This week in Baghdad began another crimes-against-humanity trial for 15 flunkies of Saddam Hussein, accused in the massacre of Shia in the wake of the first Gulf War. Journalist Christopher Hanson says that – amid the euphoria of military triumph - the story was undercovered at the time, leaving the question of culpability a murky one.
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BOB GARFIELD: This week in Baghdad commenced another crimes-against-humanity for 15 flunkies of Saddam Hussein accused in the massacre of tens of thousands of Shi'a in Southern Iraq following an uprising against Saddam in the wake of the first Gulf War.
But if the brutality of the reprisal was chilling, so was what immediately preceded it. PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W.BUSH: There's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.
BOB GARFIELD: Was President George H.W. Bush's 1991 suggestion a signal to Shi’ites that the U.S. military in Iraq would back them up? If so, it was a false signal. The U.S. did not intervene when Saddam's forces perpetrated their bloodbath.
Christopher Hanson, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, was reporting from Southern Iraq at the time. He says that amid the euphoria of the military triumph, the story of the rebellion was under-covered at the time, leaving the question of culpability a murky one - then and now. CHRISTOPER HANSON: It would be simplistic to say that it sparked it, but the fact that he encouraged it at all raised all the questions about should the United States Army intervene to try to stop the killing. So there was enough of a linkage, I think, between the Bush administration's encouragement of this revolt and the slaughter that ensued to add U.S. responsibility to the story, which, you know, as it's told today in the coverage of this trial doesn't really seem to get through. BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the contemporaneous reporting. Was the story sufficiently covered back then? CHRISTOPER HANSON: Well, probably not. The story was under-reported in several ways for several reasons. For one thing, as this rebellion was starting to flare up, many of the reporters were going home. There was great budgetary pressure to bring them back. So the story as defined by the narrative that everyone had been telling was we won. And so a lot of people accepted that and just went on about the rest of their lives.
The reporters who stayed behind faced a number of obstacles. First of all, they had to get through the U.S. military, who didn't want them to go out there and cover a story about them not intervening to save people. Then once they got into the area where the rebellion was going on, they were defined by the Iraqis as the enemy. They couldn't exactly go up to an Iraqi general and say, what are you doing? They would be captured, possibly shot.
So the gist of the story did get out, but then, as it wasn't fitting in with this narrative of victory, didn't really resonate with the media as a whole in the U.S, despite the real bravery of the reporters who went out there and tried to cover it. BOB GARFIELD: Now, a moment ago you made a very harsh allegation, that the uprising was under-covered, at least in part because it didn't really correspond with the overall storyline of triumph in Iraq. Now, it's hard for me to imagine editors at major news organizations telling their sub-editors or their reporters, no, no, no, no, this is a victory story. CHRISTOPER HANSON: No, that never happens that way, of course. The story did get through. It's not a deliberate conspiracy or anything like that. It's just kind of the way the press works. You get a story stuck in your mind and it's hard to break out of it, and then the pieces that don't fit the story get underemphasized.
And in this case, the historical memory in the public mind got fixed with the earlier simplistic story, and what happened in Southern Iraq was eventually forgotten. BOB GARFIELD: Now, at the time, you were with an Army unit in Southern Iraq. CHRISTOPER HANSON: Yeah, the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment. BOB GARFIELD: Did you feel pressure, subtle or otherwise, to bring back positive skewed stories or ones that, you know, fit in the overall victory narrative? CHRISTOPER HANSON: No. Basically, what I was there to do was to cover what this unit was doing and describe what was happening as dispassionately as I could. And what the unit was doing was blowing hell out of the Iraqi army. But it was essentially because of where I was and what I was seeing, a story of American victory.
The uprising wasn't even getting really through to us, except, you know, we would listen to BBC and there'd be a little something about it. But I was pretty much in a news vacuum. And eventually I got back out of the unit and was preoccupied with writing about what I'd just seen, and then I had to go home. BOB GARFIELD: So it's 16 years later, and 15 members of Saddam's former regime are on trial for their alleged crimes in Southern Iraq, including the already-condemned-to-die Chemical Ali. As you read the coverage now, is there enough context being reported as to exactly how these crimes came about to begin with? CHRISTOPER HANSON: I'd say not enough. I've been reading sort of daily dispatches out of it, and the articles I read really didn't have the context. It was basically, here are these bad guys.
They've already been condemned for crimes against the Kurds, and now they're on trial for crimes against the people in the south. I mean, you don't really get a sense of why this happened, how it happened, whether the United States was partly responsible for it or anything else.
I'm sure that, you know, as this thing goes on, you will eventually see some stories that provide the context. But, you know, once again, does it get through to the overall public rather than the elite who read about foreign policy? I really doubt it. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Chris. Well, as always, thank you very much. CHRISTOPER HANSON: Well, glad to do it. BOB GARFIELD: Christopher Hanson is an assistant professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, the making of the phrase "sanctuary city." This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]