Den Beste’s Law

Steven Den Beste recently suggested guidelines for reacting to news reports on the war:

For any of the following reports, allow at least six hours before you even begin to take them seriously:

Any report of a Scud
The first three reports of mass casualties by anyone

For these, wait 12 hours:

Any report of an attack against a city outside of Iraq
Any report of use of chemical weapons
The first two reports of mass surrenders
The first two reports of use by the US of “wizard weapons”

For these, wait 24 hours if not even more:

Any report that a “name” in Iraq has been killed, captured or has defected
Any claim by the government of Iraq which looks good for them or bad for us
Any report of atrocities
Any report of Iraqi “scorched earth” destruction, especially oil well fires
Any report of mass Iraqi civilian casualties

For all of these, the proper response is to go take a nap. I know it’s tough, but that’s the best thing you can do.

My own feeling is that one should wait far longer; however, I am enough of a realist to recognize that this is nigh impossible for most people. With that in mind I have kept my opinions largely to myself over the past few days. Now enough time has passed to take a more detached and reasoned view of the opening phase.

I am surprised by the progress made by Coalition forces. While I have very little in the way of martial history in my past I must imagine that those in charge of executing this war are satisfied with how matters are unfolding, particularly in view of the lack of a realistic northern front. War is never an exercise in “going through the motions”, despite the opinions of a few that this fight should be over in a few days. It has always been understood that resistance by the Iraqis would stiffen as forces approached Baghdad. From the reports over the weekend this is indeed the case. Nonetheless, the outcome of the war is not in doubt in any way.

To be very blunt: I expected things to be worse.

One of the problems facing the public as the war progresses in its normal, untidy way, is that they are forced to view that progress through the lenses of media structures ill-suited to the art of dispassionate analysis. The assorted news organs are placed in a rather distressing position: they have a competitive need to be the first to break any unfolding stories, they do not have anything even remotely resembling a reliable source of information even in the form of their own “embedded” reporters, they are unable to reliably project in to the future, and as a result they are not able to seamlessly integrate their reporting in to the overall political spin desired by the editorial decision makers.

The above is NOT an indictment of the press, rather recognition of objective facts. Every news organization is guided by some overarching political agenda. This is the unavoidable result of the fact that these organizations are run by human beings. In some cases the guidance is less stringent, in others it is far more egregious, but it is all real and it often drives the news organizations to make leaps of illogic that can boggle the mind of a truly objective observer. News reports have been exhibiting classic examples of bipolar disorder as they move from upbeat to downbeat and back again with every new piece of information that scrolls across their screens. Sunday night, the gloom was palpable on American news broadcasts, a complete turnabout from the previous days, yet the only objective change had been the broadcast of the news that Coalition soldiers had been captured and that the Iraqis had apparently executed some while exploiting others on television. This is absurd on its face, but given the nature of the news cycle in modern societies it is entirely predictable. Modern news reporting has no reliable intrinsic mechanism for dealing with long term, real-time crisis situations.

At the risk of sounding callous, it is important to put the notion of prisoners in to perspective. There is simply no way to wage war without Coalition soldiers falling prisoner to Iraq. Their plight is unfortunate in that they are now in the hands of people with a proven record of inhuman brutality, but the only remedy to their plight is to continue with the careful, methodical execution of the war and press onward to complete victory. Anything short of that puts them, and for that matter everyone in the western world in very grave danger.

In the meantime, my suggestion would be to seek to adjust any opinions regarding the war on the basis of three or four days’ events, rather than hourly news reports.

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