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Whither the Iraqis?

March 19, 2009

On Sunday, as I made my way through the Outlook section of the Washington Post, I came across a commentary about the coverage of the Iraq war that caught my attention.

It was called “What We Don’t Know About Iraq.” I was already thinking about the Iraq war anniversary – 6 years today – as I looked ahead to the podcast with our lobbyists Bridget and Dan. While working on that project I quickly realized how hard it would be to get a fresh angle on any anniversary, and especially the grim 6th year of a conflict soon to come to an inglorious end after being eclipsed by an economy in collapse.

But this article struck my fancy. It even tore me away from the strangely engrossing reality TV show The Amazing Race (11 teams, 20 countries, 1 million dollars – it’s brilliant).

Why did this particular piece break through my Iraq fatigue? Because it discussed not the Iraq war itself, but our perception of it here in the United States. The author Phillip Bennett read through the highlights of coverage of the Iraq war by American journalists. His finding – that for the most part Iraqis as portrayed to a U.S. audience are caricatures – reveals a similar flaw to the U.S. military strategy in Iraq.

Bennett writes that the books he read:

…reflect how frustration and isolation, including the isolation of journalists, have reduced Iraqis to a narrow cast of supporting roles: ungrateful partners, untrustworthy supplicants, invisible enemies and unreadable victims.

“ungrateful partners, untrustworthy supplicants, invisible enemies and unreadable victims”

Surely not. Surely this view of Iraqis, as our military strategy, is short sighted and unhelpful. But it is also surely not entirely the fault of American journalists. The structure of the military in Iraq and in the Green Zone make it hard break out of the barriers between Americans and Iraqis. The extreme violence after 2004 also made personal safety much more important than getting the most comprehensive story (as Bennett, the Post’s foreign editor, points out).

But safety and distance at what cost? And how do we avoid such a barrier in the future? In Afghanistan?

The piece doesn’t offer a solution, and I don’t have one either. But it does make me shudder to think that I don’t have an understanding – or the tools to acquire an understanding- of a country to which my own will be tethered for years to come.

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