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Not Surprised by Anything

Nothing is too bad to be true in war.

by Barnabas
April 16, 2003

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Not Surprised by Anything_Barnabas-Nothing is too bad to be true in war.
“Gunfire was also heard on the southern edge of the city.” —CNN, April 12.

”Let’s see. What city is that? Baghdad? I thought it was maybe Chicago.” —Barnabas
The subtitle is from Austin Farrer, a philosopher and theologian at Oxford during and following World War II. Most of us who have never been in combat — which is most of us — have the empathy to believe and internalize what he said. At some level we know that the very nature of war as a “stinky enterprise” (Barnabas quoting himself) requires that Farrer’s words be true.

But those who report the war — even those who have been there — pretend not to know them as true. Almost any breaking story is treated with wide-eyed surprise.

Sandstorms in the desert are a surprise.

Civilian casualties are a surprise.

Imperfect preparations are a surprise.

Threatened supply lines are a surprise.

Tactical errors are a surprise.

Stiff opposition is a surprise.

Civilian anger and frustration are a surprise.

Civilian joy at the collapse of the government is a surprise.

Looting as an aftermath of governmental collapse is a surprise.

Their reports are usually followed by moralist pronouncements that We Should Have Known and Done Better in our Preparation.

These journalists have demonstrated over and over again that they are competent. They are therefore not surprised. (In contrast, the attack of 9/11 was a surprise.) My conclusion is that they have been trained to treat their audience — you and me — as incompetent. They fake surprise, they act indignant, and then they tell me how I ought to feel and what the responsible authorities should have done.

Currently the indignant reports are about the bitter complaints of Iraqi civilians at the anarchy, and their demands that the United States take control.

I don’t object to the bitterness or the complaining; the misery of their plight must evoke a frantic response. If I could have written the first sentence of the preceding paragraph to read “reports about the bitter complaints of indignant Iraqi civilians,” etc., I would have been describing good journalism. But it’s the reports that are indignant, and that is manipulative. I want to be told what happened, not how to feel about it.

If they are surprised by this, just think what awaits them when American military personnel, acting as policemen, shoot an Iraqi teenage looter who challenges them. After all, he was a nice kid! And he probably was. But let’s not act surprised by anything, because we’re not surprised. Nothing is too bad to be true in war.

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