The Drumbeat: How the Media Determines What People Think About Everything
Part II: The Iraq War
By just about any measure, the Iraq War, Operation Enduring Freedom, was the most successful war in U.S. history. The story I am about to tell is one of an unmitigated success; a free nation converting an autocratic regime into a democracy in the most efficient manner possible. It’s a story that the media had no interest in telling.
Before we begin, I would like to say what I am not doing here- I am not discussing the casus belli, just the war campaign itself. Despite the ousting of Saddam Hussein being the longstanding policy of the United States the goal here is not to state whether we, and our Representatives who voted for the war, were wise to go in for the reasons stated.
Reasonable people may disagree whether it was important or necessary for the U.S. led coalition to remove Saddam Hussein. If people would like to explain the legitimacy of Saddam Hussein’s murderous authoritarian rule they can save that for the New York Times comment sections nor will I countenance arguments that it was immoral to invade Iraq- “No war for oil!” and all of that tripe. I also don’t wish to be bogged down in whether Iraq had suffiicent weapons of mass destruction to claim they did. (They did and by having them did not comply with U.N. resolutions to have those weapons destroyed.)
These arguments have been made back and forth for over a decade and tend to end up where people began in an exercise in question begging or confirmation bias.
But first, a question for the reader. Would it have been worthwhile to liberate 4 million people from oppressive and inhuman rule at the cost of 618,000 U.S. lives and $14T (with a T) in inflation adjusted dollars over 5 years when the nation oppressing those people otherwise posed no threat to the world?
If your answer is yes, please pat your inner Abraham Lincoln on the back. If no, you have just decided against the liberation of American slaves and declared the Civil War a failure or a war that was successful in its aims but ultimately not worth the price paid.
War is hell. The suffering caused by war is some of the worst humanity does to itself. I would not have wanted myself, nor any of my loved ones, to have died in the cause of bringing democracy to Iraq with the hopeful, and perhaps utopian, dream that democracy in the middle east would eventually temper the population and reduce terrorism around the world. In part I think that, if I am being honest, because I do not value the lives and freedom of other people as much as my own, people I care for, and my fellow citizens. This is similarly the attitude of many people when calculating the costs of war (n.b. this is not a good view to hold). That being said, we are dealing with deaths and historical perspective so some numbers-based callousness will have to be endured.
The issue presented is whether the United States was successful in our mission- to remove Saddam Hussein from power and establish Iraqi self-governance- and whether that mission was accomplished at a worthwhile price.
1.) Was the Iraq war was successful? Did it meet its stated objectives?
2.) Were those objectives worth the price paid to achieve them?
Timeline of a Successful Objective
How does the war to remove Saddam Hussein and establish a democracy in his place fare? Let’s examine the timeline of events.
- The United States began the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003.
- 20 days later On April 10, 2003, Baghdad fell to the Allied forces
- By September 3, 2003, a provisional government is set up.
- On December 15, 2005, a full election with nearly 80% turnout is held for the Iraqi parliament. Since that time, Iraq has held 5 different democratic elections.
- With an increasing violent insurgency, a “troop surge” was called for in 2007. After that intervention, violence in Iraq dropped precipitously.
- In 2013, more than 2000 female candidates for office participated in elections with a 51% overall turnout rate, similar to U.S. rates.
- In 2014, the most recent successful Iraqi parliamentary elections took place.
- Iraq GDP more than quadrupled in 4 years.
The Iraq War achieved its primary objectives in extremely short order. 20 days to conquer a nation and depose a ruthless despot. Two years to establish parliamentary elections in a country that had never known democracy.
When the discussion of costs, insurgency, grim milestones, images of bombings, tussles about strategy, or salacious images of Abu Ghraib are all stripped away, it reveals that yes, the objectives were met. Iraq was, prior to the complete U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011 by President Obama, a relatively stable, successful, flourishing democratic state and had been for nearly six years.
Was the price the U.S. paid worth these goals?
- The Casualties
Despite the impression you may have received from the media, the cost of the Iraq War in US lives was quite small, comparatively. Here is a list of a few U.S. military battles that had more casualties than the entire Iraq War.
- Battle of Gettysburg: 46,286
- Meuse-Argonne offensive: 26,277
- Battle of Antietam: 22,717
- Battle of the Bulge: 19,276
- Okinawa: 12,513
- Iwo Jima: 6,821
- 1st Bull Run: 4,878
Or compare to the U.S. losses in Vietnam (where we did not achieve the objective of liberation from Communism):
Consider the numbers in regular peacetime in the United States. During the time from the invasion to the first election in Iraq in 2005, there were 2377 U.S. combat deaths. For that same period, there were 1500 homicides in the city of Chicago. Is Chicago not a successful city? Or one not worth keeping? Don’t answer that.
Per cdc.gov, there were 623 bicycle related traffic deaths in 2012. For three years that’s near 2000 deaths. Can we say that bicycling is not a worthwhile activity?
2. The Financial Costs
Estimates for the financial costs of the war range from approximately $1.1T to $6T when factoring in future benefits and costs. I’m skeptical of the latter number, but let’s arbitrarily settle on $2.5T as the costs of 10 years of war. That’s $250 billion per year.
The costs of the Civil War in inflation adjusted dollars cost $14T, for a four year war. WWII cost $4T, also for a four year war (for the U.S.), or a trillion dollars a year. In the last fiscal year, the U.S. spent nearly half a trillion dollars ($476B if you want to be exact) on Medicaid alone, a program empirically shown to accomplish nothing. If the entire amount were incurred as debt, we have added four times that amount in Obama’s tenure alone.
In historic terms, the Iraq War did not cost a lot of money.
3. Iraqi Casualties
Fine, you’ll say. It didn’t hurt us much. But what about the poor Iraqis? We destroyed their country and killed them indiscriminately, right?
Estimates for the toll of the Iraqi civilian deaths range from 150,000 to over 1 million. The website www.iraqbodycount.org lists an estimated range of 150,000- 175,000 civilian casualties since the invasion of 2003.
But Most of the killing of civilians was via Iraqis killing each other. One could say the Bush administration was not prepared for the ensuing civil war but that does not make the Bush administration the moral agents for that civil war. Of course, this was the same press that pinned a hurricane on George W. Bush as well.
And Saddam Hussein killed approximately 600,000 of his own people since he took power. In one genocidal episode, he eliminated anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Iraqi Kurds. Hussein also went to war with Iran where another estimated 500,000 Iraqis were killed (along with close to 1 million Iranians) over a period of 8 years before. Two years after the end of the war with Iran, he invaded Kuwait where an estimated 100,000 Iraqis were killed in Operation Desert Storm.
Even if you attribute these deaths to Operation Iraqi Freedom, far fewer Iraqis were killed than under Saddam Hussein by and left them as safe and secure as any country in the region.
We engaged in this somewhat macabre and tedious exercise because the question requires perspective. By almost any measure, whether at war or in peace time, the Iraq War’s casualty figures and expenditures are almost miraculously low and the mission a resounding success. Yet, why do Americans not feel this way? Why did the war feel as though it was never going well until suddenly it did? Why did the casualty count feel like 45,000 instead of 4,500? We can look at the numbers, think through it logically, yet the sentiment that we lost the war under Bush or that it was not worthwhile is difficult to shake. The reason is the Drumbeat.
The Grim Milestones
The Media seized upon the Iraq war deaths out of context to begin a Drumbeat cadence of Grim Milestones. The grim milestone stories began as quickly as possible. And continued. And on. And on. And the reporting drummed out the same rhythm with the same words. Grim. Milestone. Deaths. Bush-lied-people-died.
The press enjoys reporting on misery- traffic accidents, crime, panics about health studies; war provides plenty of opportunity for misery. But how do we explain this discrepancy?
The “Grim Milestone” story count under Bush for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was nearly triple that under Obama, despite the fact that 75% of the Afghanistan casualties have taken place during Obama’s tenure.
Has Afghanistan felt like the same ever-present morass of failure since Obama became President? It’s been reported on, of course, but what has been missing was the Drumbeat.
The Drumbeat is Dropped
But suddenly in 2007, after a four year media barrage, the Drumbeat stopped. The daily stories were no more. No grim milestones. No daily images of bombings.
But there is another key reason why the war has virtually disappeared from the headlines and talk shows these days — and that’s the situation inside Iraq itself. The reduction in violence on the ground that began late last year has coincided with a significant decrease in coverage from the war zone as well.
Through the first half of 2007, about half the stories from Iraq examined in a PEJ study were about the continuing drumbeat of daily violence. From July through October, that number fell to a little more than one-third. In November, stories filed from Iraq began to take greater notice of the surge’s success in reducing violence, even as the volume of coverage tapered off, evidence perhaps of the old adage that no news is good news. (So far in 2008, events on the ground in Iraq are accounting for only 2% of the newshole, but any sustained uptick in violence there could once again lead to an increase in coverage. )
As soon as the Iraq violence dropped post troop surge, the media lost nearly all interest in the war. If the war were unjust, if the war were not a success, if the cost had been too high to bear, wouldn’t the coverage have necessarily continued? After all, Bush had lied the nation into this war, right? Or had the media determined that their four year drumbeat had taken a sufficient toll? Bush’s approval ratings had dropped precipitously. His first term average of 62% dwindled to a paltry 37% second half average, not coincidentally reaching that mark by 2007. Maybe their mission was accomplished.
More from Pew:
From January 2007 — when Bush announced the “surge” — through the end of May 2007, Iraq had been the dominant story, accounting for 20% of all the news coverage measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index. But from the time of that May funding vote through the war’s fifth anniversary on March 19, 2008, coverage plunged by about 50 %. In that period, the media paid more than twice as much attention to the presidential campaign than the war
The Media’s damage was done and they were on to the next cadence. The war had to be a failure because Bush had to be a failure. Imagine everyone’s surprise then when President Obama stated otherwise before throwing it all away.
The men and women who fought this roaring success of a war, a campaign that liberated a nation that had known only oppression and war for three decades, deserve a better historical record for their efforts and sacrifices. They were robbed of their victory because the Media had a different target in mind. The resuscitation of our military’s achievement begins with our own memories.
Remove your Media lenses and see.
The final installment Part III: The Beat Goes On and What To Do About It is forthcoming.