After seven years, a trillion dollars, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, nearly 35,000 US injured and 4,500 US dead, President Obama announced this week that the combat mission in Iraq is over. Historian Douglas Brinkley explains why this seemingly momentous moment received so little media coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. After seven years, hundreds of billions of dollars, an unknown number of Iraqi deaths, nearly 35,000 U.S. injured and 4400 U.S. dead, President Obama announced this week that U.S. combat operations in Iraq are over.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Tonight I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over. And the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.
BOB GARFIELD: That was his address Tuesday night from the Oval Office. And, as one would expect, the Wednesday papers led with the story. But by Thursday, the situation in Iraq had moved back to A-4 in The New York Times and A-8 in The Washington Post. From cable news it had vanished altogether. The U.S. combat role in one of the longest, most contentious wars in American history has apparently ended, as T.S. Eliot phrased it, “not with a bang but a whimper.” This creep towards the back of the paper, we suspect, will progress as hurricanes, oilrig fires and celebrity arrests make Obama’s announcement old news. But if this coverage constitutes the first draft of history, we wondered what effect will it have on subsequent drafts? Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University, and he joins us once again. Hey, Doug, welcome back to the show.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: So V-J Day it wasn't. A little understated, the coverage?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Understated, to put it mildly. It was just like a blip on the radar screen. There was a speech by President Obama primetime from the Oval Office but the speech was combined with other things, including an economic report card, which diluted the importance of the moment. Perhaps because we're in an economic recession, perhaps because we’re so mired in Afghanistan and people want to forget memories of the Iraqi war, it seems to have been kind of swept under the rug and not covered properly, or at least in the way one would have thought so a few years ago.
BOB GARFIELD: Compare to me, please, the coverage of the end of this war with every previous war in which this country has engaged.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, if we pick up with World War II, with V-E Day and then V-J Day, the whole world was involved with it, and also the country. You know, the saying from World War II was “We're all in this together.” The Iraq war always felt like we were – it was a divided war, you know, half the country for it, half against it - eventually less than half the country for it. And it seemed to people like a war of choice. We've had other wars of choice in American history. The Mexican-American War was Mr. Polk’s war and the Spanish-American war, you know, Mr. McKinley’s war. If it’s a war of choice and you want a victory parade, you have to win them quickly. Polk won his war in four years, McKinley in six months. But when we have protracted wars, people tend to be less celebratory about it. And something like Vietnam, which was a war of choice, in that case it was big news getting out of Vietnam, but it was more of an embarrassment at watching people clinging to helicopters as they were leaving the roof in Saigon.
BOB GARFIELD: There has been some criticism that the coverage of the U.S. exit from combat operations in Iraq was as lacking in skepticism from the press about the government’s assertions as was the original invasion itself seven-and-a-half years ago. Did you find that the coverage was gullible in any way?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Yeah, I was very surprised there wasn't a lot more intense media scrutiny of what’s happening in Iraq, and what does this mean. We haven't really had the national dialog - was this worth it? Well, I think most analysts feel it wasn't worth it. But there’s a revisionism seeping in. President Bush has a memoir coming out this fall. Tony Blair has just released one. You’re starting to get the Bush people trying to claim victory due to the second Iraqi strategy, which was the surge. And we'll have to see how this all shakes out in history, in the end. If a civil society develops there, there’s going to be an argument being built by conservatives that this was worth it. It was a battle that had to be fought on the war on terror. If it’s anarchy in Baghdad, it'll be seen as the biggest boondoggle in American history. And so, we're in a kind of middle zone right now, and people are afraid to make too strong of analysis for fear of being wrong the following week. Now, the Obama administration could have made big drum rolls about the extrication for Iraq, but I strongly believe in 2012, when Obama seeks reelection, he’s going to be talking about promises fulfilled – health care, and I got out of Iraq. Those were my two big issues I ran on, and I lived up to them. It’s just being done quietly because he didn't want a mission accomplished moment, and he certainly doesn't want to call victory there and then have a car bomb go off the next morning.
BOB GARFIELD: Doug, as always, thanks very much for joining us.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Douglas Brinkley is a professor at Rice University and author, most recently, of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.