First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Reporting Out of Context
It's not surprising that the average American's idea of "history" is to say, Wow, seven years -- has it really been that long since Princess Di died?
But should reporters be "average" Americans? Surely there could be some requirement that people who write the news have enough sense of history to put the news into a rational context.
They're great at putting things into a political context (will this give one party an advantage over the other?). But a historical context would require that the reporter actually know something.
Which would imply that back in college he took courses in something other than journalism.
If I were running a newspaper, I would hire only history majors to be reporters, and completely shun the graduates of the almost-universally-Leftist journalism departments -- not on political grounds, but on the grounds of competence. History students are still taught to work from facts, and to keep in mind a broad understanding of where the facts fit into a larger story.
(The only exception is that for science reporting, I'd hire only reporters who can actually read and understand 75 percent of the articles in the average issue of Scientific American. An even smaller group than history majors.)
Why would it take an entire major's worth of study to learn what talented cub reporters used to pick up in three months on the job? (Don't bother writing in; the question is rhetorical.) Every credit hour of indoctrination in journalism is time that could have been spent on getting an education.
Let's take some examples from this week's news.
Fallujah in Context
In reporting on the initial push into Fallujah, Fox -- the most balanced of the news media -- kept showing footage of a burnt-out American military vehicle, while saying, over and over, that while our guys were doing damage to the enemy, the enemy was making it just as hot for our guys. (Then they reassured us that all the U.S. soldiers got out of the vehicle, though one of them had to be helped.)
The impression they kept pounding at us was that there was some kind of equivalence -- that the enemy was giving as good as they got.
But in fact that was absolutely not the case. When street fighting is balanced, the attacking force can be expected to take casualties and damage at a substantially higher rate than the defenders.
Traditionally, the only way to shift the balance in favor of the attackers is through saturation bombardment, forcing the defenders to either abandon their positions or sustain casualties without being able to inflict damage.
We didn't do any saturation bombing -- only pinpoint strikes. We didn't blow up houses just in case they contained bad guys -- we allowed them to stand, which meant that some bad guys would be bypassed and remain behind as snipers.
In short, we gave every advantage to the enemy, in order to avoid wanton destruction and civilian losses -- and still we advanced inexorably toward victory, inflicting far more casualties than we sustained.
In context, what we were seeing was not balance, it was overwhelming superiority in training, morale, equipment, and, of course, numbers.
But no matter how superior one army is over the other, there is always attrition -- what military thinkers call "friction." The enemy will blow up the occasional truck. A sniper will reveal his position by inflicting casualties. It doesn't imply balance. It only implies war.
Shooting a Possum
Much has been made about the report -- and recording -- of U.S. soldiers who entered a mosque that was being used by the enemy as an outpost. A soldier was heard to call out, "This one's faking that he's dead." Then a gunshot. Then (as the reporter I heard on Fox said it): "Now he's not dead anymore." (Though of course what the soldier meant -- or might have even said -- was "Now he's not faking anymore.")
War crime alert!
Yes, quite possibly.
But the reporter was reporting what he heard, not what he saw.
What might have happened was: A wounded insurgent was lying there bleeding, and an American soldier accused him of faking death and shot him, helpless and unarmed. War crime.
But what also might have happened is: An unwounded insurgent was lying there, his weapon still in his hands, hoping that careless Americans would turn their back on him so he could kill a few Gis before dying himself in the returning fire.
Not helpless. Not unarmed. And in war, you don't wait for the enemy to start shooting. A potentially effective, armed enemy combatant who is not surrendering is always a fair target, even if he's not actually pointing a weapon and shooting.
Faking dead is not surrendering. It is "setting up an ambush."
It's Hollywood morality, not the real world of war, that requires that the bad guy has to shoot first. In war, only leaders who want their men to die would impose such a requirement on them.
The reporter who passed along this "story" was not present -- he was reporting only what he heard. So for all he knew, the insurgent, the moment he heard the American say "This one's faking," might have pulled out his weapon and prepared to shoot. Even Hollywood morality might have been satisfied.
But even if that GI was at close range, and the insurgent who was faking death was not visibly armed, in the midst of a harsh door-to-door operation in urban fighting, advance teams don't always have enough men or enough time to take prisoners. It is one of the cruel realities of war.
You're a squad leader. You only have ten guys, let's say, and for your operation to succeed you need them all with you, alert and concentrating on the situation ahead.
How many of them can you send back to the rear, escorting prisoners?
How many of them can you leave in place, to watch over enemy combatants?
And how many living, healthy enemy combatants can you afford to leave behind, unguarded, as you advance further into enemy-held territory?
When there is zero evidence that an enemy combatant was trying to surrender, it is not only not a war crime for him to be killed, it is not even news.
It is only news if you want to make it appear to noncombatants that American troops are committing war crimes. It is only news if you want to try to incite further hatred of America -- or further American resistance to the war.
Maybe a war crime took place. But it is extremely doubtful. Shooting the enemy only becomes a war crime when the enemy has surrendered and the surrender has been accepted.
If the reporter had known a little history (or cared), he might have remembered the way that German soldiers in the last weeks of World War II, when it was obvious their side was losing, would still keep killing Americans until they ran out of ammunition. Then they would stand up and put up their hands in surrender.
Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- considers it a war crime that some Gis, having just lost a buddy or two to this very German soldier and his meaningless resistance, chose not to accept his surrender. Nobody held war crimes trials. It was regrettable, but it was war.
In that context, what we heard a tape of from Fallujah was not even close to a crime. It would take considerable research to find out whether a crime of any kind was committed, and however unpleasant it might be for noncombatants to hear the sometimes calm-sounding voices of adrenalin-charged men in the heat of combat and the callousness of the dark humor among comrades-in-arms, the fact is that those who are not in combat are not fit judges of those who are.
Not even embedded reporters who are out to get dirt on the war.
If a real My-Lai-style war crime took place, then of course the reporter should report it.
But when he doesn't know what happened and the evidence is such as it was in this case, only malice or self-righteous ignorance of history would cause him to think he even had a story worth reporting.
Step back from the war and look at the reporting from Washington this week. Cabinet officers submit their resignation. President Bush accepts the resignations. He announces the people he will nominate to replace those who are going home.
What do we hear? There's a "revolving door" in the Bush cabinet! He's getting rid of people he no longer wants and replacing them with the ones he does want!
Reporters and commentators with any sense of history would quit their jobs before they'd be caught saying "revolving door" in the context of the Bush cabinet. All but two of Bush's original cabinet stayed the entire four years of his first term. The last time that little turnover happened was FDR's first term, which ended in 1937.
Four years in a cabinet is a long time. It's exhausting work -- particularly when you head an entrenched bureaucracy that is ideologically opposed to your President and resists you at every step, which is the case for most of a Republican President's cabinet.
When you consider how much money most of these leaders could get in private industry, how old many of them are, and how thankless their work often is, it is remarkable that so many lasted out the first term. It suggests that Bush is the kind of boss who inspires loyalty -- and who is also loyal to his underlings.
The change from Bush's first to his second term is the natural place to make changes in the cabinet.
And what you certainly cannot say with any accuracy at all is that the Bush cabinet has a "revolving door."
The "revolving door" figure of speech has always suggested turmoil -- when you can't keep a cabinet member in place and they're constantly going in and out of office. Bush is the President for whose cabinet the term "revolving door" is least appropriate since 1936.
But the press, ever hungry for negative news, is acting as if Colin Powell had been fired -- while eagerly prodding to see if Donald Rumsfeld is going to "resign." In other words, they're covering their political preferences, their own hopes and expectations and disappointments, and not putting the story in its historical context.
The result is that Colin Powell's resignation at age 67 is being treated as if he had been fired. People are even using the word "dumped" to refer to the departure of some of the cabinet.
Well, maybe it's true. But I'd rather not see such coverage without evidence. Why should reporters' speculation on unknowable motives be given even one second of my reading time, when the reporters prove themselves in every paragraph to be historically ignorant and unaware of their own inadequacy?
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
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