Third Anniversary

It began in the middle of the night, like so many other battles I’ve experienced. Here in the United States, it was still March 19 — but along the Iraq-Kuwait border, it was already the 20th. My hastily scribbled notes for that night, scrawled in my reporter’s notebook using night-vision goggles, recorded what my video camera was capturing: "Aircrew Final Briefing … fully-loaded Royal Marines waiting for liftoff … heavy artillery fires to northeast of LZ," and the fateful, "Dash Two down in fireball. No survivors."

Inadvertently, my camera’s night lens caught the event on videotape — the horrible image of the first 12 allied deaths in OIF — Operation Iraqi Freedom. Four U.S. Marine airmen and eight Royal Marine Commandos perished instantly — just minutes after the war started — when their CH-46 helicopter crashed en route to the Faw peninsula. For several hours afterward, I incorrectly believed that Griff Jenkins, my FOX News field producer and cameraman, had also been killed on the doomed bird.

Twenty days — and more than 100 "news feeds" later — Jenkins and I would cover the 5th Marines’ final assault on Saddam’s Palace, perched beside the Tigris in downtown Baghdad. The euphoria of the Iraqi people as they tore down the giant statue of the deposed dictator in Firdos Square was unmistakable. So, too, was the exhilaration of U.S. troops — for the capture of the dictator’s capital allowed us to remove the hot and heavy chemical-biological protective suits we had worn nonstop since the start of the conflict. Then, seemingly within hours, nearly all of the "embedded" journalists disappeared.

The mainstream media — which had forecast "thousands" of U.S. casualties and predicted that it would "take months" to capture Baghdad — apparently didn’t need to see any more. Thus, Jenkins and I were the only broadcast coverage team accompanying the 3rd Battalion, 66th Armor of the 4th Infantry Division as it advanced through Samarra and Tikrit to start reconstruction in that sector of Iraq. Since then, U.S. media outlets have increasingly depended on local "freelance" stringers for videotape and written reports on the war.

Understandably, these "local" journalists are not invited to accompany U.S. military units on actions like "Operation Swarmer," conducted this week in and around Samarra by the 101st Airborne Division. Nor do the "locals" cover the local clinic, school, electrical grid and water purification system repairs being made by U.S. Navy Seabees, Army Engineers and Marine civil-affairs units. In short, about the only thing making its way into American homes is the bad news from the war.

That all wars have plenty of bad news is indisputable. War is ugly, nasty, bloody. Terrible things happen in war. Those who fight in war have horrific things happen to them. Anyone who has ever really been to a war can verify those descriptions. Yet, they can — if asked — also tell of extraordinary courage, remarkable acts of self-sacrifice, merciful compassion and epic examples of perseverance. Three years ago today, those of us who were fortunate enough to be embedded with U.S. and British forces as they crossed into Iraq had countless examples of these virtues. Some of them were even reported — but not any more.

In the three years since coalition forces charged into Saddam’s despotic fiefdom, it has become the norm to report stories of misfeasance, malfeasance and incompetence, rather than the good that American troops have done. An errant bomb warrants more ink and airtime than the well that was dug or the child who was rescued by a U.S. medic and nursed back to health. This is not simply a perception of imbalance — it is reality in Iraq.

Since U.S. troops entered Iraq three years ago this week, the Iraqi people have held three nationwide elections, written and ratified a constitution and formed their first imperfect but democratically elected government. Yet, compare the number of Google or Lexis-Nexis entries for "Iraqi Elections" with the entries for "Abu Ghraib," and it is amply evident what American editors and publishers consider important news.

It should not, therefore, be a surprise on this third anniversary of OIF’s "D-Day" that American public opinion on the war — whether it is winnable and how it is being managed — has fallen through the floor. Opponents of the commander in chief are pointing with glee at his sinking poll numbers. His "friends" are running for cover.

To his credit, President Bush is once again taking his argument on why winning in Iraq is of vital importance to the American people. Hopefully he will continue to do so — reminding both allies and adversaries alike that he has always said that this would be a long, hard fight.

And because this is indeed going to be a protracted struggle — not unlike the long-drawn-out "cold" war against communism — it is important that those who are doing the fighting be given greater recognition. Between now and the "Fourth Anniversary" of OIF, the administration must make a concerted effort to let the American people see the bravest of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines who are fighting this war. They are called heroes. We’re going to need more of them.