On the 11th anniversary of the war in Iraq, the US mainstream media’s decontextualized rendering of violence in Iraq fails to explain political divisions and struggles in Iraq or how this violence is a direct consequence of the US invasion and occupation.
A quick and dirty way to begin conveying what happened to US coverage of Iraq after US forces withdrew is through gross numbers. A Lexis-Nexis search of New York Times coverage in one-year slices (March to March) showed 1,848 articles concerning Iraq in 2006-07 and 1,350 in 2007-08. Once the drawdown of US troops began, New York Times coverage of the conflict plummeted to 359 in 2010-11 and continued to fall thereafter – although the political crisis within the country, and its attendant violence, ground on and on. This suggests that “the story” had always been about the American errand in Iraq, not Iraq itself, and certainly not the swathe of human misery and destruction US intervention left in its wake. When American troops left, they took the media’s story with them in their baggage.
US media coverage of the Iraq War shifted in other ways, too. The celebrity war correspondents came home with best-selling books and were replaced by second-tier writers or wire service reports. The newspaper articles grew shorter and disappeared into the interior regions of the newspaper of less interest to readers. The stories were less investigative reports or attempts to make vivid narrative sense of the war, and more pedestrian factual reporting of how many people were killed where and by whom. American journalism at the height of the American presence may have been marred by a narcissistic focus on the American experience in Iraq (rather than the Iraqi experience in Iraq) and a propagandistic assumption that the United States was on a selfless, honest errand in Iraq. But at its best this reporting was narratively compelling, and it did blow open scandals such as Abu Ghraib. It has given way to a new style of reporting that has a dry, perfunctory feel. Incurious prosefill has replaced a more energetic reportage.
The limits of this now-standard genre can be seen in an article more or less plucked at random from my daily newspaper in the past few days. Titled “Suicide car bomb, attacks kill at least 42 in Iraq,” it was published in The Washington Post on March 9, 2014. The first thing one notices is that it is simply attributed to The Associated Press, a signal that this is now journalistic drone work. The article is reported from Baghdad, although it describes an attack in Southern Iraq. All details in the article are attributed to “police officers” and “medical officials,” and it is clear that the article’s anonymous author did not visit the attack site, 60 miles south of Baghdad, but made a few phone calls from the office. This is because Iraq has become so dangerous that journalists are effectively locked down in Baghdad or because the story of incessant terrorist attack is now so routine that it can be reported in formulaic ways. A decade earlier, reporters would have rushed to the scene of the bombing, or at least sent their Iraqi assistants, and would have filled their articles with vivid first-person accounts of the attack, evoking the terrifying drama of the event and the agony of its victims. Now we get the rote scroll of numbers, a sort of accountancy journalism: “The explosion killed 21 civilians, including a woman and 12-year-old, and 15 security personnel, two police officers said.” But the largest problem with this Washington Post article is that it gives a superficial account of what happened without making any attempt to explain it, or dig more deeply into the story. We are told that “the violence, which comes a few weeks before scheduled elections, is the latest by insurgents bent on destabilizing the country,” and that “elsewhere” the same day “militants launched attacks just outside the capital against security forces and employees of the state-run oil company.” Although the reporter does not know who undertook the attacks, “they bore the hallmarks of an al-Qaida breakaway group that frequently uses car bombs and suicide attacks to target public areas and government buildings in their bid to undermine confidence in the government.”
In this formulaic reportage, the attackers are generic and without the rational goals or motives that conventionally make actors in news stories intelligible. We are encouraged to believe – without clear evidence – that they are affiliated with the one terrorist organization Americans know: al-Qaida. But there is no attempt to answer obvious questions the story brings to mind: Why attack security forces and oil installations rather than, say, mosques or buses? Are the attacks concentrated in a particular region of Iraq? What are the attackers’ grievances against the government? Are their grievances in any way legitimate, even if their tactics are abhorrent? Is there a political party that articulates similar grievances?
In other words, this article normalizes the violence in Iraq. By disconnecting the violence from the Iraqi political process, it renders it politically unintelligible and somehow intrinsic to Iraqi society. Like hot summers, it just is. It is as if a journalist reported IRA bombing attacks without mentioning that Irish Republicans felt they were oppressed and disenfranchised by the British government and Anglo-Irish protestants. Once you take away the political logic of violence – which US journalists never did to US military forces in Iraq – then you are left with the illusion that violence is being carried out for violence’s sake.
This decontextualized rendering of violence in Iraq as a sort of atmospheric condition of the country is, sadly, typical of much of the reporting in Iraq today. It not only fails to explain political divisions and struggles in Iraq in a meaningful way for US readers. It also fails to explain how this violence is a direct consequence of the US invasion and occupation, blaming the victim for the violence that is our sour bequest to them.