In a report that is supposed to be about General David Petraeus and his efforts to pacify Iraq by commanding the forces in president Bush's Iraq surge, The New York Times speculates instead about his state of mind and generally tries to tear him down. Times writer John Burns seems to be putting in a bid for his own late night psychic TV show by being able to read the General's mind and divining that he has "flagging spirits" and that he is "rueful." Instead of a serious news report, Burns gives us speculation and a mystic's interpretation.
The most egregious paragraph in the story is the second.
Pressing the talk button on his headset, the slightly built, 54-year-old general, the top American commander in Iraq, said glimpses of the normal life that have survived the war’s horrors have helped to boost his own flagging spirits, especially on days when signs of battlefront progress are offset by new bombings with mass casualties, the starkest measure of continuing insurgent power across Iraq.
Did you notice the lack of quote marks in that paragraph? It is a sure bet that Petraeus never said he had "flagging spirits." More likely, Petraeus pointed to those signs of "normal life" to reveal to Burns that such signs are good signs of an Iraqi people just yearning to live life without all the strife. It is more likely that Petraeus was merely trying to impress upon writer Burns the resilience and strength of the Iraqi people. Yet, Burns interprets this to be a revelation of Petraeus' "flagging spirits" instead because it fits in better with the New York Times' pessimistic opposition to the surge.
Next Burns decides that Petraeus is "ruefully" wishing he took a civilian job instead of the top position in Iraq.
Then, he said ruefully, he wondered whether he “should have taken that civilian job” before accepting what many see as the most unpromising command since that of Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr. in Vietnam — who took charge, in 1968, when that war was going badly and American opinion was running strongly in favor of a pullout.
Again with the mystical divination of Petraeus' feelings by Burns? Pondering this paragraph, one gets the feeling that Petraeus was trying to be funny with his comment of wishing to take "that civilian job" instead of looking for sympathy for taking on the trouble of the one he currently holds. With all the mind taxing decisions of life and death he has to deal with on a daily basis, who the heck wouldn't sometimes wistfully think he should have taken another job -- any other job -- than the tough one he has?
Yet, here I am speculating as much as Burns is. Neither of us really knows if Petraeus is "rueful" about his job as Burns says or "wistful" as I just said. It would make for better ACTUAL reporting if Burns just reported what Petraeus actually said and that, should Burns have not understood the context, have had Petraeus explain himself before publication. Instead, Burns acts as if he is writing a novelist's narrative as opposed to reporting the facts.
Saying that Petraues "has been dogged, too, by detractors within the Army who say he is prone to overstate his accomplishments," Burns goes on to cast as much doubt on Petraeus' character and history as possible without directly calling the general a liar and egotist. Burns also claims that Petraeus is showing self-doubt.
Now, in the face of a stubbornly brutal conflict and declining war support at home, General Petraeus has pulled back from the pulsating sense of self-confidence that fellow officers say has been his hallmark — that he can prevail against any odds.
Is Burns a great candidate for the next Miss Cleo or what?
Of course, I have even more basis to doubt Burns' ability to accurately read Petraeus' mind and such proof is right in Burns' very own report. Burns reports that Petraeus is wary of speaking too openly with the press, making Burns' interpretations and his filling in of emotional blanks highly suspect.
Burns says of the general:
He has become strikingly cautious, avoiding on-the-record comments on many politically contentious issues.
And who could blame Petraeus for this cautious approach to reporters like John Burns? After all, look at what Burns did do with the interview he got. He turned this professional, highly qualified general into a quivering mess, doubting himself and lying to everyone around him.
If I were Petraeus I'd feel like General William Tecumseh Sherman did about the press:
“I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast.” --William Tecumseh Sherman
That breakfast would be warm, indeed. In that case, I wonder if John Burns would be "rueful" of his?
***Note***Photo changed to reflect the three stars of the general's proper rank.