Murphy's Law: Media Misperceptions Of The Last Decade


September 6, 2010: Since September 11, 2001, the mass media has been covering military matters much more intensively than they had in the previous decade. It showed, in the amount of misinformation and bad analysis that flowed from so many media outlets. These are some of the more misleading ones.

Too Many Contractors In The Combat Zone. There weren't. The large number of contractors were the product of several trends. First, there was a lot more technology in use, and it had to be maintained. Second, conscription had eliminated a major source of cheap labor for a lot of these support jobs. So, over the last half century, there has been a growing number of civilian contractors. In 2008, there was one civilian contractor for each member of the U.S. military in Iraq. Thus half the American force were civilians. This is not the first time this has happened. In the 1990s, half the American peacekeeping force in the Balkans was civilian contractors. In past wars, the percentage varied. During the 1991 Gulf war, contractors were only about two percent of the force. That was because the U.S. troops came to liberate Kuwait and leave. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States, had bases they allowed U.S. forces to use for the operation. The American troops basically lived "in the field" as they would in a conventional war. In the Vietnam war, where U.S. troops were there for a long time, contractors were 16 percent of the force. In the Korean war, civilians were 28 percent of the force. During World War II it was 12 percent, it was 4 percent in World War I, during the U.S. Civil War it was 17 percent, during the Mexican-American War it was 15 percent and during the Revolutionary War, it was 18 percent. Another misreported contractor story had to do with the 15 percent of them who were used for security chores. These guys were often described as "out of control." They weren't. Nearly all of them were former military or police, and the ones accused of being the most trigger happy were the ones who had to go into the most dangerous areas. Blackwater recruited most of these. One of the Blackwater contracts was for the U.S. State Department. This was very successful, as not a single State Department employee was killed, no matter how dangerous was the area Blackwater escorted them through, and how energetically terrorists tried to kill the diplomatic personnel.

The Invasion of Iraq Was Illegal and Misguided. This was based on the failure to find Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Actually, several hundred chemical weapons were found, and Saddam had all his WMD scientists and technicians ready to produce more. Just end the sanctions and add money, and the weapons would be back in production within a year. At the time of the invasion, all intelligence agencies, world-wide, believed Saddam still had a functioning WMD program. Saddam had actually shut them down because of the cost, but created the illusion that the program was still operating in order to fool the Iranians. The Iranians wanted revenge on Saddam because of the Iraq invasion of Iran in 1980, and the eight year war that followed. Saddam himself admitted all this after he was captured. As for legality, the 2003 invasion was illegal only according to some in the UN. By that standard, the invasion of Kosovo and bombing of Serbia in 1999 was also illegal. Saddam was already at war with the U.S. and Britain, because Iraq had not carried out the terms of the 1991 ceasefire, and was trying to shoot down coalition aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone. 

The Invasion Was a Failure. This was a popular theme right up until the moment (two years ago), when it was obvious that it wasn't. Success came early and often. In 2003 Saddam's police state was overthrown and a democracy established, which was the objective of the operation. Peace did not ensue because Saddam's supporters, the Sunni Arab minority, were not willing to deal with majority rule, and war crimes trials. A terror campaign followed. Few expected the Sunni Arabs to be so stupid. There's a lesson to be learned there, but the mass media rarely discussed it. Another problem with this doom and gloom spin is a lack of analysis. If the war in Iraq was lost, by what measure was it lost? Saddam and his Baath party were out of power. There was a democratically elected government. Part of the Sunni Arab minority continued to support terror attacks, in an attempt to restore the Sunni Arab dictatorship. In response, extremist Shia Arabs formed vigilante death squads to expel all Sunni Arabs. Given the history of democracy in the Middle East, Iraq is working through its problems. Otherwise, one is to believe that the Arabs are incapable of democracy and only a tyrant like Saddam can make Iraq "work." If democracy were easy, the Arab states would all have it. There are problems, and solutions have to be found and implemented. That takes time, but Americans have, since the 18th century, grown weary of wars after three years. If the war goes on longer, the politicians have to scramble to survive the bad press and opinion polls. Opposition politicians take advantage of the situation, but this has nothing to do with Iraq, and everything to do with local politics in the United States.

The Invasion Helped Al Qaeda. Compared to what? Al Qaeda was a growing movement before 2003, and before 2001. But after the Iraq invasion, and especially the Sunni Arab terrorism, al Qaeda fell in popularity throughout the Moslem world. Arab countries cracked down on al Qaeda operations more than ever before. Without the Iraq invasion, al Qaeda would still have safe havens all over the Arab world. Another angle here was that the Iraq War caused Islamic terrorism to increase in Europe. The Moslem unrest in Europe was there before 2001, and 2003. Interviews of Islamic radicals in Europe reveals that the hatred is not motivated by Iraq, but by daily encounters with hostile natives. Blaming Islamic terrorism on Iraq is another attempt to avoid dealing with a homegrown problem.

The U.S. Did Not Work With Locals. American troops went into Iraq and Afghanistan with a centuries old tradition of "working with the locals." The army had over 20,000 Special Forces and Civil Affairs troops, whose primary job was to work with the locals. The marines were still using their "Small Wars Manual", which was written in 1940, based on four decades of marine peacekeeping operations. Soldiers, and even State Department officials, used this manual, to good effect. But the way the news business works, problems in this area gets much more attention than the more numerous successes. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the basic idea was what it has always been. That is, help the locals establish a new government and create a new security force. In Iraq, you first had to defeat the Saddam and Islamic terrorists who were desperate to return the country to dictatorship (either secular, in the case of the Saddam supporters, or religious, in the case of al Qaeda and their ilk.)

Iraqis Were Better Off Under Saddam. Most Iraqis disagree. Check election results and opinion polls. Reporters tend to ask Iraqi Sunni Arabs this question, but they were the only ones who benefited from Saddam's rule.

The Three Year Rule. In all of America's wars, popular support for the war effort sharply declined after three years. Even though the U.S. government said, from late September, 2001 on, that the war on terror would be a long one, this has not changed the impact of the Three Year War. If you can't get it over with within three years, you are going to face more and more voter opposition to the war effort. Go back and look at the history of all of America's long (over three years) wars and you will see this play out. It's happening in the war on terror, and the various theaters of conflict (notably Afghanistan and Iraq.) This led ambitious politicians to declare deadlines, which makes life a lot more difficult for American combat commanders, and encourages the enemy no end.

The U.S. Needed More Soldiers. Not according to the generals, who knew that in the time it took to recruit and train a lot of new troops, you could fight smart (the preferred way by the professionals) and win the war. Moreover, most journalists, in addition to ignoring (or being ignorant of) the years it takes to produce capable troops, played down the fact that the army lost a third of its strength in the 1990s, as part of the peace dividend from the end of the Cold War. The media also ignored the army and marine doctrine of training and using locals to maintain order. Trying to use Americans to do it is very inefficient. The troops knew that, the reporters ignored it. The media also played down the logistical problems of supporting troops in landlocked (and generally roadless) Afghanistan. The Russians were unable to maintain more than 150,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the U.S. is up against the same constraints. At the same time, Afghanistan has never been a country, as the concept is understood in the West. The army Special Forces understood this, as did the generals they worked for. But the media hardly ever touched this issue.




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