WASHINGTON - “The people of Baghdad know this regime [of Saddam Hussein] well. They've been living with it,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
When the story of this war is written, we will have another chapter in the painful human saga of why - even with technological wizardry, television, clean water, medicine, and hope - people still let themselves become oppressed.
It's hard for most of us to understand intimidation, physical torture, the power of threats to family members. “Rise up!” we want to scream to the downtrodden. “`You' outnumber `them.'”
As we liberate, occupy, and try to transform Iraq in our own image, we Americans have mountains of new doubt to remove. We have to convince millions who have been watching the horrors of war on their televisions - much more graphic, violent footage of civilian suffering than most of us in the United States have seen - that the evil of war was less evil than the continuance of Saddam Hussein's regime. We also must prove he has hidden away weapons of mass destruction.
Even despite new footage of Iraq's torture chambers, much of the world thinks we marched into Iraq because of designs on its oil, with no real intentions of bringing peace and prosperity to the Iraqi people. The Bush Administration seems to think that once the shooting and bombing are over, peace and joy automatically will prevail.
We are admired as long as we uphold the principles of freedom made synonymous with our country. When civilians of other countries come into contact with our military, they usually are impressed. Our soldiers are competent, polite, versed in cultural differences, and eager to help.
But it is increasingly discomforting to hear Americans voice anger against those who question the need for - or the morality of - the war. It is worrisome to hear one American challenge the patriotism of another, often a complete stranger. It is frightening to hear Americans argue forcefully that restrictions on civil liberties are OK because without them we might be more vulnerable to terrorism.
It is unnerving to listen to Americans demand more jingoism and even propaganda from the press. When Dan Rather interviewed Saddam, the CBS newsman was labeled a traitor in some circles. His rationale was ethical - to put “the man in front of you so you can see, hear him, look at his body language and make your own assessment.”
Also, Rather said, he thought it was important for Americans to hear for themselves the kind of invective that much of the Arab world is hearing about America.
We will win nothing if the rest of the world thinks we distort and self-censor the news, if we don't permit and cherish free expression above all.
The role of journalism is to hold up a mirror to society so it can see itself, warts and all. The role of journalism is to shine a light on all sides of an issue as fairly and objectively as possible so people can make up their own minds.
Mr. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon are to be congratulated for having agreed to permit reporters and camera crews to go along with active military units. Yes, it can lead to tunnel vision and reporters reporting only what they can see. Yes, it can lead reporters to leave out perspective and context in the interest of immediacy and fresh detail. But it is also rich, often fascinating, bold television.
Americans see the harsh conditions their soldiers are facing. The sandstorms alone would have done most of us in.
We have not seen, however, the other side of the story. We have seen little of the civilian carnage. We have not seen what happened early on in Baghdad. We do not see what is on the faces of Iraqi citizens after the cameras are turned off. We're not even seeing much about the 45,000 British troops who are fighting with us.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that as the war has gone on, many Americans watching it on TV have become “depressed, frightened, tired out, and saddened.”
That is not necessarily bad. War is depressing, frightening, exhausting, and sad. And, thankfully, Americans are not likely again to make the mistake made during the Vietnam War of blaming the soldiers for the errors of the policymakers.
Someday Americans not only will learn more about the heroism of the Jessica Lynches who stood up to evil, but also the suffering and deaths of Iraqi civilians whose only mistake was not standing up to evil when they might have had a chance.