Monday, March 24, 2008

Get Your Grim Milestone Today?

If not, then you probably didn't pick up a newspaper or read a news Web site. Evidently, headline writers are deaf to the cliches they invent. They have nothing new to say, so need have nothing new to say about it. Here's what I said last month. IF only everything were so easy to predict:

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. [Or less than one-third what the U.S. Army lost in World War II in traffic accidents alone.]

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.

* * *

The "grim milestone" story requires no thought or reflection. It treats round numbers as the definition of reality, and an excuse to stoke pessimism -- this is not merely a headline for the present state of things in Iraq, remember; this has been a media trope since the first shots were fired ("After days of intense searching by ground and air, U.S. forces on Saturday found the bodies of two soldiers missing north of Baghdad, as the toll of American dead since the start of war topped the grim milestone of 200 ..." -- Associated Press, June 29, 2003; emphasis added).

Some will see this as simply calling a thing what it is. I see it as perilous group-think and an obsession with words and clichés over realities. I doubt anyone who wrote any of these headlines could explain to you why death number 3,000 was enormously more significant than death number 2,997. If it's true the American people can discern realities by simply reading facts, certainly we are capable of determining on our own what is a grim milestone without being led by the nose to it.

Does it help you to know these numbers divorced from context? Are there not many Americans who would consider, say, every 1,000 abortions nationwide a "grim milestone?" Even if you set 1,000 battle deaths (not the AP's preferred 200) as the benchmark for "grim milestones," you had a grim milestone every five days during America's involvement in World War II with nary a "grim milestone" headline to show for it.

More on the grim milestone trope.