New York Times columnists Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney examine the power of perception in recent American military history, and present a very strong case that those perceptions and opinions formed by the media and hence by the public as a whole are not always well-informed or correct. With the War in Iraq as a backdrop, Johnson and Tierney look at the American experiences in Vietnam and Somalia, basically warning against looking at the shallow reporting coming out of Iraq which is skewing public perception.
Johnson and Tierney explain that the Vietnam War’s infamous Tet Offensive of 1968, while an almost total military defeat for the Communist Viet Cong, found itself perceived in the U.S. media and in public opinion as a total American failure. Tet was considered a Communist victory despite the fact that the Viet Cong failed to hold onto a single one of their military objectives, and despite the fact that the Americans and the South Vietnamese destroyed at least half of the Viet Cong forces in this offensive. The power of the media to shape public opinion is well-known, and Tet is a classic example. Images of the Viet Cong attack on the American Embassy in Saigon, though a military failure, were flashed across the world and into the living rooms of millions of American voters in the early months of an American Presidential election year. The misperceptions were also partly the result of the pollyanna “we are wining the war” mantra of the Johnson Administration, making the shock of the sudden Communist attacks all the more mind-blowing for most American civilians. Shortly after Tet, President Johnson declared his non-candidacy in the election, paving the way for Richard Nixon to win and his eventual pullout of American forces from Vietnam, dooming the South Vietnamese, and by extension, the people of Cambodia and Laos to the pain of Communist rule.
Just as in Vietnam, the U.S. and U.N. intervention in the early 1990s was seen by the media and the public as a failure due to the highly-publicized Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Even though untold thousands of Somali lives were saved from the drought and famine by the intervention, that one single battle in which 18 Americans died, (to the loss of hundreds of Somali fighters), paved the way for American withdrawal. Again, the media flashed pictures around the world and into the living rooms of America, turning a relatively minor battle into a policy-changing media event. Somalia today is a warren of warlord-controlled militias and violent anarchy, amid a growing unease that these conditions are fostering an al-Qaida aligned Islamic militancy which could lead to a larger regional war involving Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The lessons of these two failures of American foreign policy, though not necessarily military failures, leads now to the debate over what to do with the Iraqi question. Whenever American forces meet the insurgents in open battle, as at Turki recently, or in Fallujah earlier on, the insurgents cannot stand, fight, and win. We do win those battles, but the media focuses on the day-by-day statistics of IED explosives, car bombs, and the political problems of the Iraqi government. The frequent picture of burned out car-bombs in Baghdad markets and streets impacts public opinion far more than the much more infrequent television reports out of Kurdistan, which show a functioning society enjoying relative stability, or the many neighborhoods in smaller Iraqi cities that do not suffer the attentions of terrorism or Sunni-Shiite warfare. This is not to say that things are going well in Iraq; quite the contrary. The Sunni-Shiite civil war and the possible breakaway of Kurdistan are very serious problems that must be addressed.
One would hope, that in this modern era so highly touted as the “Information Age,” that the American public, (along with the British and other citizens of the world), can look past the often biased or incorrect perceptions of the media, whether it is from CNN, ABC, Fox, or even al-Jazeera, use the internet as the informative tool that it should be, and gain better knowledge of our problems in Iraq. One image broadcast by the media, such as we saw in Saigon and in Mogadishu, should not set the course of American public opinion, or American government policy.
Check out: The Wars of Perception --By Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney of the New York Times: November 28, 2006