Iraq war changed the way conflict is communicated

The war in Iraq has come to a close. After nine long years, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that this chapter of conflict has finally come to a conclusion.

The war in Iraq has, thankfully, come to a close. After nine long years, the sacrifice of nearly 4,500 US military lives, countless civilian casualties, and an international audience fatigued by prolonged turmoil in the Middle East, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that this chapter of conflict has finally come to a conclusion.

It was a war that had a profound impact on me. I spent the better part of five years helping plan, execute, or comment in the media about communications matters surrounding this war, as well as the humanitarian and democratization activities that were simultaneously undertaken during it.  

In 2004, I served in Baghdad as director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority, headed by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. During that time, I had the privilege to work with some of the most dedicated and talented communicators from the ranks of the military, the Foreign Service and civilian sectors, not to mention our colleagues and counterparts from the Coalition countries who joined us in this effort, especially the UK.

No matter what your feelings are about Iraq and the war, the fact is it played a big part in changing the ways in which we communicate, especially how we communicate conflict.

In the same way newsreels and radio dispatches helped inform audiences in the World War II era, TV brought the war in Vietnam into Americans' living rooms. During the war in Iraq, we saw the conflict close up, with embedded journalists and technological advances in Internet and video technology, such as Skype and portable satellite uplinks.

And since the rapid expansion of social media paralleled the duration of the war, we also witnessed how people adapted their communications to its burgeoning use. Riveting moments – of ferocity and violence, pain and anguish, cruelty and kindness, exultation and exhaustion, all captured on everything from digital video to cell phone cameras – and propagated over the airwaves and the Internet for all to see, comment upon, and judge.

Like all wars, it was one of competing voices and images in a very crowded and diverse media environment. Think Al Jazeera and Fox and everything in between.

Indelible images of this war – both good and bad – are stamped upon our collective memory. The statue of Saddam Hussein tumbling down in Firdos Square. The battle of Fallujah. Hussein's capture and emergence from a “spider hole.” The dark and horrible images from Abu Ghraib prison. The incredible stories of courage and sacrifice by our soldiers and the tenacity of the Iraqi people. The shocking power and destruction of IEDs (improvised explosive device). The indefatigable Bremer in his iconic blue blazer and combat boots. The purple index fingers of Iraqis voting in free elections for the first time.

The immediacy of communications created instant media stars out of many reporters and spokespersons during this war and all of the events surrounding it, but it also created infamous villains – witness the rise and fall of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a base and brutal thug, and the bully media pulpit of the eccentric and fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The war has come to an end. These images, though, as ephemeral as they may seem, will remain with us for a very long time.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: tappan@tappan.org.

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