Three recent books about the “fiasco” in Iraq — “Cobra II” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, “State of Denial” by Bob Woodward and just plain “Fiasco” by Tom Ricks — have attracted a lot of attention, and sales. All three well-written exposes repeat the now well-known argument that our government’s incompetence and arrogance have nearly ensured U.S. failure in birthing democracy in Iraq.
It’s worth noting, though, that many of the authors’ critical portraits rely on private conversations and anonymous sources. The most damning informants in these books are never identified, and so can’t be questioned.
The authors, as journalists, are well aware that after the New York Times’ problems with Jayson Blair and other high-profile media scandals, the public no longer necessarily accepts as gospel what reporters write. That perhaps explains their and others’ apparent adaptation of scholarly methods. Often these days journalists mimic the footnoting of historians — giving the impression their reporting is history documented by verifiable primary and secondary sources also available to the reader.
Indeed, the verifiability of source material is what distinguishes history from hearsay — and what distinguishes the genre from journalism or first-person recollections. Since the time of the historian Thucydides — who not only recorded what speakers said, but, more controversially, made them voice what he thought they might or ought to have said — historians have developed protocols to ensure credibility. Whether or not historians use footnotes or citations, they at least now agree to draw on information that can be checked by others, who will determine how skillfully, honestly or completely such sources were employed.
But by too often using only the veneer of the historical method, the authors of these three books give their work a patina of scholarly credibility that can confuse the reader. In “Cobra II,” for example, some citations at the end of the book state that information came from a “former senior military officer,” “former Centcom planner” or “U.S. State Department official.”
In “Fiasco,” often verbatim quotations are not cited with specific attribution, but only vaguely noted in the text as “said a Bush administration official” or “recalled one officer.” Among the end notes in “State of Denial,” we are apprised, “The information in this chapter comes primarily from background interviews with seven knowledgeable sources.”
But who are these “seven knowledgeable sources”? Since Mr. Woodward so far won’t name them, how do we really know they are “knowledgeable” or even “primarily” used? Is the answer they talked to Mr. Woodward (and not to others?), or were pre-selected because they happened to agree with his own views?
In “Cobra II,” we wonder why one “former Centcom planner” would talk while others (more numerous?) choose not to. And in “Fiasco,” is the talkative but unnamed “Bush administration official” getting even at his rivals by offering only his interpretation of shared past conversations?
There are a number of other things wrong with all this gossip.
First, note the disturbing pattern in this resorting to anonymity. Usually the unidentified source supports the author’s critique — and thus is almost always critical of the present policy in Iraq. Rarely do these journalists quote unnamed sources who dissent from their own views, although there are surely pro-U.S. Iraq policy candid voices among the thousands of retired generals.
Second, here is the cardinal rule for anonymous sources in this new genre of pseudo-history: Talk to reporters as soon as possible “off the record” in hopes they will be sympathetic. If you keep quiet, some of your loudmouth enemies might unload on you from the safety of anonymity, ensuring their narrative, not yours, will become authoritative.
Third, we are not reading accounts of golf or fashion but the most important event since the end of the Cold War as it unfolds. When one writes military history in the middle of a war, there is a responsibility to be extra careful. Real-time interpretations don’t just offer lessons about the past but may change the very course of events as they happen.
These past couple of weeks, current and former officials have been protesting that they were unfairly characterized in Mr. Woodward’s book — and have argued conditions in Iraq are not as bad as claimed by anonymous sources. And while there have been on-the-record critics of all three books, none of the unnamed accusers cited in them has come forward.
These virtual histories all allege a “state of denial” and lack of accountability on the part of government officials. Perhaps — but how odd then that the authors of “Cobra II,” “Fiasco” and “State of Denial” have used the very secrecy and subterfuge they claim to deplore in their targets.
Victor Davis Hanson is a nationally syndicated columnist and a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”