We are deep into Southern Iraq, certainly well over 100 kilometres north from the border. We've been driving for over 11 hours.
In the last few minutes we just crossed over the Basra-Baghdad highway.
We've had several bizarre incidents in the last few minutes of drivers on the highway completely unaware that American armour may be this far north, stopping their vehicles in utter amazement as we crossed the highway.
Next, the BBC reported—in all apparent sincerity—that the Iraqi government denied coalition troops were more than a few miles into Iraq. No comment was made. It was reported as if it were factual.
This was a powerful event. First, the startling revelation of how far the allies had advanced in their first rush was sure to thrill, or chill, any listener. Secondly, it gave the lie to the official Iraqi bluster. Thirdly, it exposed the difference between real objectivity and the bogus opinion-mongering of the mostly leftist, pacifist, and relativist reporters of "the Beeb."
Many people, including many BBC reporters, confuse objectivity with a balance of opinion. Real objectivity means facing the facts. Most basically, it means accepting what you know because it is right in front of your face. Think of a laboratory experiment in chemistry class. You see—and often smell—the results. That's objective proof. You have that kind of direct awareness of facts all the time, of whatever you are seeing, wherever you are. When you don't have direct access to the facts, then your next best bet is someone else's reliable, unbiased report of what he has seen, like the reporter's account above. Only if you lack any solid evidence may objectivity require you to weigh conflicting interpretations, if both are reasonable. We often have to do this. We aren't omniscient, after all, and proof requires reasoning. But facts trump bluster every time.
The BBC may not have been well aware of that, but the allied military leadership apparently was. It took clear steps to shine the light of objectivity on the operations of the war.
Early in the campaign, U.S. military spokesmen repeated the message that they would be sources for the truth. But was that just spin? Being properly inclined to secrecy, official military sources were not especially forthcoming with the public on many issues. And suffering from a bias toward optimism—at least in their public pronouncements—some military sources made claims that didn't hold up in the light of day. Umm Qasr alone was declared "taken" by the allies at least four times. But the military had locked in a real source of objectivity for the Iraq campaign. This, of course, was the program that "embedded" more than six hundred journalists with front-line units and left them free to report the fighting—for good or ill—without a censor looking over their shoulders.
Before the shooting started, Colonel Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British military, explained the purpose of the military's newfound openness: "We're showing what we've got and we would like the message to get out to the people and to the regime of Iraq…. If we were to have success in some part of Iraq, we would like that success to be seen by elements of the leadership and the population" (quoted by Peter Maas in The New Republic, March 31, 2003).
Some critics fretted that the embedded-journalist program was itself a subtle kind of propaganda. And certainly the "embeds" could each only give snapshots of the battles being fought. Generally, they went where their assigned units went; there were no embeds with the Saddam Fedayeen. But did this induce embedded journalists to wildly distort the facts? Not at all.
Three obvious signs confirm the objectivity of the embeds. First is their rapid contradiction of false reports from the military command. These included eyewitness reports that in certain cases U.S. troops may not have followed correct procedure before firing on Iraqi civilians. Secondly, they reported foul-ups and other problems: malfunctioning artillery pieces, friendly-fire incidents, traffic jams, and other SNAFUs. Thirdly, we have their own testimony. Here is one example, heard on National Public Radio:
Brooke Gladstone: I mean it's obvious you really like these guys [in the unit to which you're assigned] and they're protecting you—do you think that some judgment other than news judgment is going into what you choose to report?
John Burnett: I don't know. I mean—[laughs]—I, I don't, I don't feel any constraints to say what I want to say, and if the time comes to rake them over the coals for an operation gone awry, that's exactly what I'll do (National Public Radio, WYNC.org).
During the first weeks of the war, the media's own view of the embedding process veered wildly. In the first days, the live, frontline reporting and the warm reception the embeds had received from the troops produced sighs of joy from television anchors. But as the war continued and the embeds failed to produce a completely integrated assessment of the war's progress, complaints began to arise among media analysts. The embed reports were too scattered, some said. The embeds only reflected the American view of things, said others, especially the unembedded, "unilateral" reporters languishing in Kuwait and dreaming of first-hand interviews with Iraqis under Fedayeen occupation.
To be sure, the embeds were not omniscient observers. But to call them unobjective, or to confuse their reports with propaganda, is to misunderstand what facts are. The critics fantasize about an incorporeal, all-seeing eye, one that is everywhere and nowhere, collecting all the information and seeing from every possible physical vantage point. But we do not know facts because we have a view from nowhere. We know facts when we have a view from somewhere. When the embeds reported what they were seeing and hearing, they were providing us with facts in the basic way facts must be established: personally and directly.
Of course, we need to take such facts and infer from them the broader context if we want a complete, integrated grasp of an event. This requires imagination, envisioning what sources of information one lacks and seeking out sources of information that quarter the ground. But that process starts with some solid facts. And the embed program vastly increased the number of facts being reported by direct observers with a professional commitment to convey the truth about what they were seeing. In short, it cast the spotlight of objective observers across a huge swath of the allied military operation. It put the facts front and center in the allied war plan.
When are facts as powerful as bombs? When you have the world's best military force and you aren't afraid of the truth. When you are the U.S. and British forces in Iraq, and your foe is likely to fight you largely because his decisions are lost in a morass of myth-making, propaganda, and self-deception. When what you fight for is openness and freedom. How fine it is to see the U.S. government, which has fallen short in this respect in the past, making real strides toward embracing the truth not just as a slogan but as a policy.