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Friday, September 17, 2004

Beware of First Reports. 
A major on the general staff in Baghdad weighs in with Captain's Quarters, and he's pretty much of the same mind I am: things are not as bad as they seem in the media.

The short version: the much ballyhooed National Intelligence Estimate being touted by the chicken little press corps is hopelessly out of date.

The most glaring issue with its relevance is the fact that it was delivered to the White House in July. That means that the information that was used to derive the intelligence was gathered in the Spring – in the immediate aftermath of the April battle for Fallujah, and other events. The report doesn’t cover what has happened in July or August, let alone September.


He goes on to point out that since that time, Al Sadr's militia was "smashed." Insurgents were kicked out of Samarrah and Najaf.

On Samarrah:

You may not have even heard about the city of Samarra. Two weeks ago, that Sunni Triangle city was a “No-go” area for US troops. But guess what? The locals got sick of living in fear from the insurgents and foreign fighters that were there and let them know they weren’t welcome. They stopped hosting them in their houses and the mayor of the town brokered a deal with the US commander to return Iraqi government sovereignty to the city without a fight. The people saw what was on the horizon and decided they didn’t want their city looking like Fallujah in April or Najaf in August.

Boom, boom, just like that two major “hot spots” cool down in rapid succession. Does that mean that those towns are completely pacified? No. What it does mean is that we are learning how to do this the right way. The US commander in Samarra saw an opportunity and took it – probably the biggest victory of his military career and nary a shot was fired in anger.


Shades of Sun Tzu! To win without fighting is the acme of skill. But the media is fundamentally ill-equipped to recognize the acme of skill if it slapped them in the face. And so four Iraqi towns--Najaf, Sadr City, Fallujah, and Ramadi--become symbolic of the entire country.

That's like looking at a tumor and calling that symbolic of the man.

I told you guys way back in November: "first reports are almost always wrong."

What we see from newspaper and television accounts over and over again is a series of never-ending first reports, put into context by a frightened or harried reporter on the scene, who gets a few quotes from some frightened or harried soldiers or citizens, then shoves in a sloppily-written sentence or two about how the latest attack is somehow representative of a deteriorating situation in Iraq, even though the insurgent's tactics, troop levels, and equipment are exactly like the last dozen attacks in that neighborhood.

If you're a battle captain or unit commander, and you get a report in from a unit in contact, that first report is always going to be a little spooked. Remember--the very first report is not being processed or contextualized very much. It's being passed on to you--through an intermediate headquarters or four--from a fire team leader for whom it's the most urgent nightmare in the world.

He may even have a man down and be urgently requesting medevac.

Often the wound is bloody but superficial, and things aren't as bad as he thinks. There've been lots of scratches first called in as "litter urgent" casualties in the medevac request.

So you take the proper precautions: you get a warning order to the QRF to be prepared to move. You bring the QRF platoon leader into the TOC to take a look at the map. You alert the aid station to prepare to recieve casualties. You call your OPs in the area and try to get a compass read on the contact, so you can intersect the different azimuths and verify your first frightened report. You give a heads-up to the mortar guys to prepare to recieve a fire mission.

But you don't panic. You keep your head about you, and you contextualize the information. Many times, the platoon is more than capable of handling things without you calling in the F-16s to blast up the town. You get the ball rolling in case you need to bring battalion level heat down on the enemy. But you listen keenly to the second, third, fourth, and fifth reports.

In a battalion TOC, you'll get them. Give them five or ten minutes to develop the situation and fight the battle at their level, and the platoon and company headquarters will put things in perspective.


Sure, you gotta pay attention. Because when you gotta deliver the heat, then every second is precious, so you issue your warning orders and you alert the reserves. But the only information in a first contact report that's reliable is the call sign.

But in today's 24 hour media cycle, all you get is that frightened, adrenaline- charged first report. There's no follow up. There's no second or third report to add context. Just the one report and then off to the next car bombing.

Is it the media's job to provide context?

Well, sure. To a point. But they'll only provide context to the extent we insist on it.

Nothing is ever as good or as bad as you hear it from the field. It's been true since Lee was trying to make sense of Stuart's dispatches from the Potomac river.

It's true of media, too. Except in media, there's no subordinate headquarters trying to develop the situation for you.

Beware of the steady progression of undeveloped first reports.

Splash, out

Jason



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