Perspectives on the Iraq War
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, some further perspective on this war from NewsHour regulars: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss; journalist/author Haynes Johnson; Richard Norton Smith, director of the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas; and Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University. Joining them tonight is Diane Kunz, formerly a professor of diplomatic history at Yale University. She’s the author of “Butter and Guns: America’s Cold War Economic Diplomacy.” Michael, as a matter of history, has there ever been a war like this before?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No there hasn’t although you could probably say that about most wars in American history. It is unique. But, you know, this is an example of I think historians tend to say this but we say it because it’s true. Certain things we cannot know now that we will know 20 years from now when we know how this all turns out. One thing that I think is part of American history that we’re seeing and that is that presidents oftentimes take gambles, they do things that, if they go sour could get them and the country conceivably in a lot of trouble; if they go extremely well, could lead to some very good things. Years from now when we know how this has turned, we’ll be much better able to judge whether it was A or B. To some extent I think what the president is now doing is, he takes some refuge in the fact that what really is important in the end is how history looks at this.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, what about the press part of it, the part that Terry was just talking about and our ability to see all of these sights like particularly Friday night and last night?
HAYNES JOHNSON: We’re all now part of the scene here. They’re right about that. You have these images that you’ll never for get. You can’t… I’m the same way. I have a tangle of conflicts. I watch it and I see these things go off. I feel enormous pride in our military forces, proud of the journalists who are covering the war, proud of the old dogs like Koppel and Arnett who are there on the scene, the young people. I don’t agree with the professor who says that it blows your brain out of all other things. I’m also saddened by the fact that we’re at war. I think it is historic. I think this is a different kind of war that we’re in, a pre-emptive kind of war that changes the way we live with the rest of the world. So all those stakes are there and yet we’re watching it as it happens but all wars, as the secretary of defense said, are just a little slice of reporting from the scene. And later on, as Michael said so properly, you’ve got put it together, what really happened. We don’t know that yet.
JIM LEHRER: Richard, have you been watching the war scenes regularly and religiously?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think when you see all of this?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, you know, it’s interesting. There’s an old and a somewhat cynical adage that says generals always like to fight the last war. I think after this week, we may have to rewrite that to armchair generals fighting the last war because this is a totally new war. There’s a new word that’s been coined: Simultaneity. In fact it’s so new it’s hard to pronounce.
JIM LEHRER: What does it mean?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, as I understand it, it means the simultaneous application of force, the calibration of force, which is critical and the integration of force along with sophisticated diplomacy, psychological warfare operations, all intended to try to isolate the Iraqi regime from the Iraqi people, to confuse that regime, ultimately to destroy it, and if all goes well to validate the administration’s claims that this is a war of liberation and not occupation.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Gen. Franks said today, his direct quote was: There has never been a war like this in history, never been a military campaign like this history. Do you agree?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. In part… that’s a statement that’s true on so many levels. There’s never been a war with this kind of sophisticated weaponry but at the same time as I say the military campaign is so integrated, seemingly so integrated with the political and the diplomatic requirements that that frame, the whole operation.
JIM LEHRER: Diane Kunz, what kind of history do you think is being made at this moment? Now we don’t know, as Michael says, we have no idea how this thing is going to turn out and what it will… what will be finally written about it. But what inclinations do you have right now about the nature of this war as it goes down one moment at a time?
DIANE KUNZ: This is the first World Wide Web war. And what that has meant is we’ve gone from a nation of listeners during World War II when people relied on the radio to a nation of television watchers in Vietnam and the Gulf War to a nation of editors, people who are interested not only look at television, they look at the Internet and they patch together bloggers, conspiracy theorists, whomever they want and they pick and choose which information to believe. And what this means is that we have a much more information than we’ve ever had before. But at the same time it means that the administration is going to find it harder to control what people think. I think….
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.
DIANE KUNZ: I think it’s going to make it much more difficult for them to frame the terms of victory because they’ve had so little control over the information that people have obtained.
JIM LEHRER: And that’s continuing as we speak because they have these 500 reporters, for instance, out with the troops, that plus what’s going on on the Internet and all these things put together, is that what you’re saying?
DIANE KUNZ: Absolutely. It’s possible for somebody to take the British covers, look at four or five newspapers in the morning, look at the Arab media coverage, look at the French coverage, all at home while they’re watching American networks. There’s never been so much unmediated information coming into the general public.
JIM LEHRER: Roger, what are you seeing about this war? What do you see when you see this war?
ROBERT WILKINS: Well, it’s like watching a sports event because it never goes away. I mean, you turn on the television and you can always find it, and so instead of tomorrow morning finding on the if we took Basra, you look and say, well, we’re around Basra now, have we gone in, how many people have been killed? I mean, we’re watching it with much smaller bites than we have ever been able to do before. That’s one part.
The second part I’d like to go back to a point that Prof. Kunz made because she’s right about this being the first Internet war. She’s right about our having more information than we’ve ever had before. But we’ve never had people who were embedded in our armed forces the way we have them now. And the professor’s right. I watched David Bloom I think with NBC, and he’s racing across the desert in a military vehicle, with two soldiers. Well, essentially these guys are in the same foxhole, and that has to color how you approach the war. It certainly is a far cry from, say, Halberstam and those fellows in Vietnam who were independent of the armed forces and therefore sent back reports that were grating and irritating to the powers that be. That is much less likely to happen from our journalists who are embedded, I think.
JIM LEHRER: Is that true, Haynes? I know in World War II there were war correspondents in the foxholes. Ernie Pyle was one of them.
HAYNES JOHNSON: My father was one of them.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
HAYNES JOHNSON: American correspondents went in with the troops. They landed with the troops. They shared the foxholes and so forth. They went off on bombing runs. Cronkite made bombing runs over Germany. What’s different about this, that’s not changed at all. What’s different about this, they could leave and move from place to place. Embedding means you’re restricted to one particular unit. In other words, you can’t just move back and forth as they did in Vietnam where you go out with the troops. But the American correspondents always went until recently with the troops. That’s where you wanted to be. Then you could step back and write an armchair piece of great theory and strategy.
JIM LEHRER: But then after Vietnam there was a back off of that and they kept the press at arm’s length and all the combat since then, this is a semi-return.
HAYNES JOHNSON: It is very much so. I think to the Pentagon’s credit, they’re smart to do it. Have access. The pictures are dramatic. The people are there. We will get stories that we will find out what was happening in the individual units. They won’t tell us the whole story of the war as Michael was saying earlier.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, not as a historian but as a consumer, just somebody who is interested in what’s going on in the war, do you feel like you’re getting the full story?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No. But, you know, one thing we were talking about David Bloom of NBC or some of these others that Haynes mentioned Ernie Pyle, Ernie Pyle was killed in World War II and God forbid if something happened to David Bloom or one of these other embedded reporters that we’ve seen on TV every single day rolling across the desert. Think of what that can be on American support for this war, someone that they have had a emotional connection with, suddenly something horrible happens it would have an inordinate effect on the way the that Americans look at this war and whether we should be there.
JIM LEHRER: Are you concerned that the embedded reporting will distort the picture we get?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it will but I think that happens with any kind of reporting especially in war time because, for instance, we mainly see the bombing of Baghdad. We don’t see the bombing of other cities. And if you look and don’t really listen very closely to what is being said over some of these pictures we see on TV, you might that the only bombing that’s occurring is in the Iraqi capital. We’ve got to all just always remember that everything we’re seeing is sort of a shadow on the wall. It’s only to mix a metaphor the tip of the iceberg of what we will learn a month from now and especially years from now.
JIM LEHRER: Diane Kunz, you’re saying we’re getting enough. Are you saying we’re getting enough information about this war? Do you feel as an individual that you know what’s going on tonight?
DIANE KUNZ: I’m sure I don’t know the whole picture. As Michael, said it’s very hard to know everything. We’re seeing the first cut, not the later cuts. But we’re getting many more sources of information. And what I think is interesting, when we talk about the tyranny of the pictures is that we are live inning the post Forrest Gump age so there are many people who will look at pictures and they will say, oh, well, that’s fake. I know they have those techniques. I know they can use digital computer imagery to change things. We have many more and better pictures at a time when many people are far more skeptical than they used to be about the validity of the pictures.
JIM LEHRER: Saying that, of course, the big mystery is Saddam Hussein. Is Saddam Hussein alive or not? They keep showing pictures of him. They don’t know when they were taken and all of that. Richard, do you feel you’re missing something?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well as a historian, sure.
JIM LEHRER: What do you want to know?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I’d like to be at Camp David. After all I’d like to be sitting there around the table. I’m greedy. That’s the mark of the historian. But no I think Prof. Kunz is right. I feel like I have more options for information than ever before. I’m not naive enough to think that I have the whole story. And, indeed, we may not have the whole story for decades until some of these documents became available and the like. But I feel I have access to more than in the past.
One other thing, I’d like to pick up on a point that Michael made earlier about presidents and taking risks, taking gambles in effect. That is in effect what we elect presidents to do but there are all kinds of risks, all kinds of gambles. Monica Lewinsky was a risk. So was Korea so was the decision to provision Fort Sumter in 1861. We build memorials to presidents. It’s no secret that the holy trinity of American presidents — Lincoln, Washington and FDR — are presidents that are remembered and revered today because they took enormous risks, risks for principle and risks about something larger and nobler than re-election. It’s a long time… we won’t know for perhaps years to come whether this risk pays off and what it leads to. But it is certainly in that tradition.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Roger, that whatever you think about going to war or whatever that George W. Bush as an individual president of the United States literally rolled the dice of his presidency not only for the present but also for history by doing this?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, I’d say so. I’d use a different metaphor. He said the other day that he wanted the French and everybody else to show their cards. Well, he showed his cards. I mean, it’s there. His whole presidency, his whole place in history is on the table now. One of the things that we’re not seeing is that this war is a lot bigger than just us and Saddam because they’re really — this administration is really trying to rearrange the world. So a lot of what’s going on is how much traction does Chirac have, how close are he and Putin, what are the Chinese really thinking? All of this… because….
JIM LEHRER: That’s part of the cards.
ROGER WILKINS: That’s right. We don’t quite know what’s going on there.
JIM LEHRER: Turn this card up, turn that card up. Haynes, you agree on this, right?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I do very much so. Of course what we don’t know down the road – but I think it’s not just the president that is making a great roll of the dice. He’s taking the country on a path that we don’t know. We’ve entered a door that is different to how it comes out. If it comes out wonderfully and democracy and peace and love throughout the world, we will have a new era. He’ll be up on Mount Rushmore. If not we have entered a different path and it could be great consequences. We don’t know the answer to that.
JIM LEHRER: One thing I do know is we have to go. Diane Kunz, thanks for being with us tonight. Gentlemen, thank you all.