Recently, speaking of his war in Iraq, George
Bush put the Vietnam analogy back in the public eye. He was asked by ABC's
George Stephanopoulos if New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman
was on the mark in suggesting that what "we might be seeing now is the Iraqi
equivalent of the Tet Offensive."
The president's reply: "Mm-hmm. He could be right. There's certainly a stepped-up
level of violence. And we're heading into an election."
The nationwide Tet Offensive has, of course, long been seen as the turning
point in the Vietnam War, the moment when the American political establishment
lost both the media and the American public in its Vietnam venture. That's what
the president is certainly alluding to, though the present chaos in Baghdad
and elsewhere in Iraq hardly qualifies as a "Tet Offensive" and, as the polls
indicate, the American public had already been lost to his war.
Nonetheless, for Bush, who (like the rest of his administration) had previously
avoided Vietnam-analogy admissions like the plague, it was certainly a sign
that he feared the loss of the war he had fought most fiercely since Sept. 12,
2001 – the war to pacify the American public and the media. No administration
in memory has devoted more time to thinking out and polishing its language,
its signature phrases and images, in the pursuit of that war; so, for instance,
the announcement that the president is now "cutting
and running" from his own signature phrase "stay the course" – one-half
of the linguistic duo (the other being, of course, "cut and run") on which he
and Karl Rove had clearly planned to drive the Democrats into retreat in the
midterm election period – is no small matter. (White
House press spokesman Tony Snow: "[Stay the course] left the wrong impression
about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, well, here's an administration
that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is,
when, in fact, it's just the opposite.")
If this is, in any sense, a turning-point moment, then it's important to take
another look at aspects of the war on the home front that this administration
has fought so relentlessly these last years and is now losing – the first being
its image wars in regard to Iraq and the second, the numbers games it's played
when it came to deaths in that country.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
When it finally began to penetrate the Bush administration
that things were going badly in Iraq, the imagery came fast and furious on the
home front. First there were those "tipping points," along with the "landmarks
of progress," like the official turning over of sovereignty to the Iraqis in
June 2004 or the various elections, especially the purple-finger one of January
2005. The "landmarks" have by now crumbled. "Progress" is a word largely restricted
to the hallucinatory world of Dick Cheney, and as for those "tipping points,"
it's not that they're gone, it's just that these days they're all tipping the
Former Bush State Department official Richard Haas, for instance, claimed only
the other day that "we are reaching a tipping point both on the ground but also
in the political debate in the United States … about Iraq. We are reaching the
point … where simply more of essentially the same is going to be a policy that
very few people are going to be able to support." Similarly, Chris
Wallace asked Senators John Warner and Joe Biden on Fox News Sunday, "[H]ave
we now reached a tipping point in Iraq where President Bush's open-ended commitment
to creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq has to be reconsidered?" (Time
magazine caught the irony of an administration image switching teams this
way in a headline: "A Tipping Point for Iraq – Here at Home.") Gary
Samore, Haas' colleague on the Council on Foreign Relations, tipped the
image even further: "We are now way past the tipping point on the ground in
Iraq. But it is doubtful there will be any change of course until we see the
results of the mid-term elections." Think of us, then, as at a blowback tipping
For a while, in 2004-2005, administration officials and U.S. military officers
also spoke of "turning the corner" in Iraq – an image that edged, however unconsciously,
right up to the dark entrance to the Vietnam era's infamous "tunnel" at whose
end, it was always hoped, you would see "the light." All such imagery was invariably
linked to mini-schedules of progress. It was usually said that the next three
to six months or even a year, would be crucial in determining whether the tipping
point had truly tipped or the corner had actually been turned. But when the
allotted time passed – sometimes far earlier – and around each corner proved
to be but another armed disaster, all these images wore out their welcome.
Then, in late 2005, the Bush administration suddenly began falling
back to new, far more alarming, far less optimistic images (though with
the same mini-schedules attached). As panic spread after the blowing
up of the Golden Mosque in Samarra last February and an internecine struggle
already long underway at a low level suddenly ratcheted up, they began to insist,
defensively, that Iraq had not yet reached the point of civil war. And
yet they found themselves at, or near, or heading for "the precipice" (or "the
brink") from which you could stare down into the ominous Iraqi "abyss" (or the
"chasm") of full-scale civil war. In those months, if we had indeed reached
that precipice and glanced down, we were also reassured that we had "stepped
back," and that time – those same coming months – would only tell whether
we had stepped back for good.
Of course, the months passed and it turned out that, if we had stepped back,
the Iraqis hadn't. So, in the spring of 2006, a new administration image arrived
on the scene. With the installing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, we had,
it was said, a "last chance" in Iraq, a brief window of opportunity – call it
six months – to turn things around. Condoleezza
Rice's party, on visiting Baghdad last April to pressure the new prime minister,
was caught by a New York Times reporter, making exactly this point. Now,
six months later at the brink of our own "tipping point" midterm elections,
with the Battle of Baghdad, the "key" to the president's "victory strategy,"
suddenly proclaimed a failure by a U.S. military spokesman in that capital,
another fallback position in the endless war of images has been reached.
Journalist John Burns of the
New York Times quoted some of those anonymous military men who seem
to swarm the corridors of Washington and Green-Zone Baghdad this way: "Senior
officers have spoken of the [Baghdad] campaign in 'make or break' terms, saying
that there would be little hope of prevailing in the wider war if the bid to
retake Baghdad's streets failed."
So we're now at the make-or-break moment. Here's Kenneth
Pollack, former CIA official and a leading proponent of toppling Saddam:
"My real fear is that we've already passed the make-or-break point and just
don't realize it. Historians in five or 10 years may look back and say 2006
was the year we lost Iraq. That's my nightmare." Another right-winger, John
Hawkins, in urging conservatives not to desert the president on foreign
policy, writes: "2007 will be the make-or-break year in Iraq."
Given that we've been breaking things in Iraq for some years now, this isn't
the first time the image of breaking has arisen. Most famously, even before
the 2003 invasion, there was Colin Powell's warning to the president that came
to be known as "the
Pottery Barn rule": "If you break it, you own it." As it turned out, it
wasn't true – neither of the Pottery Barn, nor of Iraq.
The Bush administration has essentially succeeded in breaking Iraq and yet,
as events of recent weeks have shown, to the eternal frustration of its top
officials they don't own any of it except Baghdad's heavily fortified city-within-a-city,
the Green Zone. The rest of Iraq seems to own them and, in the end, may destroy
both Rovian dreams of a generation-long Republican lock on American politics
and Bushian dreams of dominating the world for at least as long.
In frustration, some influential officials are giving serious thought to officially
busting up Iraq. Like ancient Gaul, it is to be divided into three parts. As
Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison put
it recently, she is willing to "consider the wisdom of somehow breaking
up Iraq." No one, of course, finds it strange here that Hutchison or Sen. Biden
or any other American official should feel so free to suggest the dividing of
Iraq into Kurdistan, Shiastan, and Sunnistan. No one asks whether it's "ours"
to divide. Whatever, as they say. In any case, rest assured that, if
breaking Iraq was relatively easy, breaking it up will be, as the old song goes,
hard to do.
There oughta be a law, of course. But as long as the Bush administration has
no intention of setting a serious date for, or timetable for, departure from
Iraq, the shadow war of images will only continue from fallback position to
fallback position with no enemy in sight.
The latest administration shuck is to present not itself, but the less than
functional Iraqi "government" with a
timetable – in the form of a set of "benchmarks" for confronting the militias
running rampart in Iraq and deeply embedded in the police. That will, theoretically,
offer another few months of delay before the results – already foreordained
– officially come in.
In the meantime, it just continues. This Monday, for instance, Michael R.
Gordon, author of the best-selling Cobra II, had a front-page piece in
New York Times, "To Stand or Fall in Baghdad." In it he quotes Maj.
Gen. J.D. Thurman, senior commander of American forces in Baghdad, this way:
"It is a decisive period. [The Maliki government] either seize[s] the opportunity
or they don't. If they don't, then our government is going to have to readjust
what we are going to do, and that is not my call." According to "American commanders,"
however, "the viability of the strategy [of focusing military efforts on pacifying
Baghdad] could not be properly assessed before the year's end." Thus, thanks
to yet another bogus mini-schedule, the final testing of administration hopes
always stays just beyond reach in the future. And without a genuine change of
course, it always will; while the breaking, the burning, the torturing, the
looting, the killing go on.
Playing the Numbers Game
With the Dead
From the first, the issue of the Iraqi dead has
been part and parcel of the Bush administration's image wars. For a long time
(even after they started
counting), administration and military officials, along with the president,
remained on the page first bookmarked by Centcom Commander Tommy Franks during
the early phases of the Afghan War. "We don't do body counts," the
general said. We officially didn't do them, any more than we did "body bags"
or returned the American dead from Iraq in the light of day on camera. This
was all part of the administration's anti-Vietnam-War approach to Afghanistan
and Iraq. We would not make those mistakes again. Instead, we would ensure
success on the home front, where Vietnam-era officials were believed to have
lost their war, by playing an opposites game.
On Dec. 12, 2005, however, President Bush was faced with a
reporter's question: "Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to
know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include
civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators."
To the surprise of many, the president responded for the first time with an
actual number: "How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000,
more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing
violence against Iraqis." When asked for the president's sourcing, press spokesman
Snow responded two days later with "media reports which have cited information
that suggests that some 30,000 people, Iraqi citizens, may have been killed."
As it happens, the White House has had something of a predilection for the
pleasantly round number of 30,000. In 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, in
the president's State
of the Union Address, he used that very number for Saddam's mythical stock
of "munitions capable of delivering chemical agents"; and, post-invasion, for
police put back
on patrol in the streets of Iraq. In 2005, that number was cited both for "new
businesses" started in Iraq and new
teachers trained since the fall of Baghdad. In 2006, in the president's
"Strategy for Victory," that was the number of square miles of their country
that Iraqi forces were then primarily
responsible for patrolling.
Last week, the president was challenged
again at his news conference because of a recently published study in the
respected British medical journal The Lancet that offered up a staggering
set of figures on Iraqi deaths. Based on an actual (and dangerous) door-to-door
survey of Iraqi households among a countrywide cohort of almost 13,000 people,
the rigorous study
estimated that perhaps 655,000 "excess deaths" had occurred in Iraq since the
invasion, mainly due to violence. (Its lowest estimate of excess deaths came
in just under 400,000; its highest above 900,000, a figure no one in the U.S.
cared to deal with at all.)
When asked if, given the Lancet study, he stood by the number he had
previously cited of 30,000 Iraqi deaths, the president responded, "You know,
I stand by the figure. A lot of innocent people have lost their life – 600,000,
or whatever they guessed at, is just – it's not credible." The reporter answered,
"Thank you, Mr. President" and all and sundry turned to other matters.
And yet, such a statement is little short of the darkest of jokes. Start with
the fact that, by last December, 30,000 was already a ludicrously low-ball figure
for the Iraqi dead of the war, occupation, insurgency, and incipient civil war.
Early on, to give but one example of a study completely ignored in the U.S.
group of Iraqi academics and political activists tried to research the question
of civilian casualties, consulting with hospitals, gravediggers, and morgues,
and came up with the figure of 37,000 deaths just between March 2003 and
October 2003, when they stopped due to the dangers involved. The cautious
Web site Iraq Body Count,
which now offers death statistics ranging from a low of 44,661 to a high of
49,610, was at that time in the 27,000-30,000+ range, but that was only for
"media-reported" civilian deaths, not all Iraqi deaths, which, as the
U.S. military surely knew, were far higher. An October
2004 Lancet study had estimated over 100,000 excess deaths.
Then, consider that between Dec. 12, 2005, and his news conference last week,
even the president has admitted that Iraq has been going through an exceedingly
violent period. We know, for instance, that in just July and August, according
to a UN report based on counts from the Baghdad central morgue and various
hospitals, 5,106 Iraqis died, almost totally by violent means, often torture
of the most hideous sort followed by execution on the killing grounds of the
23 or more militias U.S. officials have counted in the capital. For the rest
of Iraq add another 1,493 dead souls (while noting that the July count lacks
a single death from al-Anbar province, the very heartland of the Sunni insurgency,
where assumedly there simply were no officials willing to report them). All
over the country, it's evident that bodies go officially unreported. As the
Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer recently pointed out, for example,
"Bodies are increasingly being dumped in and around Baghdad in fields staked
out by individual Shi'ite militias and Sunni insurgent groups. Iraqi security
forces often refuse to go to the dumping grounds, leaving the precise number
of bodies in those sites unknown."
So for the president to "stand by" his almost year-old figure in the casualty
wars – especially after this particular almost-year – while claiming that the
Lancet study's figures weren't "credible," is, on the face of it, absurd.
It's hardly less absurd that nothing significant was made of this in the media,
that George W. Bush was not called on the carpet for a figure that, even based
on his own previous testimony, is close to criminally negligent.
The president said something else striking, while taking up the banner for
30,000 dead Iraqis. He certainly meant it to be the highest compliment he could
bestow. "I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence," he
commented at his press conference. "I am amazed that this is a society which
so wants to be free that they're willing to – that there's a level of violence
that they tolerate."
In fact, there's no evidence whatsoever that Iraqis "tolerate" levels of violence
that would horrify any society. For most Iraqis, life under such conditions
is obviously hell on Earth. It's our president who "tolerates" such levels of
violence in the pursuit of his policies, so perhaps he should simply applaud
The fact is that the Lancet figures have largely been avoided because
most Americans, including most reporters, can't entertain the possibility that
our country might actually be responsible for a situation in which almost 400,000,
or around 655,000, or possibly 900,000+ "excess" Iraqis have died. At the top
end of that continuum, you would have to think of the recent wars and serial
slaughters in the Congo or the Rwandan genocide. At 655,000, you're talking
about slightly more than the dead of the
American Civil War. With the bottom figure, you're already at well over
one hundred times the dead of Sept. 11, 2001, almost seven times the American
dead of either the Korean or Vietnam Wars, and over three times the dead of
atomized Hiroshima. And let's keep in mind that any of these figures are purely
provisional, since George Bush has over two years to go in office and has sworn
not to pull American forces out of Iraq before he departs, even if, according
to the Washington
Post's Bob Woodward, only his wife and dog still back him on the subject.
The Vietnam analogy, never far from American consciousness, has been back
in the press recently, but here's an apt Vietnam quote that seldom seems to
rise to memory any more. Gen.
William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, offered the following
explanation for similarly staggering Vietnamese body counts (an estimated 3
million Vietnamese died in that country's French and American wars): "The Oriental
doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful.
Life is cheap in the Orient."
It's hard to avoid the thought that a similar attitude toward Iraqi lives
and deaths is at work in our government and in the media. After all, the kinds
of denatured discussions now taking place about Iraqi deaths would be inconceivable
if American deaths were at stake. Just consider, for instance, that the recent
discovery of scattered human remains ("some as large as arm or leg bones")
overlooked at Ground Zero in New York City has raised a furor and demands that
all construction at the site be halted while it is thoroughly searched. Try
to put that sort of concern for the dead back into the Iraqi situation or into
perfunctory, daily, inside-the-newspaper passages
"In addition, about 50 bodies were collected Sunday around Baghdad,
the capital, a figure considered high weeks ago but now routine. An Interior
Ministry official said many of the victims had apparently been shot at close
range and bore signs of torture."
How, then, do you even begin to grasp such losses in a war of "liberation"
launched by your own country? How do you even begin to imagine such levels of
suffering, death, and destruction, or the increasingly chaotic and degraded
conditions in which so many Iraqis now live and for which we are certainly responsible?
Copyright Tom Engelhardt 2006