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Commentary: On the Media

Refusing to forget the Iraq war

Journalist Thomas E. Ricks provides little solace to those who want to believe a U.S. victory in Iraq is at hand. But those who want to pull out now won't find much comfort either.

March 06, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Layoff notices, bank failures and plummeting stock markets seem to fill every minute of our newscasts and every corner of our consciences.

What a time to be selling a book with this cheery thesis: The disastrous war in Iraq probably must continue to prevent further disaster.

You'd have to be hopelessly out of touch, a tad delusional -- or a crackerjack journalist on a mission -- to come out with a winner like that, as Thomas E. Ricks has.

In "The Gamble," the veteran Washington Post correspondent looks at how the U.S. troop "surge" brought a measure of stability to Iraq -- gains he describes as so fragile that they almost certainly will disappear if the U.S. pulls out too precipitously.

In interviews he has been giving in recent days, Ricks provides little solace to those who want to believe an American victory in Iraq is at hand. But those who want to pull out now won't find much comfort either.

Ricks calls the Iraq war the "biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy." But unlike some Americans, whether journalists or regular citizens, he has devoted considerable thought to the morality of leaving a country torn apart by our grand misadventure.

On National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" this week, Ricks described how he told one book-signing crowd that a hurried pullout could lead to genocide.

"Somebody in the audience said, 'So what?' and somebody else said, 'Genocide happens all the time.' And I thought, Oh my God, Americans are willing to take genocide in Iraq and just leave."

When I spoke to Ricks on Thursday, he said he understood the frustration of those who feel the U.S. is postponing its inevitable departure. "I think it's immoral to stay in Iraq," he said, "but I think it's even more immoral to leave right now. That's the tragedy of this situation."

Ricks feels sympathy for President Obama and the mess he inherited. But he worries that the new commander in chief has adopted President Bush's excessive optimism about the possibility of an early exit.

Obama declared last week: "By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

But America will leave as many as 50,000 residual troops in Iraq, propping up a fragile regime.

"This war is not over," Ricks told me. "You can hang a 'Mission Accomplished' banner or you can say combat operations are over, but it's not really over until troops stop dying. That's my definition for the end of the war."

I suppose it's no wonder that people have lost interest in Iraq. Most media outlets have become preoccupied with the economic disaster. ABC, CBS and NBC broadcast just 434 minutes on Iraq on the national evening news in 2008, about a tenth of the time devoted in 2003, according to the Tyndall Report tracking service.

So far in 2009, the three evening newscasts have broadcast less than a dozen stories -- combined -- about Iraq.

Yet Ricks' book reportedly will reach No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list this Sunday. The author guesses that his followers include "a harder core of people whose lives have been touched by Iraq."

I joined that core a couple of years ago when I spent a month in the Los Angeles Times' Baghdad Bureau. I had been one of those channel changers, flicking off the latest televised images of torn bodies and wailing bomb survivors.

But the many small kindnesses and the humanity of my Iraqi colleagues (they shared pictures of their children; they cut my hair short and laughed, "You look, maybe, like a Kurd") made me part of their lives. I could never read another story from Baghdad with detachment or see Iraq as someone else's problem.

My co-worker Ann Simmons and I talked about how Iraq grabs you that way the other night after we saw "Time Stands Still" at the Geffen Playhouse.

The play is about a couple of journalists back from covering Iraq. Another character, a guileless young woman, confronts the two about their obsession with the war.

The character Mandy might represent much of America -- turned off by the grim news, incessant death and unlikelihood of "victory."

"When you have lived something like the story in Iraq, you are bursting to tell people and to share that," said Simmons, whose face was torn by glass when a car bomb exploded outside a Baghdad restaurant where she spent New Year's Eve 2003 with fellow Times staffers.

"You meet these military guys serving there and these Iraqis and you want to do them justice, to share their story, to make sure what they are doing and the sacrifices they're making aren't in vain."

Like a lot of reporters who have been there, Simmons took pains to remind me that she wasn't the story, and that many journalists have served in Iraq for years with little acclaim and that Iraqis don't have the luxury of leaves outside the war zone.

True enough. But I'm here to praise those, epitomized by Ricks, who won't let the story go.

In a conflict that has been so ferociously politicized, they have stood above partisanship, rejected simple answers and told the world a few inconvenient truths.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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