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Neil Cameron
Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

The Second Iraq War in Current Mythology

Rob Reiner’s new film, Shock and Awe, is not about the massive aerial attack with which the Bush administration launched its war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, but on how the war was portrayed at the time,, not only by the government, but by almost all American media, including the NY Times and Washington Post. Reiner contends that this portrayal was fundamentally dishonest. The heroes of his film are the editor of the Knight-Ridder newspaper combine, played by Reiner himself, and two of its reporters, who spent many months interviewing opponents of the war in its planning stages that they found inside the CIA and the Pentagon.

Reviewers have not been much impressed by this attempted update of All the President’s Men, but have accepted it as a it seriously as a virtuous hindsight reflection. But it is much more revealing as a distillation of common received ideas about the war and its portrayal, endlessly repeated in over a decade of visual ‘docudramas’. The unstated assumptions found in these latter. Shock and Awe included, deserve closer examination, as they are likely to have a substantial effect on how the war is ‘remembered’, and may influence the way future ones are fought or avoided.

The editorials and reports of major newspapers and press syndicates continued to be influential in the changing era of televised war, often giving direction to the TV coverage. But neither the newspaper people nor the follow-up movie makers have much admitted, bellicose or disillusioned fictionalizations aside, that even their most conscientious reporting has carried its own ideological freight, and frequent facile encapsulation as thumbs up or thumbs down, mostly the latter.

Shock and Awe got some chilly reviews, but these still largely took for granted Reiner’s explicit claim of pure truth-seeking. The Globe & Mail’ was representative:’…The Knight Ridder reporters uncovered evidence of a presidency that ignored its own intelligence, lied to the public, wasted billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of Americans and a million Iraqis to pursue the obsession of a few men.’ This grim summary, now long widely accepted on both sides of the border, deflates the movie as drama. Nothing in it was remarked as ‘controversial’, much less ‘questionable’. Of course, Reiner could cite fifteen years of savagely critical books by journalists, Bob Woodward alone providing four. Furthermore, 2009 and 2013 ‘polls of American historians’ ranked George Bush near the bottom as a President, the Iraq war the main reason.

The patriotic uberhawk pundit, Victor Davis Hanson, did not have much impact in offering a contradictory case in a 2008 article, taking a longer-term view of the war as misunderstood, even as a partial success story. But the current received view is tendentious as well, distorted by complacent and politically biased depictions of Bush himself, focused far too narrowly on his personal limitations, real as these were.

Those rankings of Presidents ‘by American historians’, readily available on the web, are mostly just the formulaic mullings of sheep-like liberal Democrats in academia, more like components of a parlour game than titrations of historical wisdom. All Republican Presidents after Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, usually even Eisenhower and Reagan, are consigned to the basement. Selective criteria of measurement predetermine measurement results. There may be good grounds for maintaining that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative advisers were all knaves or fools or both, but they would be anyway portrayed that way by timid academic conformists and ‘gotcha’ reporters before they had even done anything. A more interesting question for a decade later, left incomprehensible by Reiner’s film, is why, in the months leading up to the war, the NYT and Post were so much more aligned with the government than they were in the Nixon and Reagan years, and why the investigations by the Knight-Ridder reporters had so little impact.

Bush, Rumsfeld, and the neoconservative Defence Policy Undersecretary, Douglas Feith have all provided their own answers to this and other questions in books and public appearances. Bush surprised even many of his bitter critics with his candid and informative memoirs, Decision Points and A Charge Kept. Donald Rumsfeld, less apologetic, still displays his icy but formidable logic, but the most historically instructive inside view of the Bush years that has so far appeared is in a big book by Feith, War and Decision (2008).

Appearing almost a decade ago, Feith’s book hasn’t much improved the common view of him. He still comes across as a smug and dogmatic Ivy League theoretician, moralistic but morally obtuse, exasperating military men with less elevated credentials and self-importance. He will never live down being described early in the war by General Tommy Franks, as ‘the stupidest fucking guy on the planet’. But while impenetrably self-righteous, Feith still did a great favour to historians determined to get the whole story and get it right. Memorable defensive failures often provide more valuable details than any left by popular winners. Read with a cold eye and a grain of salt, War and Decision is a source of this kind.

As head of the Office for Special Plans, responsible for analysing and integrating the intelligence data on Saddam Hussein and also on various ‘external’ resistance voices, like Ahmed Chalabi, and new internal ones rising with the collapse of Saddam’s government. Feith’s importance went beyond his formal office, directly connected to the nature of the President he served. Bush, while an admirer of Winston Churchill, determined to be a courageous ‘decider’, and more intelligent than his comic malapropisms suggested, knew well that, while he could deliver a good speech written by a good speechwriter, he had nothing like Churchill’s overall skills as a mass communicator, nor as a confident and subordinate-cowing warlord. He was struggling to integrate, not only the counsel of his surrounding ‘Vulcans’, themselves barraged with conflicting information and interpretations from the CIA and Pentagon, but with all of them then unsure how close terrorist groups could be to getting access to nuclear weapons or or smallpox epidemic resources, and whether Saddam or other rogue political leaders might empower such terrorist groups, even if antagonistic to them in ‘religious/secular’ terms.

Bush was not very traditionally ‘conservative’ or even conventionally Republican, and certainly not, as some of the more hostile stereotype caricatures of the left had it, a covert Machiavellian plotter for Bush family and big oil interests. His born-again Christianity was more emotional than intellectual, but was real enough, and the corresponding strategic vision he came up with was ‘Wilsonian’ in both the best and worst senses – generous, tolerant, sincere in democratic faith, but also provincial, geographically and historically almost tone-deaf, imperial, and obstinate. He really dreamed of ‘liberating’ Iraq, even without fully conquering it first, and that was what gave so much clout – at first – to neoconservative policy wonks like Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, with their own odd mixture of liberal idealism and geopolitical strategizing.

What makes Feith’s book valuable is that he does not depend on recollections, or comments from unnamed sources, but reprints many key documents of the time in their entirety, and, in his 600 footnotes, identifies the specific individual speaker or writer and the time of appearance. History in the long term may treat him, and George Bush, a bit more gently than at present, or at least give up on the notion they were merely peddlers of pernicious lies out of self-seeking motives. of Meanwhile, those attending Shock and Awe or nodding sagely at the G & M summary of the supposed reality it describes, should at least keep in mind the old Italian expression, amiable but cautionary: si non e vero, e ben trovato, roughly, ‘if it isn’t true, it ought to be.’