Under the War

As the last week in June starts and the casualties mount and the “surge” in Iraq continues, many seem puzzled by this


In an otherwise upbeat assessment, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking American commander in Iraq, told reporters that leaders of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had been alerted to the Baquba offensive by widespread public discussion of the American plan to clear the city before the attack began. He portrayed the Qaeda leaders’ escape as cowardice, saying that “when the fight comes, they leave,” abandoning “midlevel” Qaeda leaders and fighters to face the might of American troops – just, he said, as they did in Falluja.


That seems to be a complaint the bad guys aren’t playing fair, or at least not doing what “real men” do.   Real men, when they hear the attack is coming, go out and stand in front of their troops.  That’s what war is supposed to be like, and these guys just don’t get it.  They aren’t acting like leaders.  They’re cowards.  Didn’t Eisenhower storm the beaches of Normandy with his men, and George Bush disregard the possible danger and immediately fly to New York late in the day on September 11, 2001?  No, wait – never mind.  Just assume that the idea is sound, and noble, or something.


Robert Farley points out the obvious


While the challenge to Al-Qaeda’s manhood is charming in a fourteenth century kind of way, I seriously doubt that the insurgent leadership is as stupid as, say, Right Blogistan or the brain trust of the Bush administration. Indeed, the idea that fleeing superior numbers, firepower, and technology is somehow “unmanly” is rather quaint; I suspect that insurgents would be happy enough if we threw down our tanks, cruise missiles, fighter jets, and armored personal carriers and settled this dispute by Marquees of Queensbury rules.


But the award-winning writer out here in Santa Monica, who calls herself Digby, suggests the whole war on terror is based on this kind of silliness


The conservatives generally, evidently including members of the top military brass, seem to be driven by a primitive fear not of attack or physical violence, but of humiliation. This is what makes them tick and it’s the essence of what’s gone wrong since 9/11.


Terrorism is a tactic for spreading fear, to be sure, but because it is an elusive, nettlesome sort of warfare, it’s also quite effective at tweaking the massive egos of these manly western warriors who seem to have extreme difficulty dealing with the juvenile taunts and sophomoric trash talk that characterizes so much of the Islamic extremist rhetoric. I get why the extremists do it – chest pounding rhetoric is all they have. But it is unworthy and counterproductive for a great nation to play their game. Yet from the moment George W. Bush stood on that rubble and shouted puerile threats into the bullhorn like the high school cheerleader he was, that’s exactly the game we’ve been playing. The invasion of Iraq was just a massive exercise in preening, unctuous, muscle flexing.


The problem, of course, is that once you prove you are too muscle-bound to move quickly and effectively, calling the other side “cowards” for failing to confront you actually is humiliating. And stupid. Your opponent just laughs while he runs circles around you.


But we do pay for the insecurities of our leaders, and perhaps it has always been so.  That’s why people die in wars.  And Digby reminds us that this is the crew that was gaga over that book The Arab Mind – it may have been from the mid-seventies, but members of the military and the administration thought it explained everything (see the Guardian discussion here).   Digby reminds us the book laid it out in odd thesis, as it “dwelled to an unseemly degree on the idea that Arabs (who are all alike by the way) are so hung up on sex that the way to get to them is through sexual humiliation.”


Well, that didn’t work out.  But it launched the more generalized analogs to “they’re weird about sex” (and we’re not) – they only respect force, you cannot talk to them, and none of this has anything to do with our policies and actions in the region in the last forty or fifty years, and since it just couldn’t, they must, therefore, hate us for our freedoms.  Every time we stand in Wal-Mart and decide that maybe this week it will be Coco Puffs for the kids, they get really, really mad – or something.  It’s all a little vague.


But vague helps.  Josh Marshall publishes an email from a reader that notes how vague this is getting –


It’s a curious thing that, over the past 10-12 days, the news from Iraq refers to the combatants there as “al-Qaida” fighters. When did that happen?


Until a few days ago, the combatants in Iraq were “insurgents” or they were referred to as “Sunni” or “Shia’a” fighters in the Iraq Civil War. Suddenly, without evidence, without proof, without any semblance of fact, the US military command is referring to these combatants as “al-Qaida”.


Welcome to the latest in Iraq propaganda.


Glenn Greenwald has a few things to say about that


That the Bush administration, and specifically its military commanders, decided to begin using the term “Al Qaeda” to designate “anyone and everyone we fight against or kill in Iraq” is obvious. All of a sudden, every time one of the top military commanders describes our latest operations or quantifies how many we killed, the enemy is referred to, almost exclusively now, as “Al Qaeda.”


But what is even more notable is that the establishment press has followed right along, just as enthusiastically. I don’t think the New York Times has published a story about Iraq in the last two weeks without stating that we are killing “Al Qaeda fighters,” capturing “Al Qaeda leaders,” and every new operation is against “Al Qaeda.”


And he goes on to document how the press has, by throwing some sort of “default switch” located in every newsroom, done just that.  The shorthand for the bad guys is now “Al Qaeda.”  Readers don’t like details.  Details just confuse them.


But it wasn’t always so, and wasn’t recently so –


What is so amazing about this new rhetorical development – not only from our military, but also from our “journalists” – is that, for years, it was too shameless and false even for the Bush administration to use. Even at the height of their propaganda offensives about the war, the furthest Bush officials were willing to go was to use the generic term “terrorists” for everyone we are fighting in Iraq, as in: “we cannot surrender to the terrorists by withdrawing” and “we must stay on the offensive against terrorists.”


Really?  There is evidence.


Just after the president’s 2004 re-election was a done deal, even he himself acknowledged that “Al Qaeda” was the smallest component of the “enemies” we are fighting in Iraq.  He did say that –


A clear strategy begins with a clear understanding of the enemy we face. The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists. The rejectionists are by far the largest group. These are ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, who miss the privileged status they had under the regime of Saddam Hussein – and they reject an Iraq in which they are no longer the dominant group.


… The second group that makes up the enemy in Iraq is smaller, but more determined. It contains former regime loyalists who held positions of power under Saddam Hussein – people who still harbor dreams of returning to power. These hard-core Saddamists are trying to foment anti-democratic sentiment amongst the larger Sunni community.


…. The third group is the smallest, but the most lethal: the terrorists affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda.


And yes, not only are they the smallest group, he would not describe them as “al Qaeda” – they were only “affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda.”  He knew better, but now things are different.  If you need to defend continuing, then escalating, this war, nuance won’t do.  They’re all “al Qaeda” now, and no one will remember what he said three years ago anyway.  Just assume people are both dumb as rocks and can’t remember a thing.  Joe Lieberman went on Meet the Press in January and claimed that the United States had been “attacked on 9/11 by the same enemy that we’re fighting in Iraq today.”  People laughed at him, but someone at the White House said, “Hey, that’s not bad.”


And you can read all the documentation of how this hit the press – the CNN headline and subhead that shifts back and forth between sixty-eight “militants” killed and “68 al Qaeda militants killed.”  There are lists of that –


Each of these articles typically (though not always) initially refers to “Al Qaeda in Iraq” or “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” as though they are nothing more than the Iraqi branch office of the group that launched the 9/11 attacks. The articles then proceed to refer to the group only as “Qaeda,” and repeatedly quote U.S. military officials quantifying the amount of “Qaeda fighters” we killed. Hence, what we are doing in Iraq is going after and killing members of the group which flew the planes into our buildings. Who could possibly be against that?


And those foreign fighters are a problem, especial those from Iran, which is Shi’a and tossed all-Sunni-all-the-time al Qaeda out of Iran years ago, and initially offered to help us just after the 9/11 attacks.  Ah well.  None of it ever happened, so don’t look it up.


In the Christian Science Monitor in September, 2005, there was this


The US and Iraqi governments have vastly overstated the number of foreign fighters in Iraq, and most of them don’t come from Saudi Arabia, according to a new report from the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). According to a piece in The Guardian, this means the US and Iraq “feed the myth” that foreign fighters are the backbone of the insurgency. While the foreign fighters may stoke the insurgency flames, they make up only about 4 to 10 percent of the estimated 30,000 insurgents.


Greenwald cites study after study since, not that it matters much now.


So who is fighting is there?  It could be this –


The vast, vast majority of them are Iraqis motivated by a desire to acquire more political power in their own country at the expense of other Iraqi factions and/or to fight against a foreign occupation of their country. To refer to them as “Al Qaeda” so casually and with so little basis (other than the fact that U.S. military officials now do so) is misleading and propagandistic in the extreme.


Yeah, well, people are souring on this war.  No one wants to hear that.  You say what you must.


Greenwald cites several reporters who are bucking the trend.  That won’t last.  One of them is Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post with Iraq Push Revives Criticism of Force Size, and that doesn’t mention al Qaeda at all, just that whatever it is we’re doing now seems, to many people of authority and experience, to be vastly understaffed – we need a lot more boots on the ground that we just don’t have.  But no matter – Ricks will be ridiculed for not reporting that they’re all al Qaeda now.


Okay, they are all alike – they’re weird about sex, they only understand force so we must work to appear to be bullies and proud of disappearing whoever we want and torturing whomever seems odd to learn what we have a right and duty to know, and they don’t much think about our past actions and policies in the region, or really are bothered much by our five-year occupation and the chaos, but they do hate us for those trips to Wal-Mart, and, by the way, every one of them is really al Qaeda.  Got it?


Think like that and you’ll never have to feel humiliated.  That comes later.



About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Under the War

  1. Well, I’m sorry as hell to be the first commentator since this was an amazing post, and as I am discovering an amazing blog.

    This was one of the most complete essays I’ve read in a long time, as was the “More Than Half the Cat Out of the Bag” on June 25, 2007.

    Where I will have other remarks

  2. Pingback: Feeling One’s Way « Just Above Sunset

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