Letter from the Editor: Fall 2009

Writing in World Affairs last year, George Packer noted that, on the home front, the Iraq War was “an abstraction that routinely shades into caricature” and that “the image of Iraq is flickering and formless.” The indictment here was largely, and justifiably in my view, directed at press coverage of the war. I recall a discussion in 2006 with an Army officer, who charged that the media were
purposefully discounting the good news from Iraq. We argued the point, my impression being that, rather than bad news, a typical day relayed hardly any news at all. The number of minutes the networks devoted each month to the war at its height amounted to roughly half of what it was in Vietnam. And, by 2008, that number had declined to a tenth of what it was in 2003. At one point in 2006, the number of embedded journalists had dwindled to fewer than a dozen—this, from more than 600 in 2003.

The reasons for this, neatly summarized in these pages by ABC producer Marcus Wilford, are no reflection of bad faith. But the paltry number of journalists on the ground, this time in Afghanistan, creates a Rorschach test that leaves readers and viewers to imagine their own wars.

Worse, in the case of Afghanistan, as with Iraq before it, one can already sense a war that, having been called into being by politicians on both sides of the aisle, no longer bears the slightest relation to anything they say. To be sure, much of this is the result of the everyday pollution of political discourse. But the same black hole that leaves the public in the dark also leaves legislators functionally illiterate about a war over which they preside. Thus, the knowledge gap that plagued our arrival in Iraq looks set to be revived just in time for our escalation in Afghanistan.

Frankly, it’s hard to fault lawmakers on this count. I lived and breathed Iraq for two years, but I cannot tell you if Kandahar is east or west of Kabul. I can tell you the answer will not be on tomorrow’s evening news.

—Lawrence F. Kaplan

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