Famous War Correspondent Explains Why He's Still Wrong on Iraq

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Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

Famous War Correspondent Explains Why He's Still Wrong on Iraq

CNN's Brian Stelter–formerly of the New York Times–introduced an interview with New York Times reporter John Burns (Reliable Sources, 6/15/14) by calling him "one of the most famous war correspondents of all time." This would put Burns in the same league as  Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, Walter Cronkite, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Walt Whitman and Thucydides.

Stelter also says that Burns is "the best person to ask" about "what is happening in Iraq." That statement is equally dubious.

Burns is the journalist who wrote (New York Times, 3/19/03) as the United States began bombing Iraq,  "The striking thing was that for many Iraqis, the first American strike could not come too soon."

He's also the reporter (New York Times, 4/4/03) who memorably quoted the opinions of an Iraqi motorist even though he was too far away to hear anything he was saying:

"From an 11th-floor balcony of the Palestine Hotel, it was not possible to hear what the driver of the red Mercedes said when he was pulled over halfway down the block, but his gestures conveyed the essence powerfully enough. "Get real," the driver seemed to be saying. "Look at the sky. Look across the river. The old is giving way to the new."

Burns was noted for insisting that Iraqis liked being under US military occupation, no matter what actual polls of Iraqis said (Extra!, 11-12/08). But even Burns (New York Times, 3/16/08; FAIR Action Alert, 3/17/08) eventually came to admit that the war hadn't turned out as splendidly as he expected:

Only the most prescient could have guessed…that the toll would include tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, as well as nearly 4,000 American troops; or that America's financial costs, by some recent estimates, would rise above $650 billion by 2008, on their way to perhaps $2 trillion if the commitment continues for another five years.

Actually, millions of people anticipated that the war would be both costly and deadly–killing not "tens of thousands," but hundreds of thousands of Iraqis–which is why they were protesting the invasion that Burns was eagerly anticipating. Perhaps one of those people would have been "the best person to ask" about the current crisis in Iraq, since they weren't so wrong about the invasion that precipitated it.

John Burns interviewed on CNNIn his interview with Stelter, Burns did, in fact, reflect on where he thinks he went wrong on Iraq:

"To speak to the position of people like myself, what mistake did we make? We thought, many of us, that the toppling of Saddam Hussein to end the ghastly brutalities he was besetting upon Iraq, it wouldn't be a bad idea if it could be accomplished at reasonable cost.

Well, it turned out it couldn't be accomplished at reasonable cost, and that the American endeavor there was defeated and defeated rather early on, now as we looked back, by the sectarian enmities among the Iraqi people. It was impossible to build a civil society on that shaky, fractured foundation. I think the mistake we made was–I'm talking here about myself as well as some of my colleague, not just at the New York Times but many publications–was not to understand how deeply fractured that society was, how strongly held those animosities were, and how they would not likely relent under any amount of American tutelage and encouragement."

Is it typical for countries to respond to unprovoked military invasions by becoming strong, stable democracies? Perhaps John Burns isn't the "the best person to ask" about that.

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

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