In the past, when people asked me what I thought of the media’s portrayal of the Iraq War – whether it ignored good news in favor of bad news – I compared soldiers to firefighters. There is plenty of good news to report at a fire station. Firefighters save lives, educate kids about fire prevention and inspect buildings to ensure they are safe. But when a fire truck rolls up to your house, it’s normally because you have a problem. Similarly, the U.S. Military does a lot of good – in Iraq and other countries – but when there are 168,000 troops in your country, it’s because you’ve got problems. It’s indicative of bad news.

There’s a lot of truth to that. The good news in Iraq is inevitably overshadowed by suicide bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, street wars and torture. The same is true anywhere else. If a new high school was opened in your hometown, and on the same day, a terrorist attack killed 100 people there, which event do you think would make the headlines? Human tragedy is more newsworthy than human triumph. Maybe that isn’t how it should be, but death sells.

In recent months, however, the malaise about the Iraq War seems to overwhelm any attempt to look at the war objectively. It doesn’t necessarily follow that because a situation is bad or has been bad for a while, it will inevitably get worse. There have been very positive news items coming out of Iraq recently. Many of the nationalist insurgent groups have agreed to stop fighting the Coalition Forces and start fighting al-Qaeda. Cities and towns are being patrolled by locals, rather than by police from other parts of the country; the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, along with much of the key leadership of the organization, was captured.

This may all sound like it doesn’t amount to much in comparison to the rising death toll of Coalition troops and Iraqi soldiers and civilians, but it sounds incredible to me. I spent a year working with teams and task forces who were searching for Abu usab al-Zarqawi, the former head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. He remained at-large the entire time I was in the country. By the time he was killed, he had evaded capture for three years. I also spent long interrogation sessions with Sunni nationalist insurgents who would say, after a question about why they didn’t help us fight our common enemies, “We should have had this conversation two years ago. It’s too late now.”

But it isn’t too late. These are signs that should give us some hope. It’s still too soon to throw in the towel.

Some of my friends in the military say that the media causes as many problems as the enemy. They reason that al-Qaeda profits from media coverage while American foreign policy is damaged. The media may not necessarily pick sides, but they do exactly what Osama bin Laden wants (that is, they give him a venue) and not what President Bush wants (that is, to provide optimistic reporting regarding his policies).

That attack against the media is rather naïve. It is unfair to suggest that a free press should not give public voice to newsworthy events. Osama is newsworthy. It is equally unfair to suggest that a free press should be required to encourage optimism about a policy. Much of the media did just that in the run up to the Iraq war with disastrous consequences. Their job should be to report the facts.

Unfortunately, news outlets are not staffed by public servants. Their interest is not the public good. As well-meaning as many journalists are, the ultimate interest of news outlets is to make a profit. They report what sells. They were not elected or appointed. They have only been vetted by other profit-conscious members of their business. We shouldn’t pretend they are something they are not. Journalists are not people who have any intrinsic duty to the American people. They are simply people who use the First Amendment to make a profit, the way gun manufacturers use the Second Amendment.

Most media outlets do seem to expend a lot of effort in their attempt to demonstrate the valor of the troops. Unfortunately, it often seems as though they pity those of us who have volunteered to serve in the military. I am not a fool. I did not join the military because I was forced to do so. I knew that the primary mission of the U.S. Army is to fight and win the nation’s wars long before I arrived at basic training.

I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me because I spent time in a combat zone, just as I hope there is no one who thinks I deserved to be shot at because I was stupid enough to volunteer. I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. That document gives the president the power to command the military. The president was elected by the American people. I work for you.

The greatest lesson of the Iraq War might be that there is no use calling the fire department just because you think your house might burst into flames sometime soon. If you do, you shouldn’t be alarmed if they burst in with pickaxes and douse your house with water. That’s what they’re trained to do. When you call the U.S. Military, expect hell, and don’t be surprised when things get messy.

William Quinn is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and a former staff sergeant in the United States Army. He can be reached at Aimless Feet appears every other Tuesday.

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