Troops as Props: Decoding the Press Reports From Gates’ Trip to Iraq

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What a strange little world the traveling press is. On Wednesday, an AP story led with the sentence, “Defense Secretary Robert Gates found American commanders wary of a proposal to rush more U.S. troops to Iraq as he visited the war-ravaged country.” The body of the story was the same rundown of “will-he-or-won’t-he” material: Bush is considering sending more troops, which means Gates is considering sending more troops, Gen. Casey says this, Gen. Abizaid says this, yada yada. The only new nugget was in the lede: commanders on the ground, to whom Bush promised to listen, don’t really buy the idea. Not good for the Bushies, if they know sending more troops is likely, or inevitable.

And then this morning, a new AP story with the lede, “U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the rest of the Bush administration may be undecided on whether to send more troops to Iraq. But several soldiers he met with at Camp Victory here on Thursday morning said extra forces would help.”

The story makes note of the dissonance between the commanders’ feelings and the troops’ feelings, but I can’t help but feel the press has been suckered. Was this a PR job intended to repair the damage of Wednesday’s story? The military knew the press would be watching Gates eat his scrambled eggs with the soldiers; in fact, the military probably invited the press and made sure they’d be there. Were the soldiers selected because their viewpoints were likely to match the message the military wanted to get out? Or worse, were they coached? It’s not like this would be the first time the administration used the troops as props in a media stunt.

Maybe the soldiers on the ground really do wish they had more of their colleagues helping out. It’s not surprising: why wouldn’t they want someone to share the burden on a difficult and unwinnable situation? But Nick Kristof noted in February that a poll examining soldiers’ opinions on the war found 72 percent wanted to withdraw in a year and 29 percent wanted to withdraw immediately. So we’re expected to believe that it just so happened that Gates met with a crowd of soldiers and every one present was in the minority of troops that wants to prolong the war? Smells as rotten as a fake turkey.

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