What do we call the enemy?

This devastating piece by The Nation‘s Tom Englehardt dissects the failures of current Iraq reporting, now that we are familiar with the NY Times‘ and Washington Post‘s mea culpas for their pre-war coverage. Englehardt catalogues the aspects of the war discussions of which are missing in action in the major media:

  • Al-Sadr’s fighters are called ‘cowardly’ for taking refuge in a holy shrine, but the real cowardice lies in the increasing resort of the US military to devastating air power
  • “…If you don’t grasp that, from the beginning, the Pentagon was planning a major string of “enduring camps” in Iraq, then you really can’t grasp why the Bush administration had no exit strategy from that country — because, of course, it had no plans to depart”.
  • When Baghdad fell without a struggle, those who had worried that US forces would be bogged down in street-to-street urban guerrilla warfare were dismissed and the subject forgotten. Now, in a range of Iraqi cities from the north to the south, the US and British forces’ worst nightmare is largely coming to pass, only nobody takes note of the fact that we told you so.
  • After the handover of power to the Allawi government at the end of June, the US plan to get the American strategists of the occupation behind the lines in the Green Zone to become invisible has largely worked. The combination of coverage of Iraqi government statements and the US military policy of emphasizing that they are doing Allawi’s bidding whenever questioned (e.g. on the run-up to the Najaf offensive) go unquestioned, but it is “obvious to any sane observer that the Americans are still in charge and that American strategic decisions are largely being implemented by Americans, not Iraqis”
  • While the Imam Ali Shrine is routinely referred to as “holy” in all coverage of the current fighting in Najaf, American ignorance about Islam and Shi’ism has not been countered with sufficient background about how centrally holy it is to that faith and why the American threat to the mosque is so unnerving and enraging to Muslim and other observers around the world. “It matters that we, who simply read about this, can’t even begin to put ourselves in the shoes of Iraqis experiencing it — although this should at least give us insight into why American policy makers and military men, no less ignorant than the rest of us, can make such staggering tactical blunders.”
  • The administration’s characterization of the elements of the Iraqi uprising against the occupation as outlaws, terrorists, ex-Ba’athists and foreign elements (and, I might add, the rhetorical tactic of contrasting them with ‘Iraqis’ and ‘the Iraqi people’) goes largely unquestioned. In fact, it is the US that is more in the role of the Saddam-era ‘Ba’athist’ counter-revolutionary crushing of popular resistance to its rule. In a similar vein, al-Sadr is perennially labelled a ‘rogue cleric’ and his forces always referred to as a ‘renegade militia’, Allawi’s puppet regime in Baghdad inevitably gets described as a ‘fledgling government’.

Note the emphasis on language. The cruelest confirmation of the Whorfian hypothesis is in political reporting — what you call something imposes subtle but firm constraints on how you think about it. (Serendipitously related: this New Scientist article). Englehardt concludes (in the should-go-without-saying category), “How the naming of embattled reality is brokered in our newsrooms and how it changes is a fascinating subject, though one you’re unlikely ever to find discussed in the press itself.”

The first part of Englehardt’s piece, from last week, is also quite worth reading if you missed it:

“There is probably no longer a way out for the Americans — other than out. And here’s the sad thing: we know that the Pentagon develops contingency plans for just about everything. There are, at this moment, undoubtedly plans somewhere in the Pentagon for the insertion of American forces into Albania, or Guinea-Bissau, or the Sudan. But I’d put a few dollars on the fact that there isn’t a single contingency plan anywhere in the Pentagon or the Bush administration for the withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. When our commanders speak of being there for another five years, they just mean for the illimitable future. When John Kerry speaks of drawing down American forces within a year, he has to promptly deny that he has a “schedule” for such a move. Originally, of course, we had no “exit strategy” because the Bush administration never planned to depart. Now, we have none because we’ve trapped ourselves in a strategic prison of our own making, a cell that President John Kerry (if elected) will be no less capable of occupying, as columnist William Pfaff recently made clear, unless his position on Iraq undergoes significant changes in the coming months…”