Tommy Franks’ Press Conference

General Tommy Franks is a large, deliberate, plain-spoken sort of man and it showed as he faced the press on March 22, 2003 at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar. As the General in charge of Coalition troops in the Iraqi theatre, one of his responsibilities is to brief the press. Surrounded by military representatives from coalition partners, the general began the briefing with a short description of the war, describing it as one of “shock, surprise, flexibility.”

Unfortunately, Franks stayed on to answer questions. It was not so much that Franks did a bad job, it was that it was an embarrassment to listen to the press ask rather pedestrian questions, like “What has most surprised you?” A high school student might have asked such a question. If the questions were not simple, they were belligerent. During the first Gulf War, the comedy show Saturday Night Live ran parodies of silly press conferences making fun of reporters’ questions. The press provided ample fodder for a remake of a similar parody.

It was clear that Franks viewed the conference as a duty to be endured. He was supposed to be responsive without revealing tactical information. Moreover, he had to remain calm in the face of deliberately provocative questions from the foreign press, especially the BBC. Franks fielded the confrontational questions with bland directness, not revealing any strong emotion.

The Pentagon is fortunate that I am not responsible for answering such questions because I would have found it far too difficult to disguise my contempt for leading and snarky queries. Of course, it is much easier at a keyboard to conjure up witty responses. It is far more difficult to do it while standing in front of a crowd. In truth, it is likely that I might have frozen under the glare of cameras. Nonetheless, in my imagination I can fantasize about clever responses that Franks would have been far too diplomatic and polite to voice.

One questioner suggested that Iraqi government buildings in Baghdad had probably been evacuated so that any “shock and awe” campaign was obviously directed at non-combatants.

My Imaginary Response:

Government buildings contain documents, communications equipment, and the entire clerical infrastructure that allows the leadership to function. Hence, they are legitimate military targets. To the extent that low-level government employees were home during the nighttime attacks provides more evidence of the Coalition’s efforts to minimize the loss of life.

If you are so confident about the physical placement of Iraqi leadership, then perhaps you would be so kind as to provide the information to us.

Another BBC questioner asked snidely about the “Blitz of Baghdad.”

My Imaginary Response:

Technically speaking any aerial bombardment would constitute a “blitz.” It is certainly convenient for you to refer to the “Blitz of Baghdad” knowing how fond the press is of alliteration. However, it is unwise to allow the allure of literary flourish to tempt you away from an accurate characterization.

As a citizen of the United Kingdom you are certainly aware that the term “Blitz” is burdened with as special meaning for the British. The Nazis attempted to use the Blitz over London to indiscriminately cause civilian casualties as a means to break the will of the British. By contrast, we in the Coalition are attempting to demonstrate that we are allied with the Iraqi people against Saddam Hussein’s despotic and brutal regime. We are, therefore, going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Viewed in this context, the phrase “Blitz of Baghdad” is inappropriate. I respectfully suggest that the use of the phrase is more an indication of your editorial policy than a dispassionate assessment of the situation.

Another BBC reporter snidely asserted he could not make out the 700 Iraqis displayed on a large screen in the press room. The Iraqis were supposedly aligned in such a way as to indicate their intention to surrender. The cynical reporter asked Franks whether the reports of tens of thousands of POWs were just propaganda to induce other Iraqis to surrender.

Franks quickly pointed out that he had never claimed that there were that many POWs. According to Franks 1,000 to 2,000 Iraqis were in custody. After giving the correct number, I would not have allowed the questioner to slink away so easily.

My Imaginary Response:

I will be happy to provide you a hard copy of the image so you can count the heads yourself. If you do not come up with 700, please tell us. For the next press conference, we will have to arrange a seat for you closer to the screen so you can make out the details.

It is clear that you are not afraid or intimidated to ask any question that challenges my credibility. We in the Coalition are attempting to introduce to Iraq a world were you and others in the press are never afraid to question authority. Indeed the belligerent tone of your question is a measure of just how successful we have been.

Thank you for asking challenging questions, for questioning authority. That is your important job. Please continue to do so. Do not be afraid to question my credibility, the credibility of your governments, the credibility of foreign governments, or the credibility of popular opinion. Do not be afraid to question the assertions of your fellow members of the press. Finally, do not be afraid to challenge the authority of your own preconceived notions.

If Franks had responded in this way he probably should be fired for needlessly antagonizing the foreign press, but I am sure it would have felt good.

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