On January 1, 2009, the end date of the U.N. resolution that was the legal basis for the presence of U.S. troops, Iraq assumed full sovereignty, and American soldiers became heavily armed guests. Next came the June 30 deadline for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from populated areas. These shifts seemed to leave military public-affairs officers, and many commanders, at something of a loss to explain the role of the thousands of troops still in the country. With the main military effort shifting to Afghanistan, the military finds itself in the disconcerting position of still being heavily involved in Iraq but unwilling to acknowledge it.
Mostly they’ve retreated into non-communicativeness, and worse. Reporters who visited an Iraqi camp near Baghdad after January 1 were asked by the military not to photograph the U.S. soldiers supporting the Iraqis, to avoid giving the “wrong impression.”
Does this matter? Yes. This is more than journalists’ angst at a declining story or a residual sense of entitlement fostered by what now seems a golden age of military-media relations. At a minimum, most of us who have covered this war for the past six years want to make sure its painful lessons aren’t lost, and that we don’t forget the ongoing cost. Forgetfulness is a danger. According to the Pew Research Center, by March 2008, only a little over a quarter of Americans knew that more than four thousand U.S. servicemen and women had been killed in Iraq, let alone more than thirty thousand injured. (As of mid-August, the total number of Americans killed was 4,318.)
This latest phase has coincided with both the financial crisis and turmoil in the media industry. Time magazine was the latest bureau to shut its physical bureau here, in June. The TV networks maintain skeleton staffs—often with no correspondents. Still dangerous, Iraq has become a way station for new reporters on their first foreign assignments. For the most part they expect very little from the military, and that’s generally what they get. This lack of access means that journalists—and by extension, Americans in general—are much less able to determine what’s happening there beneath the surface. And in Iraq, almost everything important happens beneath the surface.