Monday, February 11, 2008

'Grim Milestone' Watch

If you want to see how much -- if at all -- the media narrative on Iraq has changed since the remarkable events of the past year, watch the headlines as the U.S. death toll there turns its next round number. It's at 3,960 today. At the current rate, the 4,000 bar will be crossed in about a month. Which will be roughly equivalent to The Wilderness spread out over five years instead of two days.

Will it be another tsunami of grim milestone headlines? I expect so. Anybody want to bet money against that?

Though there's a surface acknowledgement of relative calm in Iraq and opportunities for real progress there, the deep narrative has not changed in America's newsrooms.

Last month, a bomb attack on a U.S. convoy near Mosul, Iraq, killed five soldiers. It had been a long time since that many Americans died in one day in Iraq, and the deaths made front pages in many newspapers. Even the hometown paper in Colorado, where the soldiers lived, wrote of their deaths with scant reference to context, as though the men had been standing around doing nothing and got hit by lightning or an avalanche.

First came the bare recitation of the facts of the incident. Then a lot of statistics about the numbers of soldiers killed in this way or that way, from this place or that place. Then IDs of the dead men. Then more and increasingly arcane statistics about deaths, such as, “the post has lost four soldiers in single attacks three times since the war began.” Finally, deep into the story, came the description of what the dead men had been doing: backing up a major offensive against al Qaida thugs -- the kind who a few days later strapped bombs to mentally retarded women and turned a pet market into a scene from Hell.

Iraq is the new face of war. A hyperpower armed with billion-dollar satellite systems has its hands full with scruffy killers who use recycled washing machine timers to set off homemade bombs. This kind of war challenges the media, too. World War II could be covered by describing the front lines as they tightened around Hitler and Tojo. But in news articles from Iraq, soldiers and marines too often die without a cause or a context. War reporting consists of a mere list of names of fallen men and women, punctuated by “grim milestones” when a round number turns up.

Many in the media, as in the general population, do see the war this way, as a waste of life and a futile exercise in hubris. That this is not necessarily the view of others, especially those who have loved ones doing the heavy work in Iraq, causes the anger many Americans feel when they read such accounts in the news.

It would be a mere failure of the business model if the media wasn't a front in the new way of war. It is, and our enemies know this better than we do.