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The war that comes to mind

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Do you remember when, in the wake of Gulf War I, our then president, Bush the Father, exulted that we had finally kicked the “Vietnam thing,” that heinous “Vietnam syndrome,” all that seemed to be left of America’s staggering defeat? Well, here’s the strange thing – now, we’ve supposedly kicked it all over again again again in the wake of Gulf War II. You know, quick war, low casualties, no quagmire, stupid critics who predicted otherwise (though most didn’t) disarmed, the press well embedded, and so on and so forth. But “Vietnam,” which like some deadly virus morphs and morphs, seems incapable of performing the disappearing our leaders have long prepared for it. And there are reasons for that. I’ve been carefully watching recent coverage of the upsurge of fighting in Iraq and the Vietnam analogy is buried deep not just in the reportorial mind, but in the military and governmental mind as well.

Yesterday Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times, for instance, wrote a think piece (“U.S. Faces a Long Fight With Hussein Partisans”) that had these all-too-familiar, if slightly shocked lines: “Unlike the rush to Baghdad, this fight will not be measured in days, but in months, if not years For the Americans, this is a campaign of raids, bombing strikes and dragnets, as American commanders try to isolate and destroy remnants of the old older. It is more like a counterinsurgency than an invasion.”

I mark that as the first appearance of “counterinsurgency” in the recent record. Here then are a few other startling appearances:

Vietnam had its “triangles.” (Remember the “Iron Triangle”?) Now Iraq has its own “Sunni Triangle,” as our military are calling it. Remember the various military statements in Gulf Wars I and II that we weren’t about to count the enemy dead? (One post-Vietnam no-no was reviving the feared “body count” which became the way the military measured the Vietnam War and then a target of critics.) Well, this week, in operations in that “Sunni triangle,” the body count was revived, along with the weapons count. There were a series of official US military announcements of how many enemy (often identified as Ba’athist “remnants” or “Arab” fighters) our troops had killed in various operations, the numbers in some cases exceedingly precise, all clearly meant to be concrete indicators of success in a not-quite-war in which taking territory has no particular meaning. Along with the body count came another old classic of Vietnam, the weapons count (how many we captured), and on the heels of these, another classic Vietnam tradition, the revised body count. See, for instance, the front-page Washington Post piece by William Booth, Account of Iraq Strike Revised, 7, Not 27, Are Dead; Shepherd, Relatives Among Those Killed, which begins:

“An attack on Iraqis here by U.S. troops after an American tank patrol was ambushed Friday morning killed seven people, not 27 as initially reported, U.S. military officials said today, and Iraqi witnesses said five of the dead were not involved in the ambush.”

Another phrase to make a remarkably early appearance in coverage, again attributed to the military, is “hearts and minds,” a notorious Vietnam-era phrase. I found it in a Saturday Los Angeles Times piece by Paul Richter and Michael Slackman (U.S. Puts Its Afghanistan War Tactic to Use in Iraq):

“The peninsula operation was over by Tuesday, and U.S. Army officers at the scene two days later said the Army was trying to shift into a hearts-and-minds campaign to win over local support. But it was fighting rumors that it had killed two civilians. The Army denied any responsibility for the deaths, attributing both to heart attacks, but there was a lot of skepticism among residents.”

Another phrase to make a remarkably early appearance in coverage, again attributed to the military, is “hearts and minds,” a notorious Vietnam-era phrase. I found it in a Saturday Los Angeles Times piece by Paul Richter and Michael Slackman (U.S. Puts Its Afghanistan War Tactic to Use in Iraq):

“The peninsula operation was over by Tuesday, and U.S. Army officers at the scene two days later said the Army was trying to shift into a hearts-and-minds campaign to win over local support. But it was fighting rumors that it had killed two civilians. The Army denied any responsibility for the deaths, attributing both to heart attacks, but there was a lot of skepticism among residents.”

The piece also had passages of a sort appearing more frequently these days that rang with a familiar Vietnam-era conundrum – how do you carry out brutal assaults on hard to find guerrilla forces in civilian areas without knowing the language, area or culture without alienating that population when some of them die, others are mistreated, and many are humiliated?

“Yet while the use of massive force – 4,000 soldiers participated in one operation this week alone – might achieve military goals, it risks alienating many Iraqis upon whose support the U.S. reconstruction of the country depends.”

Or this from a Reuters report appended to that LA Times piece:

“At the same time, analysts say, it’s important for U.S. commanders to lose no time quelling the resistance because of the way mass arrests, and intrusions into homes and businesses, are alienating the people they hope to win over.”

The Washington Post journalist Anthony Shadid, whose reportage through this period has been of the highest level (and who has the advantage of knowing Arabic), writes today of a raid on a Sunni town, so blunt-edged that it turned local opinion (U.S. Hunt for Baath Members Humiliates, Angers Villagers, Deaths of Teenager and Two Others Spark Talk of Revenge):

“A chubby 15-year-old with a mop of curly black hair and a face still rounded by adolescence, he was quiet, painfully shy. Awkward might be the better word, his family said. For hours every day, outside a house perched near the riverbank, the youngest of six children languidly watched his four canaries and nightingale. Even in silence, they said, the birds were his closest companions.

“On Monday morning, after a harrowing raid into this town by U.S. troops that deployed gunships, armored vehicles and soldiers edgy with anticipation, the family found Aani’s body, two gunshots to his stomach, next to a bale of hay and a rusted can of vegetable oil.”

Two other key lines in the piece that have a familiar ring to them:

“The Americans were shouting in English, and we didn’t know what they were saying.” And of the situation of those detained for a time and then released: “U.S. soldiers tossed military meals and bottles of water to the crowd. ‘They treated us like monkeys — who’s the first one who can jump up and catch the food,’ said Mohammed, who was captured by Iran in the Iran-Iraq war and kept as a prisoner for 11 years.”

Finally, here’s another word that implicitly or explicitly can’t keep itself out of the news: Quagmire. It just comes to mind. Here’s a recent Agence France Press headline but the word’s been poking up, explicitly or implicitly everywhere, US could face worsening quagmire in Iraq, analysts warn (“US troops could face a worsening situation in their bid to stamp out armed resistance in Iraq, and Baghdad is fast resembling a Middle Eastern Belfast, Charles Heyman, Editor of Janes World Armies, said Thursday.”)

I know, I know, Iraq’s not Vietnam. Quite right in so many ways. But the essential problem may in some ways be worse today than in the Vietnam era. The Bush administration has decided to run its imperial policy based almost solely on the military (and various military-related defense industries) and in an explosive situation like Iraq – where we don’t even have a Ngo Dinh Diem or a population of supportive Catholics – the military is a painfully blunt instrument with which to create a new state. Every act of mass and messy act of suppression is bound to be an act of creation as well – the creation of opposition.

Now, let me turn to a different matter – those weapons of mass destruction. By the end of last week, it seemed, the White House/Pentagon may have been counterattacking within the bureaucracy. Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times had a fascinating report (CIA Reassigns 2 Top Iraq Analysts but Denies the Move Is Punitive) on the fates of two key CIA analysts who had been in charge of the Agency’s assessments of Iraqi WMD intelligence. These reassignments were, of course, presented as simply well deserved changes, but an unnamed Agency source told Miller that the two analysts had, in fact, “essentially been sent into deep exile.” The moment was described aptly as “a time when top officials have been alarmed by anonymous complaints showing up in the press.” The whole matter has officially been turned over to CIA director Tenet, a leading candidate, if things get worse, to be hung out to dry. “‘They handed the whole ball to George,’ said one intelligence source familiar with the details of the assignment. He said the message being sent to Tenet seemed clear: ‘You said [the banned weapons] were there. You go find them.'”

And here’s another Vietnam-era oldie-but-goodie to be found in this piece:

“They’ll be hard-pressed to find any kind of smoking gun, a case of somebody coming in and saying, ‘I wrote it this way and it came back from the 7th floor telling me to write it another way,’ ” the official said, referring to the location at CIA headquarters where Director George J. Tenet and other top officials have offices.”

And do you remember those two mobile labs that gave our president (and Tony Blair) the chance to proclaim that Iraqi WMD had been “found”? Well, think again. It will be no news for anyone who has been reading these dispatches, but the British Observer reports today ( Iraqi mobile labs nothing to do with germ warfare, report finds):

“An official British investigation into two trailers found in northern Iraq has concluded they are not mobile germ warfare labs, as was claimed by Tony Blair and President George Bush, but were for the production of hydrogen to fill artillery balloons, as the Iraqis have continued to insist.

“The conclusion by biological weapons experts working for the British Government is an embarrassment for the Prime Minister Instead, a British scientist and biological weapons expert, who has examined the trailers in Iraq, told The Observer last week: ‘They are not mobile germ warfare laboratories. You could not use them for making biological weapons. They do not even look like them. They are exactly what the Iraqis said they were – facilities for the production of hydrogen gas to fill balloons.'”

Now, none of this is likely to have an immediate effect here – no surprise given media coverage of the issue, but large numbers of Americans according to recent polls believe we found WMD in Iraq already. (Poll shows errors in beliefs on Iraq, 9/11, Many misinformed about banned weapons) Still, Nancy Pelosi and other Senate Democrats are now fighting for open hearings in Congress. This is one to stay tuned to.

Below, in the Washington Post‘s Outlook section, David Wise, who has written about the intelligence community since perhaps Neolithic times, reviews the recent WMD record, the striking on-the-record statements of this administration on the subject, and a far longer record of lying in Washington, and then reminds us of another Vietnam-era phrase, “credibility gap.” Eric Margolis in his weekly column in the Toronto Sun, coins a new phrase based on an older one that might soon gain traction, “Weaponsgate,” as he considers why Americans seem to care so little about administration lies. Tom

If Bush Is Lying, He’s Not the First
By David Wise
Washington Post Outlook
June 15, 2003

The sign on the White House these days might well read “Welcome to Credibility Gap.”

Sooner or later, every modern administration has fallen into this unwelcome gulch, a disaster that happens when the gap between the government’s words and the known facts becomes discernible to the voters. The phrase “credibility gap” came into use during the Democratic administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, but deception as an instrument of national policy began long before that. Misleading official statements, “spin” and, at times, outright lies are an all-too-familiar part of the White House landscape. Government lying has become as American as apple pie.

For President Bush, the problem centers on the furor over whether he misled the nation and the world by asserting that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network.

David Wise is the author of “The Politics of Lying” (Random House), a 1973 book examining how and why governments engage in secrecy and deception. His most recent book is “Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America” (Random House).

To read more Wise click here

U.S. media caved in to the Bush agenda
By Eric Margolis
Toronto Sun
June 15, 2003

Why, readers in the U.S. keep asking me, are so many Americans unconcerned their government appears to have misled them and Congress over Iraq, and then waged a war with no basis in law or fact?

Why is there growing outrage in Britain over Tony Blair’s equally exaggerated or patently false warnings over Iraq, while middle America couldn’t seem to care less about George Bush’s “Weaponsgate.”

One answer is found in an old joke….

To read more Margolis click here