That bleak assessment comes from U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq during the pre-surge time frame, when the insurgency was its height. A collection of graphs and charts made available through the public affairs office of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq indicates that the media has pulled back on its coverage, now that U.S. casualty figures have declined and Al Qaeda is in retreat. (See related story)
However, the lack of recognition and attention paid to American soldiers who have helped topple Saddam Hussein’s regime and expel al Qaeda is not just the fault of the news media, said Sgt. Everitt Speros, a member of the 69th Army National Guard Infantry Regiment.
“Army public relations did a poor job right from day one,” he said in an interview. “You can’t name one hero from this war but there’s got to be a thousand or more. Did anyone know who was in charge of the American soldiers in Iraq until [Gen. David] Petraeus took over?” he asked.
“But we all knew who al Zaraqawi was,” he continued. “You have soldiers doing acts of bravery all across the country, but they are not recognized unless they fall on a grenade or die in another way. So you can fault the western media but you also have to fault Army Public Affairs.”
Speros served in Baghdad in 2004 and 2005.
The media would often misinterpret what were strategically insignificant rocket attacks on U.S. bases, while overlooking heavy days of fighting that ended badly for the insurgents, Speros explained.
“The reality is they [the insurgents] could never stage a massive attack against any of our bases, even the smaller ones,” he said. But anytime there was more than one rocket launched, you would read about how Baghdad is under attack, and I would just have to say to myself, ‘What are they talking about?’”
The insurgents were adept at using video to distort battlefield realties and to score public relations points, he acknowledged. Capt. Sean Michael Flynn, who served as company commander with the 69th in Iraq, concurs on this point.
“Along with creating fictional propaganda, they seized on every failure of the Americans and the interim Iraqi government and exploited the missteps at every opportunity,” Flynn wrote in his book The Fighting 69th.
“Orators railed against U.S. forces at the mosques. They printed up anti-occupation flyers and posters. They filled the newspapers and radio stations with eyewitness accounts from people who had lost their children during an American raid. The insurgent marketing machine rivaled any used in modern warfare,” Flynn added.
Fortunately, the shift in battlefield strategy that occurred in tandem with the troop surge has balanced some of the public relations disadvantages, Flynn observed. U.S. forces have established trust and built alliances as a result of getting into the neighborhoods, bolstering security and encouraging grassroots movements.
This transformation was quite evident in Ameriya, a neighborhood located in western Baghdad that lines the key highway running between the Baghdad Airport and the Green Zone, Flynn said. Early on in the war, when terrorists set off bombs in the neighborhood that sometimes claimed the lives of children and civilians, they were adept at pinning the blame on Americans, he explained.
But that is no longer the case.
Iraqis have seen first hand how U.S. forces worked to clear out the insurgents, improve security and reach out to neighborhood residents, he observed. As a result, the Americans are now viewed as a “calming influence” and as vital allies.
That kind of public relations victory involves a lot of heavy lifting and patience but is more valuable over the long term than anything conveyed through video or television, Flynn argued.
“We are bound as a country and as a military to the stubborn thing called truth and accuracy, and because we are bound to these very stubborn things called truth and accuracy, we are not as agile as somebody who is not bound by truth and accuracy,” he said.
“So if an insurgent force uses blatant propaganda that is not necessarily based in fact -- or has only some shred of fact -- then they are much more agile in getting their word out and that’s just nature of it.”
America’s credibility and reputation matter more than scoring cheap public relations points that are not rooted in the truth, Flynn said. We should not lose sight of this important principle, he added.