Trump, the Bombings, and the Media

Advice for journalists covering military action

by Ted Canova

President Donald Trump after ordering the bombing of Afghanistan. April 13, 2017

Until now, Moab was merely the Utah tourist destination with 5,200 residents. Today MOAB has been surpassed in Google searches by the “Mother of All Bombs.” While the public is eager to learn about the latest muscle in the U.S. arsenal, the manner in which the media has covered Trump’s use of force points to a short memory, one that could encourage a misguided military strategy and one that could make the United States mainland the target of imminent retaliation.

During the first Iraq War in 1991, the U.S. government claimed the Patriot missile’s success rate was 90%. That propelled Raytheon’s stock price to jump, branded NBC’s Arthur Kent as “The Scud Stud”, and coerced U.S. media coverage to morph into Patriot cheerleaders. The problem was the success rate was closer to 9%, maybe even as low as 2%. Upon leaving office, Defense Secretary William Cohen finally admitted “the Patriot didn’t work.”

In times of war, many Americans rally around the president even if they didn’t vote for him. But when the media abandons its inherent skepticism and not question every little detail of the government’s spin, it leaves its citizens ill-informed at the least and at worst, bestows blind faith upon its leaders at a time they must be held acutely accountable.

USS Porter launches Tomahawk missile towards Syrian airfield. April 7, 2017. Courtesy U.S. Navy

On the night Donald Trump sent 59 cruise missiles into Syria, there was little immediate challenge by the U.S. media who instead declared that “Trump looks Presidential.” This time the instant analysis failed to foresee reality: within 24 hours Syrian jets were taking off again from the runway the U.S. bombed.

After the MOAB attack in Afghanistan, President Trump praised US troops, jabbed Obama, and boasted of the “tremendous difference” between “the last eight weeks and compare that to really what’s happened over the last eight years.” Trump also credited the military “frankly why they’ve been so successful lately.” The problem this time is that sandwiched between bombing Afghanistan caves and the Syrian airfield, was Tuesday’s US-led coalition airstrike in northern Syria that killed 18 Syrian fighters allied with the U.S. It was the worst friendly-fire incident in almost three years and the third time in a month that American-led airstrikes may have killed civilians or allies. The media must raise skepticism of “success” all the time.

Politicians and military leaders have many vested interests in spinning success. Raytheon stock is up again (MOAB’s price tag is $314 million), Trump’s favorability inched up after bombing Syria, the defense budget will likely increase, while many fence-sitting Americans are proud to see a show of force instead of relying on invisible diplomacy.

With all these bombings in the spotlight, the story being ignored is the full scope of military action since Trump took office. Airwars, a non-profit project that tracks the air attacks against ISIS and others, reports in the last three months, 10,918 munitions have been dropped on Iraq and Syria, a 59% increase from January-March 2016. In each passing month since Trump took office, we’re setting new records for bombings.

This should have all been predictable. As a candidate, Trump was cheered on in Iowa in when he promised to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS.​

Donald Trump at campaign rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa. November 12, 2015
“ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because they have certain oil camps, certain areas of oil that they took away. They have some in Syria, some in Iraq. I would bomb the s — — out of ’em. I would just bomb those suckers. That’s right. I’d blow up the pipes. … I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left. And you know what, you’ll get Exxon to come in there and in two months, you ever see these guys, how good they are, the great oil companies? They’ll rebuild that sucker, brand new — it’ll be beautiful.”
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, D- Hawaii

In times of war, dissent gets drowned out. But those who raise their voice must be given more attention, not less by the media. Take Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a former Iraq War veteran and a former bigwig with the Democratic National Committee. First she broke ranks by quitting the DNC as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was found in WikiLeaks documents to be favoring the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Then in January, Gabbard visited Syria on a fact-finding mission where she met with President Bashar al-Assad. When she demanded evidence Assad launched the chemical attacks on his own people, the Democratic establishment had enough ammo for political payback and called her “a disgrace.”

Not to be overlooked is the timing: Trump administered these bombings as Congress started its two week Easter recess. One can imagine the reception lawmakers are receiving as they’re touching down in their districts. The media can’t use politicians’ vacations for their own time-off. They must cover every lawmaker and get them on record on American’s use of force.

The bottom line is that journalists must ignore the false choice that they’re either patriotic or with the enemy. It was Syria and Afghanistan this week, next time there could be a military response. The world deserves our frequent and tough questions.