Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Moral Clarity

If it weren't already obvious that liberals should be leading exponents of the war on terror , rather than only its sharpest critics, then the London terror attacks should have had a clarifying effect.


If only we could hear such moral clarity from our own party's left!


My liberal friends are quick to point out that the left's chief grievance is with the war in Iraq, not the war on terror. But what does it do for the image of the Democratic Party, not to mention the thinking of rank and file Democrats, when some of our most skilled commentators use a moment of unambiguous terror to first find fault with an American policy (unseating Saddam Hussein) rather than first condemning the terrorists? It's both morally wrong and politically dumb.

Peter Ross Range, Democratic Leadership Council, July 22, 2005


How many Iraqis have died in our war in their country? Is there a better symbol of how the war for Iraq has already been lost than our ignorance about the cost of the war to Iraqis?

"Cost of the war": a clich̩ to normalize the carnage, like the anaesthetizing term "collateral damage" and that new semantic horror, "torture lite." And yet the "cost of the war" report, by now a hackneyed convention of American journalism, includes only American casualtiesno Iraqis Рitself a violation of the American mainstream media's own professed commitment to "objectivity."

Three years of "anniversary" articles in the American media adding up the so-called "cost of the war" in Iraq have focused exclusively on Americans killed, American dollars spent, American hardware destroyed, with barely a mention of the Iraqi dead as part of that "cost."

The dead are counted. But they are Americans. The names are named. But they are Americans. The names and numbers of the dead are intoned aloud or their photographs papered on media "walls" and they are always only American.

Publishing or pronouncing the names of the American dead every day without ever mentioning the names of the Iraqi dead offers a powerful message that only American dying matters. In Indochina, during the years I covered that war, we counted but didn't name Americans. That wasn't done until after the war was over. We never counted and never named the Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao dead. Still today, though the estimates run into the millions, there is no reliable count of how many Indochinese died or were hurt in our war there. Not to mention El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, and the first Gulf War.

But there's no way to count, protest American journalists. What they mean is that the Pentagon doesn't count for them, "We don't do counts," was the way General Tommy Franks put the matter during our Afghan war. But Iraq Body Count (IBC) counts as does the Brookings Institute among others.

As of July 13, IBC estimated Iraqi civilian casualties to be between 22,838 and 25,869, an extremely conservative number. (The range between the two figures represents occasional discrepancies in the number of civilian casualties reported by different media sources about the same incident). So what journalists really mean is that only Pentagon counting counts and that the prosecutor of the war is the only "reliable" source on the magnitude of its own killing. Pentagon casualty figures are rarely questioned. When anyone else counts, these figures are given short shrift.

The alternative media, bloggers included, have seized on Gen. Franks' words with outrage. But the fact is the Pentagon does count. It just doesn't care to add those dead bodies up, let alone tell the American public or the rest of the world how many dead Iraqis there have been or how many more are being killed at this very moment. In Iraq, as in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, every unit of the American military must file "after action" reports about any "contact" with the enemy. Most of these include injuries and deaths to civilians (even if these are often counted as enemy-soldier deaths to cover them up, a practice the media eventually exposed in Vietnam, but has not yet explored in Iraq). Also, any injury or death of a suspected civilian is supposed to be reported in a separate "incident" report. "We do keep records of innocent civilians who are killed accidentally by coalition force soldiers," Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, assistant commander for the First Armored Division,
told New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman last year. "And, in fact, in every one of those innocent death situations, we conduct internal investigations to determine what happened."

Judith Coburn,


...although the flow of U.S. body bags is starting to hit home, Americans are still numb to the far greater agony the war has unleashed on the Iraqi people.


At least American soldiers stationed in Iraq have been seen, heard, and shown fleetingly in combat on the news, and had their travails witnessed in print by exemplary reporters such as Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, the cable newsers make a big heart-shaped fuss over holiday greetings exchanged through video linkups from troops in the field and the families gathered in the living room back home.

But of the liberated, occupied, afflicted, battered-to-despair Iraqi people, Americans see and hear and, worst of all, care almost nothing. The Iraqis might as well be digitized extras in a Hollywood epic, scurrying in the wide-screen background and being massacred en masse as some tanned specimen of all-American man-steak is heroically positioned in the foreground, giving orders to the lesser-paid stars in his squad as if he had just teleported in from the Battle of Thermopylae. Apart from an occasional dispatch (such as a CNN report on May 13), the ongoing agony of the Iraqi people is the huge, tragic unmentionable in the televised war coverage.


When someone addresses the war with candor and outrage, it seems to violate the Geneva Conventions of the mind of which George Orwell wrote. On May 17, George Galloway, British member of Parliament and a ferocious opponent of Tony Blair and the Iraq war, used the witness chair at Senator Norm Coleman's subcommittee investigating the oil-for-food scandal to turn the tables and hold in contempt Coleman, Rumsfeld, and the Beltway's war-hawk lobby. He railed with such eloquent, unrelenting, unwavering, concentrated, righteous magnum force that the senators were reduced to ashen figures by his flesh-and-blood intensity. So unprepared and unaccustomed were they to hearing a hot serving of unadulterated disrespect and mocking irony that they didn't know how to respond other than to sit there and hope their heads didn't fall off.

Even more fascinating than the post-electroshock daze on the senators' mugs was the discomfort of our demure press corps afterward. It seemed to make them queasy, hearing the safety lock taken off the truth. On Charlie Rose that evening, Warren Hoge of The New York Times sensed misgivings among the Americans with whom he had watched the show over Galloway's bite and vitriol. Hoge's gauzy manner made it evident that these were qualms he shared. "There is a certain tradition in American politics and also with the American press, where we are very polite to public figures. And here was a guy, George Galloway, insulting a U.S. senator."

I'm trying to recall how tactfully polite the press was to Bill Clinton and am drawing a blank, so it must be a fairly recent tradition. Praise Allah that we have Mr. Media around to hush those with the poor taste to raise their voices over a war fought under false pretenses—lest they cry bloody murder.

James Wolcott

Ah, yes, moral clarity, indeed. Would that we had more of it.

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