Basra: Media Confusion During War
Mar 27, 2003 - 1940 GMT
The questions surrounding a massive breakout of Iraqi troops from the southern city of Basra and a potential southern thrust by columns of Iraqi armor toward the Al Faw Peninsula are finally being answered. As the fog of war lifts from the port city, it is useful to review the situation as it unfolded -- as a case study of perception versus reality in wartime and how the two diverge. It particularly highlights the media's role in intensifying confusion about what is happening on the battlefield.
British Challenger tanks reportedly engaged 14 Iraqi T-55s and some associated armored personnel carriers outside Basra on March 27, destroying all the tanks. According to Iranian media, however, only two of the Iraqi tanks were destroyed and the remainder of the armor withdrew back into Basra. This was the third attempt in two days by small groups of Iraqi armored vehicles to break out of the southern city.
The column of about 20 vehicles, however, was a far cry from the 120 tanks rolling south from Basra that had filled international media reports for much of the previous day.
Basra also has been the site of serious confusion over reports of a massive anti-government uprising, which British forces reportedly were supporting and supplying with backup firepower. The reports were denied by Iraqi media and later downplayed by British officials, who called the situation "uncertain."
The confusion in both cases -- and the tenacity of the media and government and military officials in sticking to the stories long after it was clear they were premature and suspect -- offers a useful study of the "fog of war" and an opportunity to pick apart the difference between perception and reality in wartime.
It has become crystal clear that there is neither a massive civilian uprising inside Basra, nor was there a massive thrust of 120 Iraqi tanks heading south out of the city to engage the British forces on the Al Faw Peninsula. Rather, as British military officials have now said, there was scattered civil unrest in Basra -- a city where much of the water supply has been cut -- and there were several isolated attempts by small groups of Iraqi armor to break out of the city.
These may also have been attempts to probe the British defensive line -- as is occurring south of Baghdad, where similar reports of thousand-strong columns of Iraqi armor pouring southward to engage U.S. troops have been degraded to columns of light vehicles with infantry and irregular forces probing U.S. advanced units.
The initial reports of a massive armored thrust out of Basra stirred suspicion and disbelief, as it seemed illogical for Iraqi commanders to leave the relative safety of the city and expose the bulk of their forces to coalition airpower. If there is one thing that every Iraqi military officer learned in 1991, it is to stay off the roads if at all possible, or face overwhelming airpower. And while they may have been counting on the cover from dust storms and darkness to shield them from coalition attacks, driving south onto the peninsula -- where they would end up trapped -- seemed another tactical mistake.
Now, there were several possible explanations for the reported Iraqi movements. First, their commanders were not very bright or were extremely overconfident -- not mutually exclusive characteristics. Second, they were trying to link up with irregular forces on the peninsula to disrupt coalition control of port facilities and needed large forces to break through. Finally, the initial reports could have been false.
It is clearer now that the latter was the case. But as information trickles out from coalition officials, international media outlets and other sources, a more complete picture emerges.
The initial reports of 120 tanks heading south from Basra was accurate at the time of issuing: An embedded reporter was present with command units when radar operators reported a significant column of vehicles moving from the city. The estimates of 70-120 Iraqi armored vehicles then were relayed to the media and the military, where paraphrases and misinterpretation of the preliminary data led to widespread reports of 120 Iraqi tanks barreling down on British positions on the Al Faw.
After review, military officials cautioned against accepting those numbers as fact, even as the story gained wider attention. Despite the sheer audacity or blatant stupidity of such a massive armored push down a narrow causeway -- in close range of coalition aircraft and artillery -- reports of the 120-strong tank column continued to spread, no matter that the initial "fact" contradicted the reality of the situation.
It took hours for media and even military press liaisons to finally begin downplaying the initial report, even after the British forces encountered only small breakout attempts -- the most noticeable being that the initial encounter with the "120" tanks proved to be just three tanks.
Neither the media nor the military are entirely to blame for the confusion, which U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks credited at the daily CENTCOM press briefing in Doha on March 27 as a symptom of the "fog of war." But it does show the necessity of gauging the veracity of information rather than accepting all reports at face value. Reports of only limited attempts to break out of Basra were published alongside other reports of coalition aircraft attacking 120 armored vehicles south of the city.
In short, what happened was that an embedded reporter heard the initial intelligence report that a large column of Iraqi vehicles was moving south out of Basra. This was relayed back to the major networks -- which all began covering each other's coverage -- and military officials, following the news from the front, picked up on it as well. Despite attempts by some elements of the British and U.S. military to downplay the reports, which already had proved unreliable, the story of 120 tanks heading hot and heavy toward light British positions in the south continued to circulate -- long after it became clear that groups no larger than 20 armored vehicles had slipped out of the city to the south under cover of sandstorms.
This is a key danger faced by analysts: Because the original source was an embedded reporter, his story was believed long after logic and the evidence showed a very different situation. And, as Richards Heuer wrote in Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, "Impressions tend to persist even after the evidence that created those impressions has been fully discredited."
And this is the fog of war. Facts are a time-sensitive commodity based on the most immediate information and impressions. Reality, however, cuts through the fog -- testing the latest information against logic, additional evidence and common sense.