Five years into the Iraq War, we can catalogue a person's every move with Twitter, Facebook and the like. Yet we have frighteningly little information about the characters, quantities and circumstances of the millions of Iraqis who daily face down the muzzles of American guns.
Compared with Vietnam, when intrepid journalists roamed the battlefields and delivered harrowing nightly reports that turned public opinion against that war, coverage of the United States' involvement in Iraq has been sanitized and constrained. Reporters, once embedded to limit their access, are now largely confined to the Green Zone and Baghdad hotels, their dispatches filled with tales of bravery and military tactics.
"In all, just one in six stories about the war has been focused on Iraqis, Iraqi casualties or the internal political affairs of their country," according to Project for Excellence in Journalism's May 2007 quarterly news report. Credible tallies of civilians who have been wounded or killed do not exist; notoriously, photographs of soldiers' coffins have been suppressed.
This month, as Americans mark the fifth anniversary of the first large-scale military engagement of the Information Age, we are faced with the certainty of never before having waged a modern battle with so little idea of what is going on.
Even if the men and women stationed abroad have a more complete picture, their private knowledge is unlikely to reach those at home. This past May, the Department of Defense blocked 13 popular Web sites, including networking and media-sharing portals MySpace and YouTube, from computers on Iraq bases due to "bandwidth" concerns. (The military, however, has launched its own channel on the latter site, featuring videos of gunfights and gift-bearing troops.)
In February, the Air Force announced that nearly every independent site with the word "blog" in its URL would also no longer be accessible. All servicemen and women who wish to publish a blog have long had to seek approval to do so; all content is pre-approved.
Perhaps the government has learned its lesson, having lost the info wars in Vietnam. Wisdom has trained it to thwart investigation. But public ignorance of the Iraq War is not the fault of the government alone.
For all the roadblocks that have been erected, numerous media outlets including the McClatchy Co., which hosts the excellent Inside Iraq blog, written by local correspondents have provided harrowing, violent, honest accounts of the war. Independent Iraqi bloggers have borne witness to raids, vanished neighbors and devastating shortages of electricity and running water. Yet unfortunate or worse, unknown circumstances have silenced many of them, often before the public took note.
Eighty-seven percent of Americans, according to an October 2007 Pew Research Center poll, believe celebrity news receives too much coverage from the media; only 9 percent believe the conflict in Iraq doesn't receive enough. If we entered into this war under false pretenses, we have fought it with blind authority and witnessed it with willful ignorance.
Despite widespread anger at mainstream media's credulousness in the run-up to the occupation, we have since rarely asked for more, and in the process have failed to test whether the pen is still mightier than the sword.
Vanessa Czarnecki writes for the Boston Phoenix, in which this piece first appeared.