My Big Fat Question

General Knowledge: Brooks, the official spokesperson and face of CENTCOM.Photo: AP/Wide World

The sandstorms blowing through Iraq left a kind of mustard cloud over the desert flats of Qatar, creating a fair approximation of the end of the earth. Serendipitously, “Midnight at the Oasis” was playing on the car radio as I came up to the camp gate just before 5 a.m.—my tenth day in Doha. Then the cell was ringing with a nervous producer from CNN in New York (where it was still prime time) trying to figure out where I was—only 200 yards away from the makeshift studio space in the CENTCOM media center. There were rumors that one of the two bomb-sniffing dogs had died—CENTCOM would neither confirm nor deny that this was the first casualty in Doha—meaning the process of getting through the security no-man’s-land would be even longer than usual, and, I tried to explain to the CNN person, I might not make it by airtime.

We’d reached the point where reporters were interviewing other reporters in the most media-scrutinized war ever fought. But even among the overexposed, I was—because of the irritable question I’d asked at a daily briefing and over international television—on the verge of a special status: becoming the wiseass of the war.

A television reporter from Istanbul was hotly pursuing me for an interview because I was, apparently, famous in Turkey (a title for a possible memoir). I was very popular, it seems, in France, Canada, and Italy too.

The AP, Reuters, the Times, and The Nation were calling. What’s more, I’d had to switch from the Doha Marriott to the Doha Ritz-Carlton for a faster Internet connection to download 3,000 hate e-mails.

I’d lobbed my big question because it just seemed too obvious not to ask. Everybody here was having the same perfectly Groundhog Day experience: You woke up only to repeat the day before, and no matter what you did or said or thought, you were helpless to effect a change in the next day. So every day, everybody asked the same questions about Basra and the supply lines and the whereabouts of the WMDs and Saddam, and got the same answers. They were war correspondents after all (or trying to be). The purest form of reporting: Armies were moved, weapons deployed, kill counts tabulated. Nothing postmodern about a war reporter. Events needed to be confirmed and recorded. But behind this stripped-down façade, invisible to the public, was a secret, very pleasant theater of the absurd.

While the home front saw the unspooling of this war pageant—the green night vision, the small-arms fire, the precision missiles, the Tolstoyan reports of the embeds—radically dissociated from any larger context (the U.S. media had sealed itself off from the almost diametrically opposite view of the war offered by the media in the rest of the world), in Doha, we were in a discrete, amiable, backstage world.

On television, away from our remote Doha reality, General Brooks looked fabulous. One the small screen, he had a quiet authority and a reassuring unflappability.

We were in on the joke.

We were the high-school kids who got it. The embedded reporters, on the other hand, were the rah-rah jocks.

“General, is the war going well, or is the war going extremely well?” was the question we all knew we were here to ask.

“In a world where people are being blown up, it is difficult to explain that life at the Ritz is a kind of death, too,” said one of the Aussie reporters, contemplating our predicament. “Death by buffet.”

Here we were in the world’s most boring city, on the world’s least enviable piece of earth, in this over-air-conditioned warehouse (a virtual sensory-deprivation chamber), with only microwavable mini-pizzas to eat—all just to wait around for a 45-minute news conference, ably engineered and precisely scripted to tell you as little as possible. Death by banality. General Vincent Brooks, who became the official spokesperson and the face of CENTCOM, was surely the ultimate assistant principal.

Everybody here understood. A roll of the eye. A curl of the lip. A silent scream.

Still, no matter how jaded these reporters were, when the lights went on, they knew their roles. They had producers and an audience. The show must go on. If everybody here seemed privately to accept that the process of reporting war was a crock, publicly they accepted the war as a coherent event that they had some mastery over—they had inside sources, they had the general’s ear. They were war reporters.

But I wasn’t a war reporter. I didn’t have to observe wartime propriety—or cool. I was free to ask publicly (on international television, at that) the question everyone was asking of each other: “I mean no disrespect … but what is the value proposition? …Why are we here? Why should we stay? What’s the value of what we’re learning at this million-dollar press center?”

It was the question to sour the dinner party. It was also, because I used the words value proposition, a condescending and annoying question—a provocation.

Still, I meant it literally: Other than the pretense of a news conference—the news conference as backdrop and dateline—what did we get for having come all this way? What information could we get here that we could not have gotten in Washington or New York, what access to what essential person was being proffered? And why was everything so bloodless?

My question was met with a sudden, disruptive, even slightly anarchic round of applause—not dissimilar to the whoops when a kid drops a tray in the school cafeteria—and I knew I was in a little trouble.

The question, it turned out, spoke powerfully to people who think this whole thing (not just the news conference but, in some sense, the entire war) is phony, a setup, a fabrication, in which just about everything is in service to unseen purposes and agendas (hence my popularity in Turkey, France, Canada, Italy, and at The Nation magazine, as well as among the reporters in the Doha press pool). But it seemed to speak even more dramatically to people who think the whole thing is real, pure, linear, uncomplicated, elemental (lots of, if not all, Americans). For the former, I’d addressed something like the existential issue of our own purposelessness, but for the latter, I seem to have, heretically, raised the very issue of meaning itself.

And seriously compounding matters, there was the rude applause.

It must have seemed like the media was clapping for its own smartness, or smart-ass-ness. By breaking the proscenium like this, by acknowledging the uselessness of these ritualized proceedings, and therefore the artifice, we media people suddenly seemed like a thing apart—apart from the war, and from our audience (and hence from our country too—at least we American media people).

Now, this is a complicated point, because although everybody in the room represented the media (and would, in short order, be recirculating the noninformation and obvious disinformation that was given out), almost everybody in the room saw the media as occurring somewhere else—a confection being created by some unseen hand. Everybody here would step out of the briefing room and look up at the monitors above the makeshift newsroom tuned to the networks and news channels and watch the briefing be reported to the world and share the same reaction: What bullshit. (The packaging didn’t help … MSNBC: OUR HEARTS ARE WITH YOU.)

But as it happens, incredibly, there are many people who believe that these news briefings—getting surprisingly high ratings—are real. That when people in uniform speak, they speak the truth. Really. Truly. (Although in one instance, after showing especially hammy videos of Iraqi citizens receiving humanitarian aid, even General Brooks had to insist, “This is true. Really. It’s not coerced.”)

What is most surprising about this to me is not so much that there are a lot of people who would mistake a news conference for an actual, transparent, official giving of information but that the Pentagon would be media-savvy enough to understand this. (Certainly, though, they were smart enough to come up with the embed thing—wherein reporters became soldiers and invaders and liberators.) And what’s most pathetic was that we reporters could have been dumb enough not to understand that this whole million-dollar business, the plasma screens and such, was not for us but directed over our heads toward the American audience—and not just the American audience but the core Bush American audience.

When I challenged General Brooks, I was unaware of what I was challenging.

I only became aware of what i’d done when the Rush Limbaugh thing happened.

Now, General Brooks is a one-star general—hence, the further point of my question, which was about why we were getting briefed by, in effect, middle management. The point was to be briefed by General Franks, the CENTCOM commander, like Schwarzkopf had briefed in Gulf I. To get one star when you were expecting four is something like getting an assistant undersecretary when you’re expecting the president. It’s a bait-and-switch. And, indeed, Brooks was a stiff, rote briefer. Stonewall Brooks. He relayed information rather than possessed information.

Chairs were removed from the briefing room every day, so that empty seats would not be shown to the world. What if you gave a war and the media didn’t come?

He was, with some critical interpretation, the hierarchical equivalent of the wacky Iraqi Information minister, Muhammad Sa’id al-Sahhaf—both Brooks and the minister had probably gotten more face time than anybody else in this war. And for a while, certainly for the CENTCOM reporters, it seemed to tip back and forth between whose version of the war was wackier.

Except that’s not what it looked like on television. On television, I would find out, remote from our Doha reality, Brooks looked fabulous. While daily TV exposure will take anybody from person to personage, there was something else going on here. On the small screen, Brooks had quiet authority, large, sensitive eyes (in person, his eyes seemed hangdog), and a reassuring unflappability (in the room, this seemed like no more than inexpressiveness). On television, what you saw was not just a general but, all the more heroic, a black general.

My question, then, was a challenge to a broad range of certainties. I was suggesting the whole operation was bogus—so I was challenging reality itself. Then I was challenging the ultimate authority—a general in war. This was practically insubordination. And in my bringing up the issue of rank, it must have seemed that, displeased with the service, I was in some sense asking to see the manager.

So, the Rush thing. First it was CNN that replayed my question—the CNN view was, more or less, the liberal-media view: a certain hand-wringing about whether the media was being used. Then it was Fox, with its extreme, love-it-or-leave-it approach to the war, that took me apart: I was clearly a potential traitor.

And then it was Rush.

To his audience of 20 million—pro-war, military-minded, Bush-centered, media-hating, lily-white—Rush laid me out.

I wasn’t only a reporter, but one from New York Magazine. “New York” resonated. It combined with “media,” and suddenly, in Rush’s hands, I was as elitist and as pampered (fortunately, nobody mentioned the Ritz) and as dismissive of the concerns of real Americans as, well, Rush’s 20 million assume the media to be. Whereas Rush, that noted foot soldier, represented the military heartland. What’s more, according to Rush, that great defender of the rights of African-Americans, I was a racist. Duh. A white liberal challenging a black general. It’s a binary world.

And Rush gave out my e-mail address.

Almost immediately, 3,000 e-mails, full of righteous fury, started to come.

Which all, in some way, helps explain why we are in Iraq.

Now, when you suddenly get 3,000 e-mails excoriating you and your fealty, you can begin to think that the media may in fact be a hostile, negative, unloved, and unwanted presence. (My Al-Jazeera colleagues, singled out for showing bloody pictures during war, certainly felt this, too.) But of course, the opposite is true—we are, even Al-Jazeera, a vital, mostly cooperative, part of the war effort. So when, in response to my question, General Brooks said that I was here of my own volition and if it wasn’t satisfactory to me, I should go home, this was far from a statement of policy.

You can’t have a taping without a studio audience. We were the pretext for the show—and for delivering the message.

So the last thing the Pentagon wanted was for the media to go home. In fact, CENTCOM refused to confirm or deny what everyone could see for himself: that chairs were being removed from the briefing every day (in one day alone, sixteen chairs were removed), so that, as numbers dwindled, empty seats would not be shown to the world. This was a serious problem. What if you gave a war and the media didn’t come?

Clearly marked as the rabble-rouser of the get-out-of-Doha movement, I was approached by some enforcer types. The first was a version of a Graham Greene character. He represented the White House, he said. Wasn’t of the military. Although, he said, he was embedded here (“sleeping with a lot of flatulent officers,” he said). He was incredibly conspiratorial. Smooth but creepy: “If you had to write the memo about media relations, what would be your bullet points … ?”

The next person to buttonhole me was the CENTCOM Über-civilian, a thirtyish Republican operative (part of his job seemed to be to seed the press pool with specific questions that CENTCOM wanted asked during the briefings, telling reporters, for instance, that CENTCOM wouldn’t show the video of Private Lynch being rescued, because it would be seen as “the United States spiking the ball in the end zone,” unless reporters asked for proof that the rescue was successful). He was more Full Metal Jacket in his approach (although he was a civilian, he was, inexplicably, in uniform—making him, I suppose, a sort of paramilitary figure): “I have a brother who is in a Hummer at the front, so don’t talk to me about too much fucking air-conditioning.” And: “A lot of people don’t like you.” And then: “Don’t fuck with things you don’t understand.” And, too: “This is fucking war, asshole.” And finally: “No more questions for you.”

I had been warned.

I finally got to the x-ray machine on the way through the guardhouse to my CNN interview. Lots of other reporters were arriving at this early hour for their prime-time spots. There was a relaxed attendant at the machine (a private contractor rather than a soldier), and although everybody was always asking to see what the machine saw and getting turned down, this guy let us come around and see our naked selves: It was a flat, shadowy, unflattering rendering, with the buttocks crisply displayed.

Everybody was making Doha jokes. I was talking about my run-in with the scary White House guys. “You’ve met the Hitler Youth,” said another reporter. Everybody laughed. This was grim, but it was funny. The camaraderie of people who understood the joke—who were part of the joke—was very reassuring and comfortable.

Certainly, there was the sense that this, however grim, was a diversion. It wasn’t real. We’d go home. Like the first Gulf War, this would be over soon and largely forgotten. Not only are modern wars not very lethal (at least not for us), but they occur at a distance; they don’t really disturb (at least not for very long) the larger culture. Militarism and patriotic fervor and all manner of get-with-the-program-ism isn’t in the cards for us. Everyone obviously wants to get back to business—getting the great American boom to recommence and roll on. So in some sense, the wiseasses would triumph and the righteous Bushies would falter—or at least there’d be a draw.

But in isolated flashes, during a few moments of quiet on the media bus navigating the security pylons, it was also hard not to understand what Rush’s people were saying in their violent and bilious e-mails: I wasn’t taking this seriously. None of us were. We were the people with the picnic baskets coming out to see the battle of Bull Run.

And this wasn’t just a diversion: It was just the beginning. I had been warned.

My Big Fat Question