An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences
by Mary Dudziak
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In a scene near the end of Page One, Andrew Rossi’s 2011 documentary about the New York Times, Brian Stelter, a reporter on the Times media desk, learns that NBC is preparing to declare the end of the Iraq war. The network’s correspondent Richard Engel is embedded with what NBC describes as the “last combat troops” in Iraq, the US Army’s 4/2 Stryker Brigade. Engel’s live broadcast from the back of a troop transport vehicle rattling across the Kuwaiti border, anchor Brian Williams informs his audience on that evening’s NBC Nightly News, “constitutes the official Pentagon announcement” of the end of fighting.
At this point—mid-August 2010—there were still fifty thousand US soldiers in Iraq. No one in the White House has confirmed NBC’s claim, and no one at the Times knows what to make of it. As night falls and deadline looms, a handful of the newspaper’s staffers gather in a warren of cubicles in the paper’s midtown newsroom to try to make sense of what is, or isn’t, happening. “How do you cover the end of a war,” one editor wonders out loud, “that’s not ending?”
It’s a fascinatingly unreal moment, and it feels of a piece with its era: an early twenty-first century in which Americans seem unable to agree on the occurrence of even the most indisputable events. But is it really unique? In War Time, Mary Dudziak, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, argues that this ambiguity is hardly limited to Iraq—that in a legal sense, at least, the boundaries of what constitutes “wartime” have always been slippery. World War