Facing a Nameless War

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Name That War
By Tom Engelhardt

In September 2001, the President announced that we were at war with terrorism. It was to be a conflict far longer than World War II, a titanic generational struggle more in line with the Cold War in its prospective length. It was a war that naturally deserved a name. Administration officials promptly gave it the somewhat less than sonorous, slightly tongue-twisting label of the Global War on Terrorism, which translated quickly into the inelegant acronym GWOT. That name would be used endlessly in official pronouncements, news conferences, and interviews, but never quite manage to catch on with the public. So somewhere along the line, administration officials and various neocon allies began testing out other monikers — among them, World War IV, the Long War, and the Millennium War — none of which ever got the slightest bit of traction.

In the meantime, the President launched his war of choice in Iraq, an invasion given the soaring name Operation Iraqi Freedom. What followed — from the days of unrestrained looting after Baghdad fell to the present violent and chaotic moment — has gone strangely nameless. Perhaps this was because the administration had been so certain that the invasion would shock-and-awe sufficiently to be the end of it, or perhaps because Operation Iraqi Occupation (to pick a name) ran so against the idea that we were liberating the Iraqi people. Instead, well into our third year of combat in Iraq, we find ourselves in an unnamed war — rarely even called the Iraq War — spiraling into nowhere. Just in the last week, 23 American soldiers died in combat; the American Air Force was let loose to bomb parts of the city of Ramadi and environs, bombings in which children died; mortars fell in Baghdad’s Green Zone; and numerous Iraqis including 6 Shiite factory workers, 3 election commission officials, and 2 bodyguards of the governor of Anbar Province died in drive-by shootings or attacks of various sorts.

And yet none of this has a name. Perhaps the namelessness acted as a distancing mechanism, one of a number that, for long periods, have allowed the war to fall out of the headlines as well as American consciousness, while the dead and wounded (unless killed in staggering numbers on any given day) head for the deep middle of the newspaper. As the British in imperial days once dealt at arm’s length with endless border wars in distant lands while life continued at home, so perhaps Americans responded to this nameless war once it turned sour. What makes this so strange, however, is that the particular “borderland,” the global periphery, the Bush administration picked for its war lay, of course, right smack in the middle of the oil heartlands of an increasingly energy-thirsty planet. Under the circumstances, it may be worth taking a moment to consider what names might be applied to our war in Iraq and what they might reveal about our situation.

The Precipice War?

“Publicly, administration officials hailed the result but privately some officials acknowledged that the road ahead is still very difficult, especially because Sunni Arab voters appeared to have rejected the constitution by wide margins. As one official put it, every time the administration appears on the edge of a precipice, it manages to cobble together a result that allows it to move on to the next precipice.”

The edge of a precipice — an image offered to the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler by one of those anonymous officials who always seem so omnipresent in Washington, and included in a post-Iraqi-election piece headlined, For U.S., a Hard Road Is Still Ahead in Iraq. (Is that the hard road to or from the precipice?)

There have been a number of moments in the history of the American occupation of Iraq that might, in retrospect, be labeled “precipice” moments but, at the time, were hailed as “turning points” or “tipping points.” These would include the killing of Saddam’s sons in July 2003; the capture of Saddam in December 2003; the “turning over of sovereignty” to Iraqis in June 2004; and, of course, the “purple finger” election of January 30, 2005. The last two — part of a larger pattern of official prediction — were preceded by carefully choreographed administration warnings that the weeks leading up to the event would see heightened violence as the “terrorists” or insurgents tried to stop the Iraqi people from reaching the promised land of sovereignty and/or democracy. As each “landmark” arrived, it would be hailed as a tipping point in our Iraqi adventure by Bush officials in Washington as well as American commanders in Iraq — but only, of course, until the next wave of violence arrived.

This was the Bush administration’s version of Vietnam’s famed “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel.” (That era also had its “tipping points” as well as its military “crossover point,” the mythical moment when our forces would kill more of the enemy than they could replace.) To the tunnel-and-light metaphor, the grimly joking response at that time was, “But isn’t that light the headlight of a train bearing down on us?”

What’s curious and notable about Iraq’s constitutional election just past is that there were the usual warnings about increased violence (even this time from a somewhat chastened President), but the normal chorus of “turning points” was missing in action. When it came to imagery, there was only a kind of embarrassed silence and that anonymous, scary view from the “precipice.”

Admittedly, in a piece on the op-ed page of the right-wing Washington Times (New Iraq unfolding), you could still find the last of the faithful, one Helle Dale, announcing, “This weekend may have been the tipping point in Iraq.” But hers was a lonely tipping-point vigil. Elsewhere, when such images cropped up — as in a Steven Komarow USA Today piece headlined Vote is critical turning point for Iraq, the image had morphed into something quite different. As Komarow put it: “But at stake are issues that could determine whether Iraq’s violence and political instability will worsen or whether the country moves closer to a stable democracy.” We weren’t, it seems, at a tipping point, but at a previously unmentioned fork in the road. Unfortunately, Fork-in-the-Road War doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

So, to tipping points, turning points, or even — another image often wielded by administration officials — that “corner” we were just about to turn, it’s evidently time to bid adieu, sayonara, so long, bud. Perhaps we’ve… gulp… come to an actual American turning point in how we think about our war in Iraq? Just as all the explanations for the war — WMDs, Sadddam’s 9/11 links, liberating the Iraqis from tyranny — have peeled away, so, it seems, has a whole arsenal of hopeful images and metaphors. They’ve gone onto the trash heap of historic imagery along with, for instance, the Iraqi “face” that American officials always were talking about putting on occupied Iraq, or that bicycle we were regularly going to mount the Iraqi kid on, after which we would, sooner or later, kick off those training wheels and let him take a toodle around the… dare I say it… corner?

For the last couple of years, sprayed by machine-gun bursts of hopeful administration propaganda as well as fear-inducing, color-coded warnings of terror attacks to come (all faithfully reproduced in our press and on TV), it was as if we were living inside the Bush equivalent of one of those Cold War magazines like Soviet Life produced by the other side. Now that the sheen is off and the conflict in Iraq seems unending, however, all we’re left with (other than a hangover) is a nameless war and, perhaps, a creeping sense of shame.

But before we put “tipping point” to metaphorical sleep, it turns out there still is one party ready to use it in the way it should be used. Check out this headline hailing the recent election: Referendum marks turning point in Iraqi history. As it happens, that comes hot off the presses of the Tehran Times.

Actually, in a piece (Administration’s Tone Signals a Longer, Broader Iraq Conflict) in the New York Times this week, David Sanger suggested part of the underlying problem. The Bush administration has just begun to admit to itself that creating its version of democracy in Iraq — think Florida, 2000 — has had no positive effect on the insurgency, which only grew as those turning points of democracy came and went. Now, but one “landmark” remains on the administration’s calendar, the elections in December for a new parliament. This, it seems, gave another of those unnamed Washington officials the willies. He or she then whispered in Sanger’s ear. “The real test may come after parliamentary elections, which, if the constitution is found to have passed this weekend, are scheduled for mid-December. After that time, a senior administration official noted with some dread in his voice, ‘there are no more democratic landmarks for us to point to – that’s when we learn whether the Iraqi state can stay together.'”

So imagine, then, all those anonymous officials standing at that precipice and staring into what could certainly be labeled the Abyss War.

The Is-To War?

“Increasingly, officials say, Syria is to the Iraq war what Cambodia was in the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for fighters, money and supplies to flow over the border and, ultimately, a place for a shadow struggle.”

So wrote the New York Times’ James Risen and David Sanger, quoting more of those faceless officials, in an ominous, front-page piece (G.I.’s and Syrians in Tense Clashes on Iraqi Border) last weekend about U.S. military border-crossings into Syria.

If this isn’t the Is-To War, as inelegant as that may sound, I don’t know what is. After all, in his most recent Saturday radio address, the President quoted a letter the American military claims to have intercepted on its way from al-Qaeda number-two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Iraq’s terrorist of the year, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It seems the al-Qaeda leader and the President agree that we’re all working off a version of the same Vietnam-style script in Iraq. “The terrorists,” said the President, “know their only chance for success is to break our will and force us to retreat. The al Qaeda letter points to Vietnam as a model. Zawahiri says: ‘The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam, and how they ran and left their agents, is noteworthy.’ Al Qaeda believes that America can be made to run again. They are gravely mistaken. America will not run, and we will not forget our responsibilities.”

There’s a long history behind such Vietnam analogies. When the President’s father was exulting in the glow of victory in Gulf War I, he claimed that defeat in Vietnam was finally in the past, exclaiming, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!” How wrong he was. (By then, the Vietnam Syndrome was the way the whole Vietnam experience was summed up — as if it had been nothing more than a prolonged state of mental aberration. It’s worth noting that an Iraq Syndrome has already made its first appearance.)

Above all, the Vietnam War was never banished from the minds of our war planners and policymakers. Even when they were playing an opposites game with Vietnam (as in, for instance, their no-body-bags, no-photos-of-the-American-dead-coming-home policy), Bush administration officials had a clear case of Vietnam-on-the-brain, as did the society they represented. In 2003, while the invasion of Iraq was still ongoing, the historian Marilyn Young commented, “In less then two weeks a 30 year old vocabulary is back: credibility gap, seek and destroy, hard to tell friend from foe, civilian interference in military affairs, the dominance of domestic politics, winning, or more often, losing hearts and minds.”

It came back, of course, because it had never strayed far; nor was this just a matter of the return of images or words in print. When we look back on these years, it will, I suspect, be clearer that Vietnam — upside-down, inside-out, in reverse — has driven the American war in Iraq. Thus, when U.S. commanders now send their troops “spilling” across the Syrian border, they do so in “hot pursuit” of insurgents — another term (from the Risen/Sanger piece) that comes straight out of the Vietnam-era, crossing-the-Cambodian-border playbook.

And it’s not just the war makers or the war fighters who have Vietnam on the brain. Even many war opponents seem to be playing by an only half-buried Vietnam script. Take the bloodbath-to-come — the future Iraqi civil war of catastrophic proportions now featured in endless speculations and in the fears of many antiwar thinkers and activists, a fantasy (which could, of course, become reality) that acts as a constraint on thoughts about any kind of speedy military withdrawal from that country. A similar bloodbath was on the minds of, and a powerful constraint on, opponents of the Vietnam War, who long accepted that an American departure from Vietnam would lead to a terrible bloodbath there. This was a paralyzing fantasy, one which somehow mitigated the actual bloodbath then underway.

Of course, in the bright light of day, if Iraq is Vietnam and Syria is Cambodia, the analogy is a bizarrely unbalanced one. To make the comparison seriously, after all, you would have to start by saying that in Iraq the American foe is far less imposing, but what’s immediately at stake is so much more consequential. The force that fought the United States to bloody stalemate (and finally defeat off the battlefield) in Vietnam was formidable indeed — a regular army as well as a powerful guerrilla movement aided by two world powers, the USSR and China. It was politically unified, well-armed, well funded, and well supported; whereas the force that has so far fought the American military into a state of frustration in Iraq remains comparatively under-armed, fractured and politically at odds, and haphazardly funded; in short, relatively rag-tag. (In a chilling Time magazine piece on a former Baathist who prepares suicide bombers for both jihadist and nationalist organizations, journalist Aparism Ghosh offers this telling passage: “He fears [the jihadists] want to turn Iraq into another Afghanistan, with a Taliban-style government. Even for a born-again Muslim, that’s a distressing scenario. So, he says, ‘one day, when the Americans have gone, we will need to fight another war, against these jihadis. They won’t leave quietly.'”) On the other hand, Vietnam was, from the American point of view, a nowhere, a happenstance at the periphery of a great global struggle, while Iraq is a vast oil reservoir, an essential part of the powering of any future the Bush administration might care to imagine.

Nonetheless, just for the heck of it, let’s take seriously the analogy laid out by those anonymous officials quoted in the Risen/Sanger piece. The Bush administration is, as they point out, already engaged in military as well as political actions aimed at “rattling the cage” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, much as the Nixon administration “rattled the cage” of neutralist Cambodian leader King Norodom Sihanouk (who believed his survival and that of his government lay in looking the other way as North Vietnamese troops manned those “sanctuaries” in his borderlands). In the case of Cambodia, first there were the U.S. covert cross-border missions and black ops; then unofficial “hot pursuit” across that border followed by Richard Nixon’s massive, secret, and illegal B-52 carpet-bombing campaign against those borderlands (and beyond); and finally, in 1970, an actual invasion of the already wrecked country (though it was politely referred to as an “incursion”).

When it comes to Syria we’re obviously not there yet. The clashes remain minor; the air raids haven’t started; an American occupation of the Syrian borderlands seems not in the immediate offing. (Of course, it’s worth remembering that, on the other side of the border, is something a lot less impressive than the North Vietnamese Army.) Just yesterday, however, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice all but threatened Assad’s regime with some mix of the above, not just refusing to take any of the President’s “options” off the table, but claiming that he would need no authorization from Congress to launch a full-scale attack on Syria. (“[She] said that President Bush would not need to ask Congress for authorization to use military force against Iraq’s neighbors. ‘I don’t want to try and circumscribe presidential war powers,’ Rice said in response to a question on whether the administration would have to return to Congress to seek authorization to use military force outside Iraq’s borders. ‘I think you’ll understand fully that the president retains those powers in the war on terrorism and in the war in Iraq.'”)

It’s clear that (in conjunction with the Sharon government in Israel), the Bush administration has long been thinking about destabilizing Assad’s regime much as we destabilized Sihanouk’s government. So it’s worth recalling the outcome in Cambodia. While the long-awaited bloodbath never happened in Vietnam, an unexpected post-war bloodbath did occur in destabilized neighboring Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge rebel movement rose to power in the vacuum left when Sihanouk’s government fell — and then committed acts of mass slaughter for which there is no name (“genocide” being the wrong word when you murder vast numbers of your own people).

The Bush administration already blithely opened a Pandora’s box in Iraq. Does it really care to go two for two by ratcheting up the pressure on Assad and then attempting a military-induced regime “decapitation” in Syria? In that void, don’t even think about what might emerge — not to speak of the fact that, under a banner that seems to read, “the Middle East for the Iranians,” the Bush administration is clearing away all of Iran’s enemies (except, of course, Israel). So this could certainly be labeled the Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For War.

The For-What War?

“Now, more than ever, the grieving father [Swadi Ghilan] says he wants to hunt down and kill not only Sunni guerrilla fighters but also Sunnis who give those fighters shelter and support. By that, he means killing most Sunnis in Iraq. ‘There are two Iraqs; it’s something that we can no longer deny,’ Ghilan said. ‘The army should execute the Sunnis in their neighborhoods so that all of them can see what happens, so that all of them learn their lesson.'”

Shiite Swadi Ghilan’s two sons were murdered this year by Sunni insurgents. He is now a soldier in the 4,500-member 1st Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Division, a largely “stood up” unit of the new American-trained Iraqi Army. As Knight Ridder’s Tom Lasseter tells us in one of the most important, if bloodcurdling, reports to emerge from Iraq recently, “American commanders often refer to the 1st Brigade as a template for the future of Iraq’s military.”

It is one of the canons of faith in the American mainstream that our military can’t leave Iraq until the Iraqi Army is capable of standing on its own. Only this, and the now over 150,000 troops we have in Iraq, are said to lie between the hideous, devolving present and the country’s collapse into full-scale civil war. That sounds reasonable enough unless, as Lasseter did, you were to hang out with the 1st Brigade for a while. Here’s what Lasseter discovered:

The Brigade is essentially a Shiite outfit, whose ranks are filled with Swadi Ghilans burning for revenge against Iraq’s Sunni population, and a commander who “regularly reviews important decisions, including troop distribution, with a prominent local Shiite cleric.” As Lasseter comments,

“The Bush administration’s exit strategy for Iraq rests on two pillars: an inclusive, democratic political process that includes all major ethnic groups and a well-trained Iraqi national army. But a week spent eating, sleeping and going on patrol with a crack unit of the Iraqi army suggests that the strategy is in serious trouble… Instead of rising above the ethnic tension that’s tearing their nation apart, the mostly Shiite troops are preparing for, if not already fighting, a civil war against the minority Sunni population… Increasingly they look and operate less like an Iraqi national army unit and more like a Shiite militia.”

Given Lasseter’s piece and similar reports elsewhere — Rory Carroll of the Guardian, recently kidnapped and released, wrote, “Government officials admit that Shia militias with links to Iran have infiltrated the police and army. Human rights groups accuse them of operating death squads against Sunnis.” — another question might be asked: What is the Iraqi Army actually being stood up for? The Iraqi government in Baghdad’s Green Zone is an awkward Shiite-Kurdish alliance. Little surprise that the new army should also be mainly a mix of Shiite and Kurdish units, or that its goals should be less than “national.” Those who want the United States to remain ever longer in Iraq to prevent a possibly genocidal civil war might consider whether the act of remaining — especially with the Bush administration running the show — isn’t also the act of creating a civil war, whether by happenstance or by design.

Start with the fact that the number of American troops in the country has actually been on the rise recently; that this administration continues to invest in gigantic, increasingly permanent bases in the country; and that it is as unwilling to write off such bases or future control over Iraqi oil as it is to agree to a congressional anti-torture resolution. Then put the sort of Iraqi Army described by Lasseter in the context of an ongoing American punitive campaign of growing brutality against the Sunni insurgency. In that war, among other things, uncontested air power is regularly unleashed against, and has already dismantled, huge swathes of a number of largely Sunni cities and towns like Fallujah and Tal Afar. This is a formula not for preventing civil war but for fomenting it.

Then put the new constitution, which clearly is meant to transfer power almost completely out of Sunni hands and into those of the Shiite religious and Kurdish political parties, and you have the makings of a grim formula indeed. As Time magazine’s Tony Karon suggested in a recent, not-to-be-missed essay at his Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, “If anything, a successful referendum is more likely to bolster Sunni support for the insurgency.” Again the unasked question may be: Constitution for what? And this may turn out to be the For-What War.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has just come out in paperback.

Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt