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Lighting in the Sky
Peter Arnett’s Prophesies

Fired for excessive accuracy

“The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan. Clearly, the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces.” Remember those comments? Peter Arnett made them on April 1, 2003 (ten days into the American invasion of Iraq). There was nothing really controversial about them except the timing. He was a reporter for NBC, MSNBC and National Geographic in Baghdad at the time. He made those comments on Iraqi television — a common courtesy extended by reporters to local media the world over, and a courtesy NBC itself recognized as such initially. Then came the protest. Hearing it, he was summarily fired by all three American outfits he was working for. NBC and a good portion of the journalistic establishment in the United States were offended by Arnett going on Iraqi TV, and by Arnett saying so flatly what no one in the mass media at the time dared say. The 1 st Infantry Division was speeding toward Baghdad with its cheerleaders in tow (Geraldo, Ted Koppel, Oliver North and Brian Williams had never looked and sounded so alike). The felling of Saddam’s Statue in Fidros Square was nine days away. The whole thing seemed, to delusional eyes and ears, like the cakewalk the Bush junta had promised. But not to those with their eyes and ears close to the ground: “The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan.” These two sentences spoken so clearly and accurately almost four years ago sum-up Bush’s escalation speech last week. Arnett was ridiculed and fired for, as he even said at the time, reporting exactly the sort of truths his American audiences have often hated him for since his days as a war correspondent in Vietnam and Iraq.

(He was among the longest-serving journalists there, if not the longest, reporting mostly for the Associated press from 1962 to 1975. It was Arnett, incidentally, who got that famous quote from Vietnam, by an American officer: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” He won a Pulitzer in 1966). In 1991 he reported on the bombing of a baby formula plant in Baghdad. Eminences all the way up to Colin Powell lambasted him for it, saying the plant was a biological weapons factory (“It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure,” is how Powell put it.) Arnett never backed down. It wasn’t until 2004, when the Iraq Survey Group looked over the factory, that Arnett was vindicated. No one, at the time, pointed out Colin Powell’s lie—a lie from a crucible not unlike the kind he used, vials and fingers a-wagging, when he delivered his famous speech to the National Security Council in 2003, so full of certainties that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and had to be invaded.

To be fair, Arnett — like any journalism — isn’t always on target. In the same interview he gave Iraqi TV that April, he said of Baghdad: “This is clearly a city that is disciplined. The population is responsive to the government’s requirements of discipline.” It wasn’t exactly a “requirement.” Nor did it outlast the arrival of American forces. The last word that attaches to Baghdad now is “disciplined.”

What’s inexplicable and in the end deliciously ironic is that Arnett’s Daughter is married to none other than John Yoo, the former Bush administration lawyer whose perversely imaginative legalisms invented the concepts of “enemy combatants” to get around Geneva Convention rules, who justified torture, who developed the president’s beloved “unitary executive” theory that has Bush acting like a little dictator (the theory posits that the executive is the paramount branch of the federal government, and what the president says, ultimately, goes). Then again, Yoo could be a wonderful man in person, even if in some cases it’s difficult to imagine such a brazenly (if mildly) fascistic theorizer as a tender loving husband and son-in-law. Elsa, the daughter, must have a rebellious streak in her.

The Arnett story is particularly relevant today, the fifteenth anniversary of a seminal event in American journalism (and, after all, history, since it seeded the poisoned tree we’ve been climbing ever since). It’s not quite one of those dates — like November 22, 1963 or 9/11 — absolutely everyone who was around remembers. January 16, 1991 was a more sensory affair, much more of an entertainment than a shock, a milestone in the annals of journalism because of its novelty. That was the day, the evening rather — about 7 p.m. in the Eastern United States, midnight in Britain — when CNN interrupted its regular programming and the voices of Peter Arnett, John Holliman and Bernard Shaw came on to tell us that Baghdad was being bombed, and they could see it all from their windows at the Rashid Hotel in the city. That wasn’t the evening of the green tracers lighting up the black Baghdad sky. They only had an audio link that first night, although I’d bet most of us remember the images as the opening-night show. The tracers actually began at 6:50 p.m., Arnett describing them as “tremendous lightning in the sky,” and at 7, Holliman declared it flatly: “The war has begun in Baghdad.”

How little he and any of us knew.

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