Respected historian John Keegan (link to a May 2000 Interview) says that "History tells us that most conflicts end in chaos" and that the media should know better. Keegan writes that he "[has] been a dedicated history boy for 50 years but these past few months I have begun to wonder if history is any use at all. Britain and the United States have got into a difficult situation in Iraq and the entire Western media are reacting as if an unprecedented disaster is about to overwhelm their armed forces and governments." Accordingly, to the media, "Iraq is a mess that should never have been allowed to happen. Yet media people are precisely the sort who know perfectly well that wars usually end in a mess."
How does Keegan come to this conclusion? He rightly points out that many in the media are trained in history and "have been trained to perceive reasons why some wars end neatly and others do not." Perhaps, but as Peggy Noonan pointed out in her most recent column, perhaps those graduating, at least from Ivy Leagues schools, aren't as trained in critical thought as we as a society would hope. She has asked several of them what their plans are after school and she says that she is "repeatedly told things like, 'I want to go into TV.' And 'I'm going to drama school.' And 'I'm going to journalism school.'" This leaves Noonan to conclude "that all young people who graduate from elite American universities now want to go into communications. It's a whole generation that wants to communicate."
Unfortunately, most don't know what they want to say. Noonan posits that this is because effective communication derives from holding "Deeply Held Beliefs" and, as she and the rest of us can gather, "the deeply held beliefs of these particular graduates is a uniform leftism whose tenets involve reciting clichés. They believe racial and sexual diversity is good, peace is better than war, religious fanaticism is bad." The problem for these new graduates is that, while they are aware that spouting tired clichés won't set them apart and get them noticed, they don't have the means, the intellectual or critical training, to question the "liberal orthodoxy" they were taught in academia. All of their training has been one-sided. Conservativism and tradition have been chastised, belittled and demonized. How could any thinking individual even consider them?
The fallout from such one-sided indoctrination has handicapped their ability to debate and defend their beliefs. They had no reason to hone these skills defending their liberal beliefs because their beliefs were never challenged in their training. As such, according to Noonan, "They often seem to fall back on attitude--wit, irony, poking fun at the thick-witted--in place of sustained thought, or meaning." Any observer of pop culture can think of instances where substantive argument has been seemingly trumped by pithy sarcasm (the failed talk show by Bill Maher was a nightly exercise in this type of "debate"). As Noonan says, "They are trained in the finest points of communication, but when they turn on the microphone, they have nothing serious to say."
This lack of intellectual flexibility has left us with a media dominated by those who revel in social and moral relativism, at least when it aligns with their liberal values. Yet, they can't look at contemporary situations relative to those of similar factors in history. As Keegan writes, "History boys can explain easily - and convincingly - why some wars, as that against Germany in 1945, end in unopposed occupation of enemy territory and why others, as in Iraq in 1920 and 2004, do not. In the first case, the defeated nation has exhausted itself in the struggle and is dependent on the victor both for necessities and for protection against further disaster - social revolution or aggression by another enemy. In the second case, the war has not done much harm but has broken the power of the state and encouraged the dispossessed and the irresponsible to grab what they can before order is fully restored."
Too many in the media have lost, or ignore, an ability to apply proper, contextual, historical perspective. In the case of Iraq, the media has focused "on the activity of small, localised minorities struggling to entrench themselves before full peace is imposed and an effective state structure is restored." This is essentially crime reporting and it is repetitive and skews perspective, focusing on "disorder in Najaf and Fallujah, misbehaviour by a tiny handful of US Army reservists - not properly trained regular soldiers - in one prison." But what of the other 8,000 towns and villages in Iraq? Or Kurdistan where democracy and peace are the norm? I realize that "if it bleeds, it leads" is a long-recognized philosophy in the news media. Yet, while a local newscast may lead with a horrific crime, at least one puffy, human interest, feel good story is included at the end of the broadcast or on page A20 of the newspaper. Not so with regards to Iraq and the major media. Instead, it has been left to the internet, particularly the blogoshpere, to get the good news out.
Keegan particularly chastises BBC news anchor John Snow. "I do not know whether Jon Snow is a history boy who has decided to suppress what he knows in favour of his commitment to drama studies. I do know that he, and the serried ranks of self-appointed strategic commentators who currently dominate the written and visual media's treatment of the Iraq story, have a duty to stop indulging their emotions and start remembering a bit of post-war history. Iraq 2004 is not Greece 1945, not Indochina 1946-54, not Algeria 1953-62 and certainly not 'Vietnam'."
Keegan then asks a simple question: "If those who show themselves so eager to denounce the American President and the British Prime Minister feel strongly enough on the issue, please will they explain their reasons for wishing that Saddam Hussein should still be in power in Baghdad?" They can't.
Paul Johnson's piece on D-Day in the Wall Street Journal provides some additional perspective. "Unlike Montgomery in 1944, who never underestimated the German genius for counterattack, and made provision against it, the allies [The U.S., Great Britain, et al] this time did not study and prepare for the peculiar Arab genius for counterattack, which is to carry out prolonged and vicious guerilla warfare, completely disregarding human life, including their own. Moreover they did not study and prepare for the difficulties of meeting this form of counterattack against the political background of a free society at home, reacting nightly to what it sees on TV, and reading highly critical reports from the front written by journalists who have their own opinions and agendas and feel under no obligation to pursue the war (and peace) aims of the allied commanders. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair are currently suffering from their lack of provision and foresight." In this last, Johnson is correct, but now it is a lesson learned. Nonetheless, Johnson believes that, "Given patience and determination, all will be well in time: Democracy and the rule of law will grow in the Middle East, and the roots of terrorism will be destroyed."
Finally, Johnson believes that "we are learning, once again, that the lessons history has to teach are inexhaustible and that statesmen should never plunge into the future, as we did in Iraq, without first examining what guidance the past could supply." Perhaps Bush and Blair and their administrations did not properly learn from history and failed to properly predict the course of events. Unfortunately, Johnson puts too much stock in the predictive nature of history. History shows us that there are always surprises in war and it prepares us for the possibilities, but it can't predict for sure what will happen.