Getting lost in the fog of war

Journalists tend to remind readers about their most brilliant, penetrating forecasts which came true. They rarely write about times when their predictions were dismally wrong. Well, here is an entire column about how badly wrong journalists went in Iraq.

Let me start with myself. I feared that Saddam Hussein would blow up his oil wells, sending oil prices through the roof. I was wrong. Saddam had indeed wired his wells, but very few wells were actually blown up. So the oil scenario is far brighter than I had expected, and the price of oil is down quite a bit.

Second, I had predicted that the war would last for some time. Wrong again: it was over in three weeks.

Third, I predicted that Saddam or his sympathisers would launch terrorist attacks on cities of the west, possibly using chemical or biological weapons. Wrong again. Taking these risk factors together, I predicted that there was a substantial chance of a global recession, or at least stagnation. On this I may just turn out to be right, but for reasons having little to do with Iraq.

Why do I trumpet my mistakes to the world? To make the point that, in the fog of war, nobody can really see clearly. Those who turn out to be right are lucky more than wise. Dozens of critical parameters are unknowable. In the fog of war, journalistic analyses are not a great improvement on astrology.

How badly off the mark was I compared with other journalists? I will avoid any comparison with fellow Indian journalists: that might be misinterpreted as personal animosity. Let me, instead, quote from a global compilation in the Wall Street Journal.

Listen, for instance, to Victor Mallet in Financial Times, March 28. “It is hard not to draw comparisons with events surrounding North Vietnam’s Tet offensive in 1968. The US inflicted heavy casualties on its enemies and was seen as the victor on the battlefield, but such was the psychological impact of the attack that America lost the struggle for domestic and international public opinion and ultimately withdrew.”

Consider Simon Jenkins in The Times (London), March 28. “In Baghdad, the coalition forces confront a city apparently determined on resistance. They should remember Napoleon in Moscow, Hitler in Stalingrad, the Americans in Mogadishu and the Russians at Grozny. Hostile cities have ways of making life ghastly. For aggressors. They seldom capitulate, least of all when their backs are to the wall. It took two years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam for Saigon to fall to the Viet Cong. In the desert, armies fight armies. In cities, armies fight cities. The Iraqis were not stupid. They listened to western strategists musing about how a desert battle would be a pushover. Things would be difficult only if Saddam played the cad and drew the Americans into Baghdad. Why should he do otherwise?”

Consider one of the top US journalists, Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker issue of April 7. “According to a dozen or so military men I spoke to, Rumsfeld simply failed to anticipate the consequences of protracted warfare. He put Army and Marine units in the field with few reserves and an insufficient number of tanks and other armoured vehicles. The military men say that the vehicles they do have have been pushed too far, and are malfunctioning. Supply lines—inevitably they say—have become overextended and vulnerable to attack, creating shortages of fuel, water and ammunition. Pentagon officers spoke contemptuously of the Administration’s optimistic briefings.”

So, Indian complaints that the American press was a lapdog of the government are overdone. Some famous journalists did indeed lambaste the government, but are looking rather foolish today. Consider Robert Wright on April 1 in Slate.com, the top internet newspaper.

“As the war drags on, any stifled sympathy for the American invasion will tend to evaporate. As more civilians die and more Iraqis see their resistance hailed across the Arab world as a watershed in the struggle against western imperialism, the traditionally despised Saddam could gain appreciable support among his people.”

Consider Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, April 9. “Even here in the anti-Saddam Shia heartland of southern Iraq, no one is giving US troops a standing ovation….We’ve gone from expecting applause to being relieved that there is no overt hostility. And we’ve been here only 20 days.”

I think the top prize for mistaken passion should go to Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect. “A couple of weeks into the war, it’s now apparent just how ideologically blinkered the administration’s view of Iraq actually was, and how that view has already imperilled our troops, the Iraqi people, and any larger strategic objective. In its over-reliance on a small number of neo-friendly Iraqi expatriates to gauge the mood of the Iraqi people, in its belief that our forces would be greeted as liberators, the administration made almost the identical error that the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations made at the bay of Pigs.”

I cannot resist laughing at these gaffes. Yet let me say I have great respect for all these writers. The real lesson is not that they are idiots, but that nobody can see clearly in the fog of war. Some right-wing loonies correctly predicted most outcomes, but that does not prove they had extraordinary analytical skills.

It simply proves the old adage that even a blind pig will sometimes find an acorn.

However, the episode does demonstrate one sobering truth: too many writers use wishful thinking as a substitute for analysis. Anti-American writers generally predicted that the war would go badly for the US, and pro-American writers predicted a quick and painless outcome.

I will claim one saving grace in my own errors. In predicting a global recession, I was fearing the worst rather than indulging in wishful thinking.

I hope I can say that is less reprehensible than the behaviour of some of my peers. Or does that amount to wishful thinking, after all?

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