BAGHDAD — [...] Ralph Peters, who is currently traipsing around Baghdad with the 506th Infantry Regiment, is, to be blunt, full of shit.
He’s currently a favorite of the pro-war set, who say we reporters have “agendas” to undermine the troops and get our civil war on, ‘cause, you know, that makes Bush look bad… or something.
(A quick note on the above link: it’s all conservative publications. Why is it I, a professional journalist, get tarred with a “liberal” brush when I have never, ever written for Mother Jones, the Nation or Granta, etc. But polemicists who spend the all their energies cranking out pieces for the National Review, Front Page and the New York Post somehow don’t get called “conservatives” but instead are “truth tellers”? Such a mystery.)
Among the claims in his slanderous column: “The Iraqi Army has confounded its Western critics, performing extremely well last week. And the people trust their new army to an encouraging degree.”
The Iraqi Army — and police, for that matter — stood by while Shi’ite militias ran rampant through Sunni neighborhoods. They only took up the security positions when the Shi’ite clerics, including Moqtada al-Sadr, had already calmed down the worst of the violence. That’s not “performing extremely well,” unless by “extremely well,” you mean not confronting the enemies and keeping your head down until it’s safe to come out. That’s usually called “hiding.”
He also says we western reporters don’t get out on the streets, which is patently untrue. I don’t get out as often as I’d like, but I do get out. My colleagues at TIME, who look much less western than I do, get out much more. And, unlike Peters, we don’t travel with a big-ass armed convoy under the protection of the U.S. military.
He then further slanders Ellen Knickmeyer, of the Washington Post, when he says, “Did any Western reporter go to that morgue and count the bodies — a rough count would have done it — before telling the world the news? I doubt it.”
Well, actually, Ralph, I know Ellen. And yes, she did go down to the morgue. While there are many issues with her story, what is undeniable is that she risked a hell of a lot more than you did when she put her life in jeopardy to go down there.
Then he says, “If reporters really care, it’s easy to get out on the streets of Baghdad . The 506th Infantry Regiment — and other great military units — will take journalists on their patrols virtually anywhere.” Well, no, they won’t. Some reporters I know are having trouble getting embeds because they’re not the “right” reporters. They don’t write the “right” kind of stories — meaning they don’t follow the military’s playbook.
It’s more than a little churlish to say, “We’ll take you anywhere, as long as you’re not too liberal/French/whatever” and then turn around and criticize those you refuse to take with you as cowards. If they situation is so rosy, Mr. Peters, why on earth do I need to embed in the first place? Believe me, I’d much rather travel around without a military entourage. You tend to get more truthful answers from Iraqis when they’re not surrounded by soldiers with big guns, after all.
Then, this guy with a “background as an intelligence officer” goes on to say there’s no civil war because, by gosh, he sure didn’t see any thing like that. And the Iraqis cheered the Americans!
Let me try to paint the picture a little more clearly, Mr. Peters: When Sunnis cheer the Americans, it’s not because things are rosy, it’s because they’re more scared of the Shi’ites than they are of you. Sunnis in Baghdad I’ve spoken with have told me they would rather be arrested by the Americans than by the government forces, because at least now the Americans won’t torture you as badly. They have no love for Americans, they just know who is best able to protect them from their neighbors.
Yesterday, the general in charge of the Iraqi Army division in Baghdad was killed by a sniper while he was on patrol. An investigation has been opened because there are suspicions he was killed for being Sunni by one of his Shi’ite troops.
To be blunt: We are as close to full-scale civil war as we’ve ever been. We are one more bombing, massacre or atrocity from a national bloodletting. But even if that happens, there will be ebbs and flows. Just because people aren’t curled up in the fetal position under their beds all the time doesn’t mean there’s not a war on of some kind. In Lebanon , for 15 years, people went to the beach, cafés, bars and, in general, tried to live a normal life. For long stretches, a neighborhood would be calm. And then the shells would come, or a running street battle would break out and civilians would go running inside to hide. The violence would eventually pass, like a breaking wave, and they would come out into the light. That’s the way war works, and that’s what’s happening in Baghdad right now.
Finally, two things: Mr. Peters says he has a background in intelligence. And he says he’s been hitching rides with this unit, rather than being assigned to it. He also makes what may be an unintentionally ironic comment when he criticized Iraqi stringers: “The Iraqi stringers have cracked the code: The Americans don’t pay for good news. So they exaggerate the bad.”
First of all, the Americans do pay for good news. They have in the past, when American officers wrote stories and paid local papers to run them. These happy tales invariably painted a rosier picture than was warranted.
Secondly, Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. troops here, told reporters in a news conference three days ago that the pay-for-play program was on-going. “We were operating within our authorities and responsibilities,” he said, and added that he had not received an order to stop the program. “And, right now, based on the results of the investigation, I do not intend to in the near term.”
Thirdly, just what is Mr. Peters doing here? A former intelligence officer, riding around Baghdad , painting a rosy picture? I may just be assuming stuff here — hell, if Ralph can do it, so can I — but is Mr. Peters one of those story-planting Americans? Was he out getting material and pictures? And has he taken his skills at writing happy stories to the American public?
Peters’ little yarns sure sounds nice, but he sounds either desperately clueless or willfully blind. Officials in the American embassy, at least, are very worried that civil war is upon us, and it’s surely no coincidence that Casey has a reputation for not wanting to hear bad news. And so Peters continues to think because he rolls around in an armored convoy and no one takes a shot at him, there’s no civil war. As someone I’m sure he admires once said, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Rant over. For now.