The keyboard cavalry is back

The pundits who rallied for the war in Iraq are now giving advice on Ukraine.

Tanks of the Ukrainian armed forces are parked on the roadside during a withdrawal near the village of Nyzhnje in Luhansk region, Ukraine,
Tanks of the Ukrainian armed forces are parked on the roadside during a withdrawal near the village of Nyzhnje in Luhansk region, Ukraine on October 5, 2015 [File: Reuters/Stringer]

Oh, oh, the keyboard cavalry is back.

Nothing gets a bunch of mostly white, male establishment-hugging pundits – you know, dear reader, who they are – giddier than the prospect of another war.

All the other stuff the keyboard cavalry writes about between big wars amounts to a boring way station, a pedestrian interlude, until this gang of tough guys in suits and ties gets another chance to do what they do best: talk tough about war in print and on radio and TV.

Lately, they have been churning out their paint-by-number, testosterone-fuelled copy about how “good” (the West) has to confront “evil” – ie that “thug” in Moscow, Vladimir Putin, who is going to invade and enslave Ukraine.

The West, they say, has to call Putin’s bluff. The West, they say, must not give in to Putin’s demands. The West, they say, has to save Ukraine from Putin’s KGB-trained talons or else he will take a bigger bite out of Eastern Europe.

Like me, you may remember when, not too long ago, these same George Patton wannabes – writing for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and elsewhere – saddled up not to fight, of course, but to urge anonymous soldiers to do the invading, torturing, killing and dying.

Back then (circa 2002), they penned columns and were invited on TV and radio to say that “good” (the West) had to confront “evil” – ie that “thug” in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, who was going to unleash his secret store of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) on London.

They said there had to be war. They said diplomacy meant appeasement. They said the invasion of Iraq was legal. They said it was a war to prevent the end of civilisation. They said the war would be quick, cheap and easy. They said the liberators would be greeted with garlands and kisses. They said: sure, some Iraqis may be killed, but “democracy” is worth the sacrifice. They said democracy would bloom where there was once only desert.

They said it all with a cocky, gunslinger’s swagger while they accused other writers, politicians, academics and demonstrators of being quislings in the naïve service of a mad tyrant with a hidden cache of chemical weapons.

They were wrong. Every word of every column, of every interview where they said all of the above and more again and again and again – with the certainty of their smug, defining hubris and obstinance – was wrong.

Now, you might think – quite reasonably – that given the halting human scope and scale of how wrong these white, male pundits were, that there might be career consequences for being so wrong about war and, for that matter, peace.

You might also think – quite reasonably – that these white, male, war-happy pundits should forfeit permanently writing about war or offering anyone, anywhere, “geopolitical” advice today, since they got it so wrong yesterday.

You might also think – quite reasonably – that, in lieu of being fired for just cause, these white, male, war-happy pundits should be reassigned to write the daily crossword puzzle or, better yet, to the mailroom.

You might also think – quite reasonably – that the largely white, male editors who gave these perpetually wrong white, male pundits oodles of time and space to be so wrong about war and peace, should pay some sort of penance too.

There, you would be wrong. You see, important journalists who spend a lot of time and space demanding that all sorts of important people with important jobs be held to account for the wrongs they commit, refuse to hold the keyboard cavalry and their enablers to the same standard.

You might ask – quite reasonably – why?

Here is why.

In the incestuous world of journalism, friendship tends to trump principle. These “top flight” editors and their “award-winning” stable of white, male pundits are friends. They go to parties, weddings and funerals together where they drink, laugh and say how marvellous each other’s work is. They win ephemeral awards – like a Pulitzer or a Peabody – together. They get paid a lot of money to talk on the lucrative speaker-circuit where they, inevitably, cross paths. They go on TV, radio, and, these days, podcasts together where they are still, incredibly, treated with deference and respect.

So, all of this translates into giving your good mates what amounts to the journalistic equivalent of a mulligan – even after they helped to gin up, defend and champion a war that has killed, maimed, disfigured, traumatised and made refugees of millions of human beings who should be alive, whole and at home.

Everyone gets to keep their impressive-looking calling cards with a neat and suitably forlorn-sounding mea culpa that, at once, addresses and consigns to the rear view that regrettable “mistake” called Iraq.

Then, everyone can say: Look, I am fallible. Journalism is not an exact science. My motives were well-meaning. Anyway, it happened ages ago. It is time to move on.

That is how and why the keyboard cavalry and their willing accomplices have gotten away with a litany of crimes against journalism that led, in undeniable part, to the destruction of a country and its people.

So, every time a member of the keyboard cavalry shows up in your newspaper, on TV or the radio to talk tough about Putin and Ukraine, you should be reminded of their disqualifying history.

A disclaimer like this one may help: The white, male pundit you are about to read, watch or listen to, got everything wrong about the Iraq war. Some of them admit that they got everything wrong about the Iraq war. Some of them deny that they got everything wrong about the Iraq war. Despite having gotten everything wrong about the Iraq war, we have chosen to give them time and space here to get it all wrong again, this time, about what may or may not happen in Ukraine. Govern yourselves accordingly since we won’t.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.