By now it’s conceded that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake or much worse. It was based on the fear that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction he was prepared to use and ties to al-Qaida, the terrorist group responsible for the 9-11 attack. He didn’t. The war was meant to lead to a democratic Iraq and a more peaceful Middle East. It didn’t. Instead, a devastating, prolonged conflict took 4,600 American lives and as many as half a million Iraqi ones. It set the stage for other equally dubious invasions that roiled the Middle East and North Africa, creating more than a million refugees. Today the fighting still continues for reasons that remain unclear.
In his new book, “War Made Invisible,” political analyst Norman Soloman recalls the enthusiasm with which Americans, the media in particular, greeted the war. Cheerleading doesn’t quite convey the coverage. It was a kind of exaltation, the lone superpower bringing justice to the world. Setting an example, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called the war “one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad.” Iraq must be bombed, he said, “over and over and over again. Blow up a different power station in Iraq every week so no one will know when the lights will go off or who’s in charge.” For this inspired commentary Friedman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Amid the clamor for battle, writes Solomon, there was one sober voice. Ashleigh Banfield was an up-and-coming TV star who reported from war zones in a casual, winning manner. TV producers and critics were delighted by a captivating blond so comfortable in front of a camera. Said MSNBC President Eric Sorenson: “She’s the age of the audience we want and she’s a great communicator in the authoritative energetic way this generation wants.”
But in contrast to the producers back home, Banfield actually experienced the war and decided it should be made more visible. A few weeks into what seemed to be an overwhelming victory, she gave a speech noting some of the grim realities of war. “What didn’t you see? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. It was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism.”
Attuned to invisibility, TV management was aghast. What was this outrageous blond up to? NBC stalwarts said she didn’t speak for the network and must choose her words more carefully. Not that she was given the chance. Later she described how she was treated for many months after her unacceptable speech. She had no work or office or equipment. A kind of solitary prisoner, Soviet style, she begged to be let out of her contract. But NBC President Neal Shapiro wouldn’t hear of it for fear she would take her brand to another network and make a success of it. “Maybe that’s why he chose to keep me in a warehouse,” she concludes. When she finally left, she went on to other TV journalism while NBC continued to report its invisible war.
Today the mainstream media has found another war to act in unison on – Ukraine. But it doesn’t enjoy the monopoly it once had. Dissent is easily available on the internet, and significant public figures like Donald Trump and Robert F. Kenedy Jr., have expressed their opposition to the war. Maybe Ashleigh Banfield set an example.