-war spin or reinforced the assumption that defeat in Iraq was inevitable.  When it became obvious, even to the Wapo’s editors, that defeat wasn’t imminent after all, and Iraq might not actually be another Vietnam in spite of all previous mutual assurances to the contrary, they tired of the game.  The upper right hand column was devoted to promoting more plausible yarns, and the Wapo became all but silent about the war.

I don’t mean to pick on Kurtz. He’s an “honest man” in the context of modern journalism, and I suspect he firmly believes the JMM mantra he recited in his recent article.  I can only suggest that he take advantage of Google and, perhaps take a look through the Wapo’s archives.  If he does, he may stumble across a few facts that don’t quite conform to the JMM.  Unfortunately, I don’t have convenient access to the archives, so I will have to rely mainly on second hand accounts. 

Take, for example, an article attributed to the Washington Post on the website of CommonDreams.org.  Published on March 3, 2003, the article describes the “stunning success” of worldwide anti-war protests on the previous February 15 in glowing terms.  Journalists typically use the last sentence of ideologically loaded articles as a “zinger” to make sure their readers don’t fail to see the “moral of the story.  In this case it is:

“This was caused by social forces, and it’s not something that organizations produced,” said Andrew Burgin, a member of the coalition’s British steering committee. “They’re not in our control. . . . You don’t lead a movement like this, the movement leads you.”

Not exactly the stuff of jingoistic saber rattling, is it?  What about the anti-war left’s own assessment of Wapo’s coverage at the time?  If the JMM is true, one would expect to find them fairly frothing at the mouth.  However, based on contemporary comments posted on the website of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), their actual reaction was somewhat more positive in response to the Wapo’s coverage of anti-war demonstrations:

The Washington Post (1/28/07) distinguished itself by assigning six staff writers and a researcher to the (anti-war) protest. Its page-one story conveyed the upbeat mood of the crowd and its diversity. It gave prominence to protesters with relatives in Iraq, let us hear a mother explaining the protest to her son as an exercise in free speech, and reported the crowd chanting for impeachment of George W. Bush.

But the paper went beyond human interest, explaining the protesters’ political goal of prodding Congress into action. By naming 10 of the organizations that have come together under the umbrella of United for Peace & Justice, which coordinated the event, it showed the political blending of the agendas of feminists, religious organizations, farmers, active and retired military members and others.

The Post’s coverage also included two sidebars, one about college student protesters and the other a collection of pictures and quotes from a variety of protesters.

Is this the “dismissal of antiwar voices” Kurtz was referring to.  Here’s another puff piece on antiwar demonstrations that appeared on January 20, 2003.  Zinger at the end of the article:  “‘War is not the answer,’ said Mary Appelhof, 66, of Kalamazoo, Mich.”  I could go on and on.

Perhaps it would jar Kurtz memory if he went back and looked at the stuff he was writing himself in the first days of the war. In an article published on March 24, 2003 containing a series of question and answer responses he replies to one “Howard” of New York, who is griping about what he considers an implication in news coverage that anti-war demonstrators don’t “support the troops:

… I do think it’s a canard to say that those who oppose this war don’t support the troops. At the same time, there has understandably been more focus on the antiwar demonstrations because there have been far more of them, drawing bigger numbers, than the pro-war rallies.

Is this the sort of “dismissal of antiwar voices” he’s talking about? 

No matter, the JMM will live on, in spite of the facts.  Historical myths eventually take on a life of their own.  The truth is always elusive, and historical truth is the most elusive kind.  Those who seek it will need a skeptical attitude and lots of source material.

“The New Republic” and the Pitfalls of Historical Prophecy

“The New Republic” has had its ups and downs. Not too long ago its editors were almost unique in their willingness to honestly and thoroughly set forth the arguments for opposing points of view, and in their ability to address them convincingly, although lately they’ve shown a lamentable tendency to sink to the level of the rest of the pack. In common with many American journals of opinion that have survived for any length of time, its content has run from the ridiculous to the sublime, from essays by some of the most brilliant pundits this country has produced to the excrescences of Communist ideologues during the “red period” it passed through in common with many other journals in the aftermath of the Great Depression. It was launched in the opening months of that great watershed event in modern history, the first World War, and lately I’ve been looking through some of those inaugural issues.

It’s very useful to occasionally read through a few articles in the journals and magazines of days gone by. It puts things that are happening today in perspective. Back in 1914, for example, The New Republic devoted a great deal of ink to discussion of the ramifications of the U.S. military intervention in Mexico. The first page of the third issue was entirely taken up with ruminations concerning what should be done about the U.S. troops in Vera Cruz. Today the number of us who are even aware that U.S. troops were in Vera Cruz in 1914 is vanishingly small. Will the matters that raise such passions and seem of such overwhelming importance to us today assume a similar insignificance for later generations?

Perhaps the most important thing one gains from reading old journals is a sense of humility. One finds many predictions about the future, but few of them that were accurate. The problem isn’t that the authors making those predictions were fools. The problem is that we lack the intellectual capacity to assimilate all the facts that will have a bearing on the outcome of history, and correctly connect the dots between them. We must learn to appreciate our limitations. It’s unwise to overestimate our ability to predict future events that have no historical precedent. For example, how many of us back in 1988 predicted the manner in which Communism and the Soviet Union would collapse, or when the momentous events culminating in those results would occur?

There is much to be gained from the reading of history. One learns how human beings are likely to react in given situations. Occasionally, history really does repeat itself, and, to the extent that future events fit the familiar patterns of the past, they are predictable. However, once in a while she jumps her tracks completely. World War I was such an event. Reflecting on the possible outcomes of that conflict in the second issue of The New Republic, one Simon N. Patten wrote:

Progress has ever been a ruthless crushing, whether we regard it as indistrial or view it in its political aspects. Growth has meant a centralization which eliminates the weak to the advantage of the strong. Belgium and Servia are today where hundreds of small nations have found themselves in the past. Belgium is racially and socially a part of France. Economically she is a part of Germany. One or the other fate she must in the end meet. Servia must also be either Russian or Austrian.

In fact, in the aftermath of the war, the historical context on which Mr. Patten based his assumptions ceased to exist. Serbia did not become a part of Austria because the great empire that went by that name disintegrated. She did not become a part of Russia because she, too, ceased to exist in any form recognizable from the past. Belgium is still with us, and belongs to a European Union that would have been incomprehensible to the combatants of 1914. The lesson here isn’t that Mr. Patten was a fool. I’m sure he was a very intelligent man. Nor is it that we should cease speculating about the future. However, in doing so we should recall that we are not omniscient, and that the truth isn’t always obvious.

Springtime for the Defeatists

When generals in a democracy say “we are losing the war,” it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether true or not, such pronouncements inevitably become powerful psychological weapons in the hands of our enemies, and are thus better left unsaid, at least in public. Our military caste somehow manages to remain ignorant of such elementary aspects of modern asymmetric warfare. At the highest levels, our system tends to produce military commanders who are highly competent in doing what they’ve been trained to do, but lack the imagination and originality necessary to deal with the unexpected. Occasionally, genius is indispensable, but one would search in vain for a Napoleon or an Alexander among our generals. Instead, we produce Westmorelands and McChrystals. As the comment above would seem to demonstrate, we also produce political imbeciles who have somehow concluded that we can turn the situation around by throwing gasoline on the smoldering fires of defeatism.

The result is as inevitable as it was predictable. One detects an increasing stench of defeatism in the media, not only from its usual sources on the left, but from the right as well. For example, today CNN treats us to the umpteen billionth “ghost of Vietnam” story to appear since our troops went into combat. No doubt they’re preening themselves on their originality. USA Today joins the crowd in reporting on the resignation of Matthew Hoh from the State Department, with the usual highlighting of such weepy remarks as “”I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.” Great job, Matthew! That’s bound to get us back on the right track. ABC News chimes in with more judiciously chosen quotes from Hoh’s letter, such as, “To put simply, I fail to see the value or the worth in the continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war,” Ah, yes, the “civil war” meme. That old chestnut is sure to please traditionalists. Look at the web pages of the Wall Street Journal, Foxnews, the Washington Times, etc., and you’ll find the same stories spun in almost the same way. Apparently defeat in Afghanistan is as palatable to the right as it is to the left if only it discredits Obama.

Say what you will about George W. Bush, he was unmoved by the ebb and flow of defeatist propaganda during his administration. He really did “stay the course,” in spite of the derisive remarks of the usual know-it-alls. As a result, the Iraqi people have at least a fighting chance of avoiding a slide back into dictatorship or theocracy. He was no philosopher king, but at least he was made of sterner stuff than Obama. The President appears more inclined to apologize to our enemies than fight them, and he is likely casting about for some graceful way to skedaddle in Afghanistan even as we speak. The increasingly shrill tone of defeatist propaganda will make it easier for him.

Well, what of it? As noted above, these developments were abundantly predictable and, given the limitations of our military leadership, probably inevitable. Is there a lesson here? Not really, other than the one that we should have learned a long time ago; modern democracies are anything but steadfast in fighting determined insurgents, particularly if their populations are as fickle and spineless as the current citizens of the United States. If we send in the troops, we should do so only with a well considered plan to get them back out again, and that with alacrity, before the famously insubstantial national backbone once again turns to jelly. In retrospect, the remarks of our much abused former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, sound remarkably prescient. For example, from a speech delivered in February, 2003:

Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans. The objective is not to engage in what some call nation building. Rather it’s to try to help the Afghans so that they can build their own nation. This is an important distinction. In some nation building exercises well-intentioned foreigners arrive on the scene, look at the problems and say let’s fix it. This is well motivated to be sure, but it can really be a disservice in some instances because when foreigners come in with international solutions to local problems, if not very careful they can create a dependency.

A long-term foreign presence in a country can be unnatural. This has happened in several places with large foreign presence. The economies remained unreformed and distorted to some extent. Educated young people can make more money as drivers for foreign workers than as doctors and civil servants. Despite good intentions and the fine work of humanitarian workers individually, there can be unintended adverse side effects.

Our goal in Afghanistan is to try and not create a culture of dependence but rather to promote [inaudible]. Long-term stability comes not from the presence of foreign forces but from the development of functioning local institutions. That’s why in the area of security we have been helping to train for example the Afghan National Army. Our coalition partners have been training the police. And the goal is so that Afghans over time can take full responsibility for their own security and stability rather than having to depend on foreign forces versus for a sustained period.

When Rumsfeld was in office, an abundance of geniuses appeared who assured us they knew how to do his job much better than he did. In retrospect, we probably should have ignored the geniuses and paid more attention to him. The next time we feel the yen to embark on another military adventure, we should reflect on the fact that some of the biggest cheerleaders for such projects in the recent past became hand-wringing, hysterical defeatists a disconcertingly short time after the troops were actually on the ground. We will surely have an abundance of such heroes to “help” us the next time around as well. Before we commit our forces to another ill-considered war, we’d do well to recall that there are legions of Matthew Hohs in our midst, useful idiots who are adept at persuading themselves that collaboration with the enemy is both a noble moral good and a patriotic duty. They will always be with us, and they will always make the cost of victory higher the longer our troops are engaged.

UPDATE: I take it from John McCain’s cry in the dark that he has also noticed that the water is up to our chin and climbing. Of course, he’s right. We can win in Afghanistan. The enemy is much less formidable than he was in Vietnam. It’s a matter of national will. In fact, that’s just the problem.

Nuclear Strategery

Jonathan Tepperman has an interesting post on the Newsweek site entitled, “Why Obama should Learn to Love the Bomb.” According to Tepperman, “A growing and compelling body of research suggests that nuclear weapons may not, in fact, make the world more dangerous, as Obama and most people assume.” Yes, and there was “a growing and compelling body of research” in 1914 that suggested the great powers were so economically dependent on each other they would never risk going to war. Tepperman continues, “The argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace as well as destruction rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there’s never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between two states that possess them.” That’s true, and the argument that possession of nuclear weapons reduces the chances of war between states that possess them is certainly plausible. However, the fact that, for example, there was never a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union does not mean that the risk of such an exchange was zero. It is more likely that we dodged a bullet.

An all out conventional war between India and Pakistan would certainly result in great loss of life. An all out nuclear war would be, according to Tepperman, less likely. It would also be more costly in terms of loss of life, not to mention economic damage. Perhaps, then, a reasonable metric for assessing whether nuclear weapons make us more or less secure would be risk of war times likely human and economic cost. The problem with such a neat formula is that it would be impossible to predict or to agree on the magnitude of the different factors. For example, it was widely assumed during the cold war that a general nuclear exchange would result in the annihilation of the populations of the US and Soviet Union. However, I doubt the leaders on either side really believed that. Various attempts were made to calculate likely outcomes, but they were generally flawed by the ideological predispositions of those making the estimates.

Let’s consider what else Tepperman has to say:

Even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear state is unwinnable and thus not worth the effort. As (Berkeley Professor Kenneth) Waltz puts it, “Why fight if you can’t win and might lose everything?”

I’m not so sure that the craziest tin-pot dictator would come to such a logical conclusion. However, the statement as it stands is almost irrelevant. I suspect a nuclear exchange is far more likely to result from a miscalculation, accident, or loss of control to a rogue actor than any premeditated, deliberate attack.

Meanwhile, the nuclear powers have scrupulously avoided direct combat, and there’s very good reason to think they always will. There have been some near misses, but a close look at these cases is fundamentally reassuring—because in each instance, very different leaders all came to the same safe conclusion.

This is wrong on the face of it. Always is a long time. As long as there are nuclear weapons, there will be a finite risk of a nuclear exchange. Therefore, if states with nuclear arsenals continue to exist into the indefinite future, there will eventually be a nuclear exchange. The question is not whether it will happen, because it certainly will. The question is whether its cost, when it does happen, will be greater or less than the cost of the, presumably more frequent, conventional wars that would have occurred in the absence of nuclear arsenals. Similarly, as long as sufficient special nuclear material (SNM), such as U235 or Pu239, exists to make nuclear weapons, there will be a finite risk of it falling into the hands of non-state actors, or terrorists if you will. From this we must conclude that a terrorist nuclear attack is also inevitable. It is not a question of if. It is a question of when. It may be tomorrow, or it may be a thousand years from now, but it will happen. I rather suspect it will be sooner rather than later.

…in 1957, Mao blithely declared that a nuclear war with America wouldn’t be so bad because even “if half of mankind died … the whole world would become socialist.” Pyongyang and Tehran support terrorism—but so did Moscow and Beijing. And as for seeming suicidal, Michael Desch of the University of Notre Dame points out that Stalin and Mao are the real record holders here: both were responsible for the deaths of some 20 million of their own citizens. Yet when push came to shove, their regimes balked at nuclear suicide, and so would today’s international bogeymen.

That is an unwarranted assumption. In any case, as noted above, it is irrelevant, because the nuclear danger from accident or miscalculation is far greater than that from deliberate use.

Even if the Pakistani state did collapse entirely—the nightmare scenario—the chance of a Taliban bomb would still be remote. Desch argues that the idea that terrorists “could use these weapons radically underestimates the difficulty of actually operating a modern nuclear arsenal. These things need constant maintenance and they’re very easy to disable. So the idea that these things could be stuffed into a gunnysack and smuggled across the Rio Grande is preposterous.

Here, Tepperman’s “expert,” Michael Desch of Notre Dame, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One wonders what sort of “constant maintenance” he has in mind. The basic design principles of both gun and implosion type weapons are well known. They certainly require maintenance occasionally, but “constant maintenance?” I think not. Any non-state actor gaining possession of an intact nuke will have plenty of time to use it. The idea that nukes are easy to disable is also poppycock. You can make the firing set as clever as you please, but the SNM would still be there. If you didn’t have an explosives guy capable of jury rigging the device, you could still simply cannibalize the material from two nukes and make a simple, but very effective device. Recall that our physicists were so confident that the gun type Little Boy would work that it was dropped without prior testing. The computer modeling tools available to anyone now are infinitely better than the rudimentary mathematical tools they had then. Building a crude bomb is simply not that difficult. As for smuggling the weapon in a gunnysack, Tepperman is right. A terrorist would have to be brain dead to even attempt it. Unfortunately, smuggling a complete weapon is completely unnecessary. It would be much simpler, and just as effective, to smuggle the SNM in small bits, and assemble it into a weapon at the target. The chances that we will be able to detect any of the material before the weapon actually goes off are virtually nil.

The risk of an arms race—with, say, other Persian Gulf states rushing to build a bomb after Iran got one—is a bit harder to dispel. Once again, however, history is instructive. “In 64 years, the most nuclear-weapons states we’ve ever had is 12,” says Waltz. “Now with North Korea we’re at nine. That’s not proliferation; that’s spread at glacial pace.” Nuclear weapons are so controversial and expensive that only countries that deem them absolutely critical to their survival go through the extreme trouble of acquiring them. That’s why South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan voluntarily gave theirs up in the early ’90s, and why other countries like Brazil and Argentina dropped nascent programs.

Perhaps. However, I do not find the existence of a maximum of 12 nuclear states as comforting as Tepperman.

Put this all together and nuclear weapons start to seem a lot less frightening. So why have so few people in Washington recognized this? Most of us suffer from what Desch calls a nuclear phobia, an irrational fear that’s grounded in good evidence—nuclear weapons are terrifying—but that keeps us from making clear, coldblooded calculations about just how dangerous possessing them actually is. The logic of nuclear peace rests on a scary bargain: you accept a small chance that something extremely bad will happen in exchange for a much bigger chance that something very bad—conventional war—won’t happen. This may well be a rational bet to take, especially if that first risk is very small indeed. But it’s a tough case to make to the public.

Here, Tepperman makes some good points. The real issue is one of risk. Unfortunately, for the reasons cited above, I rather suspect he is seriously underestimating it. Be that as it may, assuming one can really get a good handle on the actual risk, what he says makes sense.

Given this reality, Washington would be wiser to focus on making the world we actually live in—the nuclear world—safer. This involves several steps, few of which the Obama administration has mentioned but which it should emphasize in its Nuclear Posture Review due at the end of the year. To start, the logic of deterrence works only if everybody knows who has a nuclear arsenal and thus can’t be attacked—as Peter Sellers puts it in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, “The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”

Probably true. Unilateral nuclear disarmament would certainly be suicidal. Reducing our arsenal to the point that potential enemies might find the risk of retaliation acceptable is almost equally so.

Chris Bodenner at Sully’s blog thinks a piece by Peter Scoblic at TNR’s website “scalpels” Tepperman’s piece. I think not. It’s more in the pious platitude here, anecdotal evidence there, preaching a foregone conclusion to the choir style that has become the stock in trade at TNR lately. They have seen better days (when Sully was editor, in fact. He has seen better days, too). One hopes the better days will return.

Red Flag: Israeli Fighters Over Nevada

F-22 Raptor
F-22 Raptor
Speaking of Israel, several of her F-16 fighters just turned up at Nellis Air Force Base to take part in the famous Red Flag exercises there, the Air Force version of “Top Gun.” One can only assume Netanyahu managed to slip them in under Obama’s radar, as the Air Force refers to foreign participants in Red Flag as “allied partners.”

Helian Unbound military correspondents in Las Vegas report sighting a couple of stately AWACS planes, which often fly in the exercises, as well as a bevy of the snazzy new F-22 Raptors.