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Ceci n'est pas une war/CBC photo


Semantics as Warheads
Iraq’s Civil War, and Ours

[This is the second part of a two-part piece. The first part is available here.]

Is it, then, or is it not a civil war in Iraq? Merely to ask the question, post-Samarra mosque shock, suggests that those who ask it can probably trace their ancestral gray matter to the dim side of that vapor-filled moon around Saturn that Cassini just centerfolded. The question has no relevance in Iraq, where it answers itself day in and day out. That’s not keeping the parachuting propagandists from finding vehicles for their one-hand clapping: they’ll drive about in the US military’s armored convoys for a few miles then report back, with glee, that they were welcomed, applauded, cheered and, who knows, propositioned a few times. If Oliver North, that paragon of truth-telling and loyalty to all things lawful, could do it in the early days of the war, why not another lieutenant colonel cut of the same tripe-adoring cloth?

And so Ralph Peters is the current ride-along champion. He’s a retired Lt. Col. who writes military novels, so his journalistic posting alongside the flanks and shanks of a military freely given to inventions and distortions by all means necessary is a marriage made in a Humvee. The working adage between such writers and their escorts is you fictionalize my crap and I’ll fictionalize yours. Peters isn’t about to upset his next novel’s ghost-plotters by risking unflattering truth-telling. Nor was the military about to risk endangering the life of one of its few willing and high-profile puppeteers, and a 54-year-old at that. So they had themselves a grand time joyriding, Baghdad-Graffiti like, in what must have been the capital’s somnolent triangle, so Peters could produce his gem of a short-short: “Dude, Where’s My Civil War?” for the Fox News of the print industry — the dearly distorting, if not just yet departed, New York Post. He “just couldn’t find” the civil war the New York Times allegedly declared last month, though it’s been rather obvious even to generals who’ve had their time in balkanized pits that the thing began somewhat concurrently with America’s choreography of a victory parade in April 2003, when the White House itself was getting warnings of a breakdown. It’s also been a bit more than obvious to the 66 journalists who’ve died covering the war in just three years, a tally that now exceeds the number of journalists (63) killed in Vietnam and Cambodia between 1965 and 1975. In all of World War II, the war neo-cons love to compare these wars to, 69 journalists were killed. “ It could be that my background as an intelligence officer didn’t give me the right skills” to find that war, Peters writes in his only stab at verifiable honesty: spending ten years doing intelligence work in Germany doesn’t exactly create crack Mesopotamian spooks. He goes on to describe his Club Med visit, not quite noting the irony of exploring “freedom” behind armored plating. No need to detail the fallacies. Chris Allbritton (an actual reporter who manages to do his work in Iraq without the protection of a $550 billion military) did the trick already.

What all this shows is the extent to which debating the civil war question has become a political matter, the way naysayers are using the Washington Post’s report of 1,300 dead following the Samarra bombing as proof that the whole war is being exaggerated (never mind that 500 dead, the figure the Iraqi Interior Ministry is willing to endorse, isn’t, tactically or humanely speaking, an improvement on 1,300). The debate is amazingly, giving revisionists a chance to make yet one more stab at Iraq as a victorious enterprise. For all the conservative backlash against Bush’s war, he can still count on Peters-like loyalists to Little Big Horn Iraq. Waging a war at home over the meaning of civil war is another way to divert attention from the fog and smell of cordite over there, to score a few points with that old strategy of blaming the messengers.

The spring issue of The American Interest—a new journal that outdoes The Atlantic in shrill centrism—carries a funny piece by Max Boot about Iraq. The title: “Guess What? We’re Winning.” Boot’s gig at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Weekly Standard must be wearing thin, because the American Interest piece reads like a try-out for the Daily Show. It’s a supremely earnest rehash of the conventional and now catastrophically discredited wisdom that got us into the Iraq war, but refreshed as new in that Vietnam War-revisionism style of the nostalgic who claims if we’d napalmed a bit more and did twice as much as what we were doing, we’d have won. Iraq is still going on of course, giving the revisionists a chance to scoop themselves at their own game. Boot, using words like perfervid (the Bush administration’s critics, that is), fissiparous and casus belli (because Zbignew Brzezinski isn’t dead yet), blames the war’s faltering on home dissenters, Donald Rumsfeld’s invasion-lite plan and other nations not joining in; he says not finding WMDs was irrelevant when the unmaking of Saddam’s regime was the ultimate goal; he calls the occupation a “liberation” for Iraq, but also manages to say that on April 9, 2003, the city was “48-72 hours from being secured,” which must be news to Baghdadis who missed that Prague-like spring; compares the choice of confronting Saddam with that of confronting Nazism in the 1930s: “a choice not between peace and war, but between war now or a bigger war later” (just as confronting the Soviet Union, we all remember well, was a matter of a war then, whenever then was, or a bigger war a bit later, because of course Saddam ranks right up there with Stalin and Hitler the way the Yugo ranked right up there with GM, back when GM meant something); claims Iraq is already a place where “governments are chosen by the people and space exists for political dissent,” though he courageously refrains from detailing those spaces, such as buses, security companies and Interior Ministry basements; and tells us, like an old habitué of civil wars, that while “obviously, not everything is rosy in a country recovering from decades of brutal dictatorship and still plagued by a vicious terrorist campaign… it would be a mistake to exaggerate the impact of a few dozen bombs in a country the size of California, especially when most of them are confined to just four of Iraq’s 18 provinces.” And of course just as it would be a terrible mistake to exaggerate the impact of just two planes, civilian planes at that, demolishing just two buildings in Manhattan and killing some 2,800 people in what is, after all, just one New York City borough among five, and the smallest one at that, in a metropolitan area of 18 million and, come to think of it, a country of 300 million. Oh, and good Max also drops in such revelations as Donald Rumsfeld not being “remotely a neocon,” even though his signatures were all over Project for the New American Century paraphernalia before the Donald took his shock and awe on the road. Boot finishes his sketch by citing the 62 percent of Iraqi households having cell phones, as opposed to 6 percent in 2004, as proof that Iraqis are a happier lot, along with the surge in satelloite dishes (as long as they’re not watching Al-Jazeera) or the 70 percent of Iraqis who rate their economy as good (about twice the percentage of Americans rating their economy and the state of their country as good, by the way; Max does not get into why Americans aren’t migrating to Iraq in droves, or why Jordan, once the de-facto Palestine, has become the de-facto Iraq. Booming Baghdad indeed).

It all reminds me of all those Lebanese who’d speak of the imminence of peace and liberation if only this and if only that—the if onlys stretching from Beirut to every blame-worthy capital at the four corners of Lebanon’s small world. Max Boot could pass himself off as a blindly optimistic Beiruti in the 1980s, without the excuse of having his perceptions distorted by the mind-altering surroundings of war. In his circumstances, Boot isn’t much more than an apologist surrounding himself with discredited wisdom. One paragraph sums it up, as he writes of the case for war having been strengthened by Bush’s hope to “change the poisonous dynamics of the Middle East and begin to transform the region for the better.” He goes on: “Spreading democracy, reducing ideological support for terrorism and redressing rampant human-rights abuses were not the primary reasons for the invasion (the WMD threat really was the key factor.) But they were important second- and third-order considerations, and not, as many critics now claim, simply post hoc rationalizations.”

It’s never been so easy to turn this neo-neocon wish-flam on its head: Spreading resentment, vastly increasing ideological support for terrorism and unleashing whole new waves of rampant human rights abuses turned into primary results of the occupation (the WMD threat really had always been a key diversion). To the war’s strategists at the Pentagon and the White House, those were unimportant second- and third-order collaterals and not, as many critics now claim, Iraqis’ rationalizations for near-universal hatred of the occupation.

Remarkably, the Boot-like approach to Iraqi peace concedes that only more warmongering will be necessary to get it there--just as long as you don't call it a civil war: Semantics as warheads. Civil war or not, the United States has something much graver to worry about in Iraq: a new Afghanistan, along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, where resentment blooms and terrorism incubates. This isn’t Saddam’s doing. It isn’t even Osama’s doing. This war has Made in the USA bombed all over it.


Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at


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