Groundhog War

The Limits of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

In the decade after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. movie studios released more than 200 war movies. During World War II, 65 percent of Americans saw at least one movie a week. Theaters showed newsreels with patriotic music prior to the feature film, delivering both information and entertainment to the American public to boost the collective commitment to winning the war.

In the 1960s, weekly movie attendance fell to less than ten percent of the population; television became Americans' principal entertainment medium, as well as their window onto the war in Vietnam. And as the war escalated, so did the negative tone of the nightly broadcasts: this was the era of network television news that stressed, "If it bleeds, it leads," an attitude that, in contrast to the movies of the 1940s, helped erode public morale.

After the Vietnam War, the Pentagon concluded that it was self-defeating to let cameramen ride military helicopters so that they could capture 30 seconds of gory footage and then broadcast it without context. Thus, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and then continuing in the war in Iraq, the U.S. military allowed correspondents onto the battlefields only if they embedded with military units. This practice created bonds between correspondents and soldiers that mitigated the journalists' impulse to focus on covering the violence and carnage alone. Embedding also helped limit regular nightly news broadcasts about the wars. Considering the large overall number of units deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, firefights were relatively rare; in fact, most U.S. units experienced long periods of boredom. And for many networks in a television news industry already battered by financial losses, the cost of embedding camera crews in remote locations where nothing visually memorable happened for months at a time proved too expensive and unsustainable.

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