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Unsung Heroes and Alternate Voices: Some of The Best of Five Years of Iraq War Coverage

March 18, 2008

Greg Mitchell (tomdispatch.com)

In the five years since the tragic U.S. intervention in Iraq began, many journalists for mainstream news outlets have certainly contributed tough and honest reporting. Too often, however, their efforts have either fallen short or been negated by a cascade of pro-war views expressed by pundits, analysts, and editorial writers at their own newspapers or broadcast/cable networks. This sorry record is detailed in my new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.

But allow me — for once — to focus on the positive by suggesting that many of the most critical and important journalistic voices exposing the criminal nature of, and the many costs of, this war have emerged from an “alternative” universe that includes former war correspondents, reporters for small newspapers or news services, comedians, aging rock ‘n rollers, and bloggers, among others.

We can all name our favorite not-famous reporters or online scribes who have covered the war in Iraq in ways that should have been far more common, or offered biting commentary here at home. A full list would be long indeed, but here, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, is my modest tip of the hat to just a few of my own favorites, based on what, to some, might seem an idiosyncratic definition of “journalist”:

Looking back at my extensive, and often critical, commentary on media coverage of the Iraq war over the past five years, I’m struck yet again by the way Chris Hedges stands out as a kind of prophet.

Chris Hedges: Looking back at my extensive, and often critical, commentary on media coverage of the Iraq war over the past five years, I’m struck yet again by the way Chris Hedges stands out as a kind of prophet. The former New York Times war reporter, who is now affiliated with the Nation magazine and other “outsider” venues, was among the few who recognized from the start that taking Baghdad would be the easy part.

We interviewed him at Editor & Publisher (E&P) magazine, where I have long been editor, three times just before and after the war was launched. Speaking of the coming occupation of Iraq in April 2003, for example, he said: “It reminds me of what happened to the Israelis after taking over Gaza, moving among hostile populations. It’s 1967, and we’ve just become Israel.”

“We don’t have a sense of what we have waded into here…”

About a month into the occupation, in May 2003, he explained: “We didn’t ever discover how many civilian casualties occurred in the first Gulf War, and I doubt we’ll ever know about this one.” He then added: “We don’t have a sense of what we have waded into here. The deep divisions among the varying factions could be extremely hard to bridge, and the historical and cultural roots are probably beyond the American understanding… For occupation troops, everyone becomes the enemy…

“My suspicion is that the Iraqis view it as an invasion and occupation, not a liberation. This resistance we are seeing may in fact just be the beginning of organized resistance, not the death throes of Saddam’s fedayeen.”

Mark Benjamin: He now writes tough pieces for Salon.com, but his vital early exposure of hidden damage to — and mistreatment of — our troops in Iraq in 2003-4, came when he worked for a well-known news service that these days might just as well be considered “underground” for all the influence it wields: United Press International.

In October 2003, for starters, he revealed that hundreds of soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga., were being kept in hot cement barracks without running water while they waited, for months at a time in some cases, for medical care. (Twelve days later he exposed ghastly conditions at Fort Knox in Kentucky.) The stories produced quick and measurable results rather than mere promises. Army Secretary Les Brownlee flew to Fort Stewart; new doctors were dispatched; and, within a month, the barracks had been closed. Pentagon officials later declared that they would spend $77 million the following year to help returning troops get better treatment.

[Mark Benjamin] was one of the first reporters to link illnesses and deaths among American troops in Iraq (and elsewhere) to the possible side effects of various vaccines being administered by the Pentagon.

And the media started paying more attention to the injured. The 2,000 non-fatal casualties to that moment had rarely been highlighted until Benjamin went to work.

He was also one of the first reporters to link illnesses and deaths among American troops in Iraq (and elsewhere) to the possible side effects of various vaccines being administered by the Pentagon. In addition, in 2003 and 2004, he was the first journalist to analyze closely and repeatedly non-combat injuries and ailments in Iraq — a step E&P had advocated as early as July 2003. Benjamin showed that one in five medical evacuations from Iraq were for neurological or psychiatric reasons. He followed that with a probe of the unnervingly high suicide rate among soldiers in Iraq and also revealed that two returning soldiers had killed themselves at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington (a fact the military had kept hidden). Only later did these issues finally gain a wider airing in mainstream newspapers…

READ MORE AT TOMDISPATCH.COM

Greg Mitchell is the editor of Editor & Publisher magazine, which has won several major awards for its coverage of Iraq and the media. His new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq (Union Square Press). He has written seven previous books on media, history, and politics including Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady and The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics (winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize). He also co-authored with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America. He blogs at: Pressing Issues.

Copyright 2008 Greg Mitchell

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