Washington at War
The ground war in Iraq is well underway, and today, the Arab satellite television network al Jazeera broadcast both pictures of a group of soldiers in Iraqi custody who appeared to be Americans, as well as footage of dead soldiers who appeared to have been executed. These images of POWs and casualties are among the first indications the American public, and the world, have received on how complicated the operation in Iraq can and will be.
Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Sunday, March 23, to talk about the latest developments in Iraq and Washington at War.
The transcript follows.
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Robert G. Kaiser: Good afternoon. This is the fourth day of war. We've had some grim news from Iraq and Kuwait today, reminders that this really is a war.
But in Washington it has been an early spring Sunday, sunny and warm. Because of the war and attendant security concerns, the authorities cancelled the Washington Marathon scheduled for this morning, but many of the runners and organizers decided the race should be run anyway, and it was. On DuPont Circle an hour ago I saw three young people juggling brightly-colored paper streamers before dozens of admiring spectators. Twenty yards up Connecticut Ave. four young men, three trombonists and a tuba player, entertained the crowds that jammed the sidewalks.
The president returned from Camp David this afternoon and gave a miniature press conference on the White House lawn, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, but the crowd in DuPont Circle was more representative of Washington at war on March 23, 2003.
As always I welcome your comments, questions, whatever. We'll stay here for 45 minutes or so. You can reach me at other times at email@example.com.
Arlington, Va.: Do you think it's a wise decision not to show the video of executed U.S. soldiers? Yes, it's gruesome. Yes, it's gratuitous. But yes -- we're watching a war in real time, and it's gruesome and gratuitous. I can't say that I want to see the video, but frankly, if we want to give people a sense of what war is like, this is it. That said, I feel for the families and in their shoes I would loathe feeling exploited. It's such a tough call; just because the media can show something doesn't mean they should. And I certainly wouldn't have wanted to see anyone broadcast the Danny Pearl video, for example. But part of me can't help but think that if those images aren't broadcast, then the media really are being censored.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for an interesting and difficult question. I think I disagree that a news organization's decision not to broadcast or print something is evidence of censorship. Editors edit; that's their job. The Post receives vast quantities of material every day that don't get into the paper, because there's a practical limit on its size. We choose what to print, what to leave out. TV producers do the same thing.
Since I was a young reporter in Vietnam, American editors have struggled with the question of whether, and in what circumstances, to show pictures of dead Americans. Such photos do shock readers and viewers. Broadcasting or publishing them can certainly appear cruel to loved ones of the victims. So there has to be a very good journalistic reason, in my judgment, to justify using gruesome photos of a pile of dead Americans shot through the forehead, which is what Al Jazeera broadcast today.
I would not criticize American television networks for taking a pass on this grim footage.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the briefings and the reports from the embedded press have inadvertently created an impression that this will be a cakewalk? There hasn't been a ton of resistance to this point, but this is only a few days old. The Iraqi army has -got- to be putting its eggs in the Baghdad basket -- waiting for a threat to the big prize if they can't be the same strength everywhere.
Robert G. Kaiser: I don't see the embedded reporters creating a cakewalk impression. Look at Keith Richburg's report from Basra currently on the front page of washingtonpost.com, for example. It's a very good account of the resistance met in Basra.
Of course Baghdad will be the problem. We now know that the U.S. and BRitish commanders have issued strict orders about risking civilian casualties. Respecting those orders could make the taking of Baghdad harder, and more dangerous. Stay tuned...
Sumter, S.C. : Here in Sumter, home to Shaw Air Force Base, much of the discussion is of support for our troops. Indeed, the entire South appears to be a region that generally supports the war. But is there any sense in Washington that the administration has gotten it all horribly wrong? We moved without U.N. approval, we are attempting to bring democracy to a country and region that has no history of it, thousands pack the streets worldwide (including in the U.S.) against the war and the rising tide of resentment from the Islamic world will only bode ill in the future and pose an even greater terrorism danger to us than we now face.
Robert G. Kaiser: Two reactions to your interesting question:
1) Supporting the troops and fearing that we've made a big mistake are not mutually exclusive, are they?
2) Yes, lots of serious people in Washington worry that we have made a dreadful mistake. I quoted Zbigniew Brzezinski -- Jimmy Carter's national security adviser -- in last Sunday's paper saying "We don't know what we're doing." That's a pretty heavy comment from a serious man. And I have talked to dozens of others who share his anxiety. Of course there are smart and experienced people on the other side, too.
washingtonpost.com: U.S. Risks Isolation, Breakdown Of Old Alliances in Case of War (Post, March 16, 2003)
Washington, D.C.: Do you think there's a sense that people would be shocked and lose their nerve if they saw the pictures of the POWs? Seeing how they were treated just makes me more [angry]. I don't support this war, but that almost makes me side with Bush.
Robert G. Kaiser: I suspect many people would have precisely your reaction.
Bethesda, Md.: Do you have facts on the number of casualties that both the U.S. _AND_ Iraq have suffered?
Robert G. Kaiser: Iraqi casualties are not known, and probably never will be. U.S. and British losses are being announced as they occur, and we have a pretty good idea I think of the number killed. I don't have it at my fingertips here, but it's in the area of three dozen so far, I think.
Baltimore, Md.: I've been finding that even with 24-hour, live coverage of this war, it's no less confusing. Do they have Basra, do they not have Basra? Do they have Umm Qasr or don't they? Not that the press isn't doing their job, but I'm nearing a point when I'd like to get a little perspective out of my news sources instead of just digital video. What do you think of the "you're-on-the-battlefield" coverage?
Robert G. Kaiser: My best advice is to buy a good newspaper every morning (I think you know which one I would recommend) and devote as much time to it as you can, and don't try to follow the story on television. I agree with you: it is totally confusing. Television does NOT have the ambition to try to give you a coherent overview of what's happening. TV journalists want constant action, noise, talking heads, etc. They want what we called in Vietnam "bang-bang." When you see a big dose of it, I think confusion is inevitable.
I also think being able to see the pictures on television is a great supplement to reading the paper. But you can get the best of the pictures by watching one of the network news broadcasts in the evening -- a 30-minute investment at most.
Nashville, Tenn.: I am surprised that we have gotten four days into the war without a single image of combat or causalities from the embedded press pool.
Do you feel that this is due to the networks not wanting to offend our sensibilities, as you describe in your excellent book "The News About the News"?
Robert G. Kaiser: I can't resist posting this question, for obvious reasons, but I can't answer it very intelligently, because I'm not sure you are right. Was there no film from the grenade fragging in the 101st Airborne? Or from the Marine actions in the South? I just don't know, partly because (see the answer above) I devote more time to reading than watching.
I expect television to give us lots of film of combat when they can get it. Casualties will be treated with care, as discussed above.
Rockville, Md.: Have you seen any coverage that just seemed silly? Not to make light of it, but just over the top unnecessary?
Robert G. Kaiser: Silliness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Did you see NBC's David Bloom racing across the desert with his helmet and shades on, providing a running commentary at 40 MPH?
Scotland, UK: Do you think the number of Iraqi citizens opposed to the arrival of coalition forces was greatly underestimated by the war planners?
Perhaps a lot more effort needs to be made in gaining their support rather than assuming it would be there automatically?
Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think we know yet what portion of the population actively opposes, or will oppose, the arrival of our forces. That some would was inevitable; everyone associated with the old regime has to be fearful of the consequences of the invasion for them personally. But we'll know soon enough...
Milpitas, Calif.: I earlier read report from The Washington Post [that] U.S. troops are not welcome from "liberated Iraqis." This is in contract with Bush administration policy than Americans will be welcome as liberators. What do you think of this?
Robert G. Kaiser: See above answer. I'm not sure which Post story you are referring to.
Boston, Mass.: For a fascinating perspective on the huge question of "What now for opponents of war." I highly recommend that all read Peter Gomes' op-ed piece in Sunday's Boston Globe. You can find it here: For those who oppose the war, what now? (Boston Globe, March 23, 2003)
It looks in particular at the question: is a war which many thought unjustified before the outbreak of conflict now somehow made "just" or "moral" simply because the military action has begun?
I'd appreciate your thoughts on this query as well.
Will in Boston
Robert G. Kaiser: I haven't yet seen Rev. Gomes's piece, but I'll read it when we're finished here. Thanks for the link.
My own hunch is that the war will come to be seen as more just by more people if we see lots of Iraqis welcoming the invaders enthusiastically, and if the invaders discover significant quantities of chemical and biological weapons, and or evidence of Iraqi efforts to help terrorists, acquire nukes, etc.
I also think, as I said above, that it's quite natural for Americans to rally behind their young men and women in combat no matter what they think about the politicians' decisions that put them there. I don't think Americans are comfortable blaming the troops for the decisions of their commanders.
Washington, D.C.: Anything new on the "phantom" soldiers who the Iraqis thought landed in the Euphrates? That was a weird scene -- shooting into the river.
Robert G. Kaiser: Nothing new I've seen.
Bethesda, Md.: If you had to bet, would you bet that the Iraqis will use chemical weapons near Baghdad?
Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not a betting man. I have no idea what to expect.
Washington, D.C.: What prompted the Washington Post editorial staff to come out in support of the war on its editorial pages?
Robert G. Kaiser: As I and many colleagues from the news department of The Post have noted repeatedly in on-line discussions, we are totally disconnected from the editorial page staff; they do not influence us, and we do not influence them. Nor do we participate in their debates and discussions, so I literally cannot answer your question.
But it seems to me that they have told us repeatedly why they support the war, in numerous editorials.
Rainier, Ore.: Should we be surprised at the reports of Iraqi paramilitary or armed persons dressed in civilian attire participating in the fighting? How can our troops and field commanders respond to this development?
Robert G. Kaiser: Surprise would be misplaced, don't you think? This is always tricky; it was a huge problem in Vietnam. I don't think there's a glib answer to your question. Commanders have to judge each situation as it develops, and sometimes they'll make a wrong call. That's war.
San Diego, Calif.: What is your take on the Iraqi soldiers that have surrendered to coalition forces? Do they generally surrender out of fear of the overwhelming power of the coalition forces, or do they surrender because they feel that the coalition forces have freed them?
Robert G. Kaiser: No one has yet been able to interview one of these prisoners, as far as I know. But it strikes me that the most logical answer to your question is "both."
Springfield, Mo.: My child is in D.C. this week on a school-sponsored trip, as I'm sure many other children are. No offense intended, but I would like your opinion as to whether Washington is any more dangerous today than it was before the war started.
Robert G. Kaiser: As I tried to indicate at the beginning of this chat, Washington today looks like a serene, safe city. I hope you can relax about your child's safety while he/she is here. Of course we live in strange times; who knows what terrorists may lurk here--or in Springfield, MO, for that matter. But I'm optimistic, and I hope you can be, too.
Rockville, Md.: At what point would you, as an editor, decide to pull a reporter out of a situation?
Robert G. Kaiser: At the moment I thought there was a significant chance the reporter's life was in danger.
Alexandria, Va.: How are your people in the field? I heard a report from the guy in Northern Iraq yesterday and it sounded like a truly awful experience when the car bomb went off. How's everyone coping?
Robert G. Kaiser: Our gang seem to be doing very well under difficult circumstances. Sleep is hard to come by; communications are very frustrating because the satellite phone companies have sold too many phones for the capacity they have; Meals Ready to Eat are no treat. On the other hand, strangely but truly, war is exhilarating. It's a helluva story, which is what journalists thrive on. Nobody has asked to come home, as far as I know.
Reston, Va.: I find the television media has become so flag-waving that it is difficult to consider the broadcasts objective. At the same time, dragging the widows and mothers of dead soldiers into on-air interviews seems both provocative and uncalled for.
Do you have an opinion regarding the pro-U.S. view of the television coverage? At times, I feel I am watching a sporting event rather than a source of objective information.
Robert G. Kaiser: I've had very similar reactions to yours.
Edgewater, Md.: What are the chances that the Iraqis will consider our captured soldiers to be "enemy combatants" and not subject to the Geneva Convention?
That is, only subject to a military tribunal.
Robert G. Kaiser: As today's events testify, we should not hold our breaths waiting for the Iraqis to recognize legal niceties of any kind.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Do you know if the military was expecting more surrenders from the Iraqi army? I saw a general address the question today at a briefing and he had some good answers to the question. But did that factor in to the military's plans?
Robert G. Kaiser: We have reported the high hopes commanders had for large-scale surrenders, so based on those stories, I'd say there must be some disappointment today. But it is early; such surrenders could certainly happen in the days ahead. In my experience, military officers are chronic "worst-case" planners. I doubt the lack of massive surrenders so far has thrown them off much.
Knoxville, Tenn.: You referenced the cancellation of the D.C. Marathon. What other outward signs of war currently exist in Washington?
Robert G. Kaiser: Very few. There's a ban on pedestrians in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, part of "Code Orange" I think. Security at government buildings is pretty tight, but it has been since 9/11. But if you didn't know there was a war on, you wouldn't see any evidence of it on the streets.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Do you think the Allies, and especially the Iraqi people, have the stomach to conduct Nuremburg-style war crime tribunals? Maybe clearing the rubble, destroying the WMDs, arresting the criminal class, and building a new improved Iraq might be more than enough for the U.S. taxpayer. Thanks much.
Robert G. Kaiser: Good question, and I don't know the answer.
Washington, D.C.: 1. Were the U.S. media warned not to take close-up pictures of captured Iraqis? Rumsfeld's indignation about TV coverage by Iraq is not matched by his concern about Western coverage of our POWs -- I saw one clip from the BBC which stated explicitly that the Geneva convention requires that photography be "respectful," and hence from a distance; this is not the case of most American coverage.
2. What has prevented U.S. media from showing al Jazeera coverage, especially of the U.S. POWs? An individual decision by each network, or was there a pentagon notification to that effect -- and was that contingent upon notification of relatives, etc.
Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sorry I don't know for certain the answers to your questions. I'd be very surprised if the Pentagon had issued any guidance to the networks. Private news organizations are not covered by the Geneva conventions. You'll not the briefer from Qatar this afternoon (if you saw his interesting briefing) made a point of calling Al Jazeera "state television," so making it, perhaps, more like a government entity, which I don't really think it is.
San Diego, Calif.: Your comments please on this article:
Battles Rage in Iraqi Cities, Bodies Litter Desert (Reuters, March 23, 2003)
In particular the comment by the Colonel who doesn't seem to understand that the Iraqi's are defending their homeland and the quotes from the Iraqi's Hussein and Faoud, neither of which would seem to be Saddam syncophants (though Faoud does seem to support Saddam; brings to mind american's support of Bush).
It certainly does NOT appear that there is a massive population just waiting to aid the "willing coalition" forces efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Or celebrating the "willing coalition's" efforts to "liberate" them. It appears as though most just want to get out of the way of armed factions and do not have strongly held beliefs in favor of one faction or the other.
Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sorry I haven't read the full article yet; I'll do so when we're finished. I looked at the top of it, and it looks like a somewhat overwritten "leadall" on the day's events.
To repeat, I think it's too early for us to evaluate the mood of the Iraqi people, or their reactions to the invasion. It's only logical that there will be multiple schools of thought among them. But we've heard only from a tiny, tiny fraction of them so far.
Jacksonville, Fla.: How do you think the American government's complaints -- that the Iraqis' treatment of U.S. POWs violates the Geneva Convention -- sound to the rest of the world?
Robert G. Kaiser: Now I have to guess the thinking of "the rest of the world"? Don't think I can do that! Of course some people will hear whining, and some will be sympathetic, and some won't notice, among many many other possible reactions.
Chevy Chase, Md., again: Re: Surrenders -- the general brought up the fact that last time, Iraqi solders were in Kuwait, they were isolated from home, they'd had the stuffing bombed out of them first, etc. This time they're on home turf and the U.S. hasn't carpet bombed the place. Do you think the U.S. military will get to the point of deciding that it's a good thing to knock out electricity and running water, for example, and make things harder for the population in hopes of getting more surrenders?
Robert G. Kaiser: I just don't know. It struck me as impressive and interesting to hear Annie Garrels on NPR say an hour or two ago that all the basic services in Baghdad (she is there) are still working, after all the bombs we've seen exploding in the city. That is evidence of a careful plan, I'd say. But I have no idea how long they may stick to it.
Washington, D.C.: Do you find it alarming that it seems in many circles that dissent with administration defense policy is somehow unpatriotic? Isn't it the responsibility of elected leaders to question and challenge policy. How should groups opposed to the war articulate their concerns effectively?
Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not in the business of giving advice to interest groups, but I certainly agree with Theodore Roosevelt (quoted in a recent Post editorial) that criticizing the government when you think it has made a mistake is in fact a very patriotic thing to do.
Washington, D.C.: The Arab media has shown very different pictures than the Washington Post has. Sources such as Al-Jazeera have gruesome pictures of civilian casualties that show the reality of war. Why isn't the Washington Post willing to show these?
Robert G. Kaiser: I have seen some gruesome pictures in The Post, and I don't know what photos you are referring to from the Arab media. But your implied suggestion that we are somehow hiding the hideousness of war from our readers strikes me as ridiculous.
Nashville, Tenn.: Your opening comment about the crowd in DuPont circle reveals that much of the country doesn't appreciate how big a "roll of the dice" this war is for the country and for them personally, as well as for the president.
If they had their entire life savings on a roulette table at Vegas it is inconceivable that they would not be riveted to the table until the outcome was known.
Isn't that a failure of the press in its duty to inform?
Some have said that if Bush pulls off bringing democracy to Baghdad in two years, he deserves to go on Mount Rushmore and if he fails he could be impeached.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment. I am not myself partial to the theory that citizens' decisions about how to spend their time, what to read, what to learn about, etc., are the responsibility of the news media.
Washington, D.C.: In response to the question about guidelines for embedded journalists -- yes, the guidelines specifically state that journalists cannot photograph the faces of POWs. I downloaded these guidelines from the washingtonpost.com site yesterday, though I do not remember the precise link.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.
Washington, D.C.: In these chats you have taken pains to distance yourself as a Washington Post editor from the pro-war cheering section that dominates the Washington Post's Editorial page now.
When will they have the guts to face the readers online to defend their we-must-go-to-war NOW drumbeat?
Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, this isn't the gladiator's ring here! I frankly do not know if Fred Hiatt, editor of our editorial page, has a policy about coming online or not, but I do know that he does not lack the courage of his convictions, or courage in general. I would be sympathetic if he took the view that the editorial page is NOT a chat forum, but a serious dialogue between the editorial board and readers, best conducted in measured tones and with due deliberation. I can tell you very frankly that this medium does not lend itself to deliberation!
So write an angry letter to the editor, already.
Herndon, Va.: Do you think the mistreatment of U.S. POWs could be derived from our decision to not apply the Geneva Convention to the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, the prisoners' deaths ruled homicide at Baghram, or the use of "torture light" that the Post reported on?
Robert G. Kaiser: Those are all possibilities, but I think it's more likely that Saddam Hussein and his guys don't give much of a fig for Geneva conventions. Indeed, I think we've known that for a long time.
Barcelona, Spain: Being out of the country gives one a different perspective on this war, since the local press is not in favor of either side, which is not to say it is neutral. I'd just like to say that the Washington Post has taken one of the most neutral stances of any news source we have been accessing, and our sincerest thanks go to your staff for your integrity and professionalism.
Given the power the news media have on public opinion, do you think that some news sources are doing a disservice to the American public by taking sides? Is there pressure within the news industry to do so?
Robert G. Kaiser: I think there is no greater disservice a news organization can do than to take a tendentious position on a big story like this.
There has always been pressure on news organizations to "get on the team," as officers in the field used to say to us in Vietnam. But mercifully, at this stage of American history, it's amazingly easy to ignore such pressure.
Culpper, Va.: Do you know Ann Garrels of NPR? If not, I think referring to her as Annie as you did a moment ago seems a bit condescending. As a professional woman, I'm perhaps on a bit of a hair-trigger about this kind of thing...
Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sorry if I offended you, and I have to add that I'm sorry people are so easily offended. Ann has been a friend of mine for more than 25 years.
Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Do you think there is manipulation of information in terms of the progress of the war from the Coalition and Iraqi sides?
Robert G. Kaiser: In my experience all armies put their side in the best possible light, in peace and war.
Arlington, Va.: I think there are obvious signs that D.C. is on edge and that security is way up. I've never seen so much security on the Metro system -- even right after Sept. 11. More officers and bomb-sniffing dogs.
The police presence in the streets also is much greater than usual in D.C. and Arlington. And the Patriot missile batteries along the river seem unusual to me.
Security is much tighter around the Capitol as well as the White House, with more streets blocked off than usual.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. Different perceptions from different people. I've been riding the Metro all week and seen no sign of the security you mention, but I'm sure you have seen it. Eye of the beholder...
Washington, D.C.: In fairness to Springfield, Mo., I think you might acknowledge that your feeling of optimism is almost surely based (like everyone else who lives here) on a what-the-heck-we'll-probably-be-fine stoicism, rather than any concrete knowledge of what the threats are or are not. What would your colleague Sally Quinn say to the Springfield mother: "Your kid will be fine but bring a gas mask"?
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Not sure what Sally would say, but you could be right.
Alexandria, Va.: A paradox of this conflict seems to me that the war aim is considerably more ambitious than in 1991, but the national psyche is considerably less engaged. My impression from 12 years ago was that there was a far greater sense of moment and foreboding -- the Soviet Union still existed, and the most recent frame of reference was the Vietnam debacle. This time everyone just assumes (based on 1991) that there will be a relatively easy victory. Does it seem this way to you? I wish people would recall Keynes quote: "The inevitable never happens; It is the unexpected always."
Robert G. Kaiser: I agree with you about the comparison to '91, and I agree with Keynes too.
Richmond, Va.: The "imperial presidency" Arthur Schlesinger warned about 30 years ago was not based on a fear of a strong presidency (which liberals typically support) but fear of an unaccountable presidency. The imperial presidency was based on the erosion of congressional war-making power in favor of the president, and an expansion of executive branch secrecy. Hmm...does this sound familiar? How worried are you about this problem? Do you think the pendulum swings back once war is over, or do you think Bush has fundamentally altered the balance of power on issues such as open government and rights of the accused?
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I don't know where the pendulum will be after the war, but I am struck by the administration's dominance of Congress, of which we see evidence nearly every week.
Washington, D.C.: Bob, I watched Rumsfeld this morning on "Meet the Press" and I have to say I actually -liked- him -- or at least didn't want to claw my eyes out rather than watch him -- for the first time. I thought he seemed candid about what he didn't know, and eager to keep from looking as though the U.S. is gloating. Do you think the Pentagon is simply trying to manage expectations and not tell (of course) what they know, or is he sincere?
washingtonpost.com: Transcript: Meet the Press ((March 23, 2003)
Robert G. Kaiser: As I wrote Friday for the Washington at War Diary (the piece appeared Saturday in the paper), Rumsfeld is one of the smoothest performers ever. I called him the best Washington briefer we have ever seen. I suspect a lot of people have a reaction like yours when they seem him in action.
washingtonpost.com: Washington at War: Rumsfeld, Perfectly Cast (Post, March 22, 2003)
Robert G. Kaiser: Phew. Once again a barrage of smart and good questions. I'm sorry I can't sit here all night and answer every one. I'll be back regularly in the days ahead.
washingtonpost.com: Tune in for more discussions about the war in Iraq tomorrow: