The colonel said, “You mean, like in an airport?”
“Yes,” the woman replied.
“Uh, ma’am,” said the colonel, “we’ll be in the desert, which is, uh, sand, so I don’t know about that.”
If the rap on the media after Tet was that biased reporting turned public opinion sour, the rap on the media after the Iraq War was virtually the opposite: that it had been too slow to subject government claims to scrutiny—indeed, that it had amplified official assessments in advance of the war and given them credibility. There are well-known examples of this, notably concerning the allegations by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. (He did not.) If you go back and take a look, you’ll also find a note of naive triumphalism, or maybe just premature optimism, in some early reported accounts after the war began.
But the chief factors influencing the quality of the coverage were the ones present in Vietnam, and present in any war: ignorance, confusion, inexperience, deadlines, excitement, competition, and the reliance, because there was no choice, on sources that may not prove to be trustworthy. (Taken together: an argument, again, for humility.) Even Colin Powell, the secretary of state, had not fully known what was going on—he made the case for war to the United Nations, unaware that some of the evidence provided by his own government was at best flawed and at worst manufactured. But everything could have been on the level, and there’d still be this: Nothing works out as planned (“Mission Accomplished”), even if you think it did.
In the years after the invasion, with the security situation deteriorating, many news organizations pulled their staffs from Iraq, leaving a dangerous job to reporters for the Post (in particular), the Times, and a handful of other outlets. As the war dragged on, and as reporting got better and better, the real problem with news from Iraq would turn out to be how little of it most Americans ever saw or heard. Across the board, as documented by Pew and others, the percentage of the news hole devoted to the war declined steeply.
And yet the body of published work on Iraq, within a few years of its start, would quickly become impressive. Thomas Ricks’s prize-winning Fiasco (2006) went back to square one and looked afresh at how this calamity had come about. (Ricks, a veteran military correspondent who covered the war for the Post, shared an office with me in a castle tower back in Peter Braestrup days.) That same year, the late Anthony Shadid published Night Draws Near, which described the impact of war on the Iraqi people themselves—based in part on reporting for which he’d won a Pulitzer Prize. A year later, the Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran produced Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The book is a portrayal of life in the fortified “green zone,” where the U.S. military occupation maintained its headquarters (and an example, too, of coming at a subject a little bit to the side). Starting even before the war, and continuing after, my Atlantic colleague James Fallows weighed in with a series of extraordinary articles—“The Fifty-First State” (which looked ahead to what running Iraq would entail), “Blind Into Baghdad” (which described all the expertise that had been ignored by the Bush administration), and “Why Iraq Has No Army” (which traced the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi military). The long lead time of a monthly magazine definitely has its drawbacks, but it provides a kind of freedom that short lead times don’t have patience for. In retrospect, it seems only natural that Peter Braestrup ended his career at a quarterly.