The Podcasting Feud Over the Iraq War�s Legacy

Rumsfeld as well as our Iraqi nation-building experiment have both been lost to history. If you were paying close attention, however, you will notice that a heated debate over their place in the history was fought in a modern medium: serialized podcasts. The fifth season of Slates Slow Burn concluded just weeks prior to Rumsfelds passing. Noreen Malone, the host, gave listeners one the series' signature deep dives into an event that has loomed so large over American History we have almost forgotten the details. Just one year earlier, left-wing journalists Noah Kulwin, Brendan James, and Vice and Chapo Trap House alumni, released Blowback. This is an unapologetically left wing examination of the wars many causes, and ongoing effects. The three hosts were all millennials and their respective series provided listeners with a detailed, but sometimes too detailed, account of the hubris, folly and collective mania that led the Iraq War. You might think that they would feel a sense of solidarity and a shared mission to give their generation a clear-eyed and well researched view of the conflict that shaped the world they live in now. It would be wrong. Slow Burn was launched by Slate in April. The loyal, rabid Blowback fans attacked the site, encouraged on by one of its hosts, and other influential lefty media figures. They claimed that Slate's attempt was a replication. This was shameless war apologies. It was CIA propaganda. Team Slow Burn wisely declined the offer. However, after just one episode, the battle lines were drawn: the lamestream media, which is ambivalent and mealy-mouthed against the pirate truth-tellers, who created their own narrative of the war using audio drops by Howard Stern and profane attacks against Rumsfeld and his cronies. It might appear that the difference is stylistic and not significant. It is true to a certain extent. Both shows have been meticulously researched and both tell the same cautionary story. However, history is storytelling and style is important in this world of storytelling. Slow Burn gives space to figures such as the late anti-Saddam Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi (ex-New York Times reporter Judith Miller) and Donald Rumsfeld to speak for themselves in the present and through the historical record. The listener is encouraged to draw their own conclusions. Blowback is didactic. Its hosts bombard the listener with their sturm und drang argument about Iraq War as a portal into hell that directly contributed to our current-day political problems. This may seem like an intra-left personality difference. It doesn't follow a clear ideological line. However, influential thinkers and activists of all ideologies share the Blowbackian view of the March 2003 invasion in Iraq as a Year Zero in the post-Cold War era. You can almost see it as a new founding myth in the spirit of this weekend's holiday: America was reborn as an unaccountable, multi-tendrilled corporate hegemon in the Middle East's crucible. The power of myths is in their creation. It is important to know how they are written, what you include and what you leave out. The Iraq War provides a powerful basis for stories about such characters, including still-inflammatory characters such as Chalabi, Rumsfeld, and Miller. These two series are a useful example of how to approach them and what they might lead you to. *** This is where the Slow Burn approach comes in: Consider a well-known American event (Watergate, Clinton's impeachment, Ku Klux Klan leader David Dukes 1991 election for Louisiana governor). Then, examine in detail the political, cultural, and social contexts. The better you can understand how Americans viewed them then and how they fit into the national narrative. This is a revelatory approach when applied to the Iraq War. Iraq is as important as Watergate. Both events are associated with the loss of trust in American institutions, which has led to our present uncertain times. Season five of Slow Burn opens with a slow-paced, episode-length profile on Chalabi, an exiled aristocrat, who longed for decades to succeed Saddam Hussein in Iraq's leadership. Malone portrays Chalabi, a skilled flatterer who has a lot of cultural and financial capital to make money with Western powers that had their own reasons for wanting Saddam's head. This is what initially angered the Blowback fans. Chalabi is shown here as a powerful, dangerous man and not just a pretentious wannabe oligarch. It shows that the war was the result of post-9/11 madness, which led even people who were inclined to be dovish to become fervent. Malone and her team dragged the galaxy-brain editorial rationalizations and paper-thin intelligence that created a prowar consensus into plain sight. The result is to be a sobering reminder about the power of narratives and motivated reasoning in institutions ranging across the State Department and the New York Times. The series fails to challenge this consensus and it falls apart. The series' penultimate episode features an interview with Judith Miller. Miller is a Times former national security reporter, who has credulously repeated the Bush administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in the public record. Miller is proud and feigned about her record in the interview. She insists that she simply reported the beliefs of the administration. It doesn't take an advanced journalism degree to see that stenography is the beginning of a reporter's job, not the end. This is where the limitations of Slow Burns' more traditional, measured framing are highlighted: It doesn't confront Miller or challenge him in any meaningful manner. The Blowback hosts don't need to be embarrassed about this fact. Despite all the research and detail that went into these series, the perspective of the Iraq War is simple. It was the result American governments being captured by bloodthirsty Neocons and the contract-hungry Military-industrial Complex in the aftermath of 9/11. This was aided by the laying over of a weak, craven opposition-in name-only. The chaos that followed led ISIS to rise and the Syrian Civil War. President Barack Obama's ineffective response to such violence was a catalyst for the unrest that resulted in the election of Donald Trump. Have questions? It sounds as if this is a straightforward recounting of lefty convention wisdom. Kulwin and James' narrative is both emotionally satisfying and symmetrical. An overconfident American empire led by hard-charging middle managers like Rumsfeld, made a mess of the world, and caused mass destruction and the whirlwind. The first season's audio equivalent of its hosts turning to the camera to give their detailed descriptions of the wars causes, and consequences, begins and ends with the audio equivalent. The hosts tell the story with a cinematic style. They make explicit audio references and cite movie classics. The series' late-night party atmosphere creates a sense that the listener is part of a larger, more authentic American story. This same quality makes the series less cathartic than it is revelatory. Blowback, for example, is content to savor the worst pro-war excuses and exaggerations made by the media. This is both funny and shocking in certain cases but not as edifying because the war cheerleaders are reduced essentially to one-dimensional ghouls. Slow Burn is a more disturbing portrait of the war drumbeat. The series invites the reflections of Cassandras such as Danner and Nations Katha Pollitt as well as the voices of hawks who have been reformed to make it frighteningly clear to listeners how personality and motivated reasoning can lead to an extremely real body count. The difference between these stories lies in their clarity and nuance. It can also galvanize the intimidated or cowed, and it provides fuel for moral instinct. It can also help one see the Butterfly Effect-like systems that link cause and effect in a vast, amorphous world like American public life. Nuance, however, can reveal the true nature of such events, but provide little guidance about how to proceed in the aftermath. This might seem like a more appropriate analysis for a middle-level rhetoric class than political discourse. The conflicts that ravage American society today, in schools, politics, and pop culture, all boil down to the stories we tell about ourselves and how we got there. It will continue to lace these narratives for decades, just like Watergate. This podcast skirmish is a historical marker in its own right, highlighting how, when and why we remember it.