Lessons that should have been learned from Vietnam were forgotten in the rush to invade Iraq. And now, as Donald Trump provokes war with Iran, it’s abundantly evident that the lessons that should have been learned from Iraq haven’t been learned at all. So at the risk of stating the obvious, here are some of what those lessons were for journalists.
You can’t be too skeptical of authority
- Don’t assume anything administration officials tell you is true. In fact, you are probably better off assuming anything they tell you is a lie. That applies to officials past and present.
- Demand proof for their every assertion. Start with the presumption that the proof is a lie. Demand that they prove that their proof is accurate.
- Just because they say it, doesn’t mean it should make the headlines. The absence of supporting evidence for their assertion — or a preponderance of evidence that contradicts the assertion — may be more newsworthy than the assertion itself.
- Don’t print anonymous inflammatory assertions. Demand that sources make themselves accountable for what they insist is true.
Acts of war alone do not justify war
- War is so serious that even proving the existence of a casus belli isn’t enough. Make officials prove to the public that going to war will make things better.
- Demand to know what happens if the war (or tactical strike) doesn’t go as planned?
- Demand to know what happens if it does? What happens after “success”?
- Ask them: Isn’t it possible this will make things worse, rather than better?
Be particularly skeptical of secrecy
- Don’t assume that officials with access to secret intelligence know more than you do.
- At the same time, consider that they do indeed know more than you do but are trying to keep intelligence from you that would undermine their arguments.
Watch for rhetorical traps
- Keep an eye on how advocates of war frame the arguments. Don’t buy into those frames unless you think they’re fair.
- Keep a particular eye out for the no-lose construction. For example: If we can’t find evidence of WMD, that proves Saddam is hiding them.
- Watch out for false denials. In the case of Iran, when administration officials say “nobody is talking about invading Iran,” point out that the much more likely scenario is bombing Iran, and that their answer is therefore a dodge.
Don’t just give voice to administration officials
- Give voice to the skeptics; don’t marginalize and mock them.
- Listen to and quote the people who got it right last time: the intelligence officials, State Department officials, war-college instructors and many others who predicted the invasion of Iraq would be a disaster — and were largely ignored.
- Offer the greatest and most guaranteed degree of confidentiality to whistleblowers offering information that contradicts the official government position. (By contrast, don’t offer any confidentiality to administration spinners.)
Look outside our borders
- Pay attention to international opinion.
- Raise the question: What do people in other countries think? Why should we be so different?
- Keep an eye out for how the international press is covering this story. Why should we be so different?
Understand the enemy
- Listen to people on the other side, and report their position.
- Send more reporters into the country we are about to attack and learn about their views, their politics and their culture.
- Don’t allow the population of any country to be demonized. All humans deserve to be humanized.
- Demand to know why the administration won’t open a dialogue with the enemy. Refusing to talk to someone you are threatening to attack should be considered inherently suspect behavior.
Encourage public debate
- The nation is not well served when issues of war and peace are not fully debated in public. It’s reasonable for the press to demand that Congress engage in a full, substantial debate.
- Cover the debate exhaustively and substantively.
Write about motives
- Historically, the real motives for wars have often not been the public motives. Try to report on the motivations of the key advocates for war.
- Don’t assume that the administration is being forthright about its motives.
- If no one in the inner circle will openly discuss their motives, then encourage reasonable speculation about their motives.
Talk to the military
- Find out what the military is being told to prepare for.
Confession time: This post is almost entirely cribbed from what I wrote in 2007, when George W. Bush was threatening Iran.)