When you read a military history as good as No True Glory, you immediately realize what you’ve been missing. News stories from the Iraq war show the press’ continued problem doing war reporting, which is different from battlefield reporting. Even the critics of the press’ handling of the Iraq war have overlooked war reporting completely, focusing instead on battlefield reporting.
Journalists who give you the account of a particular day of fighting, from the limited perspective of a few soldiers in the thick of combat, are doing battlefield reporting. This type of journalism gives you a snapshot of the experience of battle; it cannot give you either depth or perspective. Depth can only occur if you re-evaluate these individual snapshots and build a longer narrative beyond a day or two of combat.
Initial information about what happened on a particular day is often wrong: for example, after action reports and post-battle intelligence might tell you that you were fighting more or fewer enemy soldiers than you thought, or that civilian casualties were worse or better than originally estimated.
Looking at just a single day’s events, you also miss the larger story of battle, even at the tactical level of the individual squad. Mainstream journalists focused on Fallujah when the fighting was fiercest; therefore, they missed the fact that, between April and November 2004, the insurgents were regularly attacking the Marines stationed around the city’s perimeter. The battle for Fallujah didn’t exactly stop for several months, since US Marines were regularly in harm’s way during this “lull.” (You can easily imagine, therefore, their eagerness to go after the Sunni insurgents who had been sniping at them, or detonating roadside IEDs.)
Battlefield reporting, therefore, could be a lot better. War reporting, on the other hand, is practically non-existent.
Where do you go to find out how well the United States and the Iraqi government are faring in this counterinsurgency war? No mainstream press outlet that gives you even the basic information about where forces are deployed and what they are doing. Nor do these print, broadcast, and Internet news sources give you the evolving picture, over time, of combat operations in Iraq. This information does exist in various forms, such as the GlobalSecurity.org web site. (In fact, GlobalSecurity.org might have fallen into obscurity if it hadn’t been one of the few sources of this information about Iraq.)
War reporting does not happen when you are sitting in the White House or Pentagon briefing room. Nor does it happen when you fly into Baghdad for a week, interview a few people, and fly out again. War reporting takes a lot more work—more, even, than Bing West was capable of doing in as well-researched a book as No True Glory. War reporting is a collective effort—perhaps by a single news outlet, perhaps by several in deliberate or accidental collaboration—that builds a more thorough, accurate picture of the overall war. It should be possible to zoom into the different levels of detail, such as the theater-level programs for training Iraqi security forces, or the tactical-level challenges clearing insurgents out of Anbar province.
You might object to this idea of war reporting because you’ve never seen it before. However, if the press is responsible for learning from its past mistakes, leading editors and journalists are certainly aware of the failures in covering Vietnam and other past conflicts. We have also seen war reporting during the United States’ previous war in Iraq, when viewers and readers could review the overall battlefield more easily than you can today. There’s little reason, therefore, with these experiences under their belts, and the availability of new “Web 2.0” techniques for gathering and publishing information, why journalists cannot do a better job of war reporting.
Here, too, is where you can see why the US military’s on-again, off-again hostility towards “milblogging” is counterproductive. Obviously, operational security is a critical priority. However, since the deployment of particular US Army or Marine units in Iraq is already public knowledge, a lot of the anxiety about operational security is overblown. Anyone with a web browser can figure out where particular units are deployed; what American citizens cannot figure out is how well the war is going, or even how it is being fought.
Military bloggers therefore provide a critical source of information, similar to the content of No True Glory. Are American soldiers unaware of the lessons of past counterinsurgency wars? What sort of challenges do they face, operating in densely-populated urban environments? What sort of ongoing skirmishes may be occurring that the press isn’t covering? And so forth.
Both the press and the US military have made it harder than it should be for US citizens to judge the fortunes of the Iraq war. Unless you go out of your way to find books like No True Glory, chances are that you’ll get an incomplete, distorted picture.
Among the many “must read” books about the Iraq war is Bing West’s No True Glory, which recounts the 2004 battles for Fallujah and Ramadi. No True Glory takes the Marines’ perspective –not just the front-line soldiers, but also the Marine generals and colonels. Not only does the book fill in an important piece of the war, but it also shows how many people—the press, bloggers who support the war, and bloggers who oppose it—have misunderstood this conflict.
West is the author of one of the classic books about the Vietnam War, The Village, the story of the Marine's Combined Action Program (CAP) in a particular Vietnamese village. The CAP program is, for many counterinsurgency aficionados, the Vietnam strategy that should have been prosecuted from the beginning, instead of Westmoreland’s doctrine of big unit sweeps and attrition. Since the Marines have a longer institutional memory about past counterinsurgency campaigns, many of the Marine officers in Iraq had the Vietnam-era CAP program and other counter-guerrilla experiences in mind when the 2003 invasion quickly turned into a vicious struggle with the motley Iraqi insurgent groups. Therefore, both West and the Marines he depicts went into Iraq with eyes open.
Therefore, it’s doubly painful to read how difficult the challenge was for them. At times, the problems were, unfortunately, their own creation, such as the disastrous decision to give the Fallujah Brigade control of its eponymous city. At other times, the problem were beyond their control, such as the parallel lines of authority running through the CPA and CENTCOM, which vastly complicated the operational level of strategy in Iraq. When fighting for control of Fallujah, operational clarity—or lack thereof—was the pivot on which that campaign turned.
No True Glory makes the quiet and frenetic moments of the Fallujah campaign equally riveting. One of the more harrowing moments is when General James Mattis, the commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) in Iraq, visits the radical cleric believed to be the major organizer and motivator of the Sunni insurgents in Fallujah. Mattis’ personal courage in this and other moments is extraordinary. (The amount of intelligence that the Marines had about the situation in Fallujah and Ramadi was also better than most people realize.) The house-to-house fighting during the April and November offensives are, of course, full of hair-raising incidents, such as the battle for a single building that the Marines quickly dubbed “the house from hell.”
If you were to read The Village and No True Glory back to back, you’d get an appreciation for the similarities and differences between Vietnam and Iraq. For example, in both conflicts, the insurgents had no qualms about using terror as an instrument of population control. Terror was an important weapon in the guerrilla arsenal; in both conflicts, from rocket attacks on a Vietnamese village to the execution of Nicholas Berg, terror wasn’t wielded indiscriminately against civilian targets. Reading about the retaliatory assassinations of villagers willing to help the South Vietnamese government, as embodied in the Marines and RF/PF militia units, you’ll get a good appreciation for the role terror has played in many insurgent strategies.
No True Glory shows how many past templates for counterinsurgency don’t work in Iraq without significant alteration. The CAP strategy depended on being able to work with a relatively small population, which could be geographically and politically isolated from the guerrillas. Even in that relatively easier scenario, counterinsurgency is tough work: for example, The Village shows, first-hand, how difficult it was to identify and deal with NLF agents (the infamous “VC infrastructure”) within a community. In contrast, the Marines in Fallujah were trying to cordon off, with just a few battalions, a city containing hundreds of thousands of people. The guerrillas had many more opportunities to infiltrate, build safe houses, and carry out political and military operations in a battlefield as large as Fallujah.