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Bad War


More than some left commentators may like to acknowledge, the claims of the Bush War Party and its warmongering friends at the Fox News Network regarding “Operation Iraqi Freedom” are significantly contradicted by findings and commentary in the establishment print media. American antiwar activists and citizens must by all means press the corporate-state press to tell the whole truth and draw the responsible conclusions about the horrible injustices and tragedies that are being exacerbated and inflicted in our name. At the same time, we can mine a considerable amount of rich and politically usefull information from the mainstream press, reflecting various conflicts and requirements of class, faction and thought control.

Acknowledging Iraqi Nationalism

Didn’t buy the war masters’ knee-jerk identification of Iraqi resistance to the American invaders with loyalty to and/or fear of Saddam? Your suspicions were supported by a number of establishment press reports acknowledging that many Iraqis fighting back are responding to an outraged sense of national pride, not the allure or threats of Saddam’s regime. A front-page story noting that “the Iraqis appear more committed to the fight than the Pentagon strategists expected” in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal quoted a former leading US military strategist to interesting effect. “It’s turned out,” the strategist observed, “that the Iraqis are going to fight for the motherland.”

“A Wider Principle”

Didn’t accept the masters’ claim that the rest of the Arab world would be grateful that America has taken it upon its (supposedly benevolent) self to remove a threatening tyrant? Your suspicion were born out by last Wednesday’s WSJ, which included a front-page article titled “On Arab Street, Iraqi Resistance Strikes a Chord.” The “sometimes lethal resistance U.S. troops have encountered in places such as the port of Umn Qasr and the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah,” the paper reported, has “fueled nationalistic pride and popular anger” among “Arab populations.” It has also “pierced a post-Cold War myth of American invincibility, already dented by the Sept. 11 attacks.” Among the expressions of this officially unexpected Arab response, the WSJ reported, are an official Arab League statement condemning US aggression and a growing movement of Arabs to volunteer for service against America’s King George.

The WSJ provided an especially instructive quote from a Palestinian shopkeeper named Ehap al Ali, who says he “would go fight with the Iraqis” if he could. “Saddam isn’t is as bad as the Americans say he is,” Ali told the WSJ, “and he isn’t as good as the Iraqi government says he is. But that’s not the point. There is a wider principle – we have an obligation to fight against foreigners who invade Arab lands.” Such sentiment is increasingly widespread around the Middle East.

Politically Skewed War Games

Skeptical about the Bush administration’s claim that victory over Iraq would be quick, easy and glorious – an awesome exercise in the display of overwhelming US power? The establishment press has no choice, of course, but to report that this has not occurred. Still, some of the mainstream coverage and commentary has shown welcome candor on the extent to which the US disappointment reflects poor planning and on the extent of the difficulties facing US troops. Last Friday’s Times gave page-one coverage to the forthright comments of Lt. Gen William Wallace, commander of Army forces in the Persian Gulf. Wallace acknowledged that “the enemy we’re fighting against is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against.”

Citing Wallace and other Army sources, the Times went on to notice numerous serious problems beyond the unexpected heroic resistance of Iraqis – travel delays, fierce weather, overextended supply lines, communications breakdowns, and insufficient food supplies for troops. “No matter how politically appealing a quick, decisive victory would be, the simple physics of the battlefield are making that less likely,” the Times concluded.

An opinion-editorial that appeared the next day in the Times even raised the specter of Mogadishu. “No matter what kind of power can be rolled into Baghdad,” Mark Bowden wrote, “if it faces a hostile population…the scene could turn into a nightmare. Soldiers would be moving in a 360-degree battlefield with obstructed sight lines and impaired radio communications, trying to pick out targets from civilian populations determined to hide, supply and shield the enemy, unable to attack Iraqi firing positions without killing civilians.”

In this as in numerous other mainstream reports and commentaries, Dick Cheney and Richard Perle are revealed in horrible, narcissistic and blood-soaked splendor. In making their case for the current butchery in Iraq, these and other leading proponents of New World Order promised jubilant, welcoming masses and rapid, total victory over territory, hearts and minds.

According to a front-page story in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, moreover, America’s armed forces weren’t even allowed to “war-game” against the real “enemy.” This interesting article reports that Paul Van Riper, “a Pentagon consultant considered a top strategist in asymmetric warfare,” quit mock pre-war battles because Pentagon planners dismissed the threats he posed in his assigned role as a “rogue Persian Gulf dictator.” The planners refused to acknowledge the hits he scored by using tactics like suicide bombers and guerilla harassment of US supply convoys.

WMD Still AWOL

Questioning the pivotal war-justificatory notion that Saddam possesses huge and threatening stockpiles of major, state-of-the-art chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction and the potential to develop nuclear weapons? A story titled “Troops Haven’t Found Chemical Arms” in last Thursday’s WSJ offered some reasons for healthy skepticism. It quoted retired Army colonel David Franz, who said that he was “not counting on the” US military’s ability to uncover biological agents being used or developed by Iraq’s regime. The paper also noted that US soldiers recently “found nothing suspicious” in a chemical plant outside Najaf “that US intelligence agencies had thought for years was manufacturing chemical weapons.” The nuclear question doesn’t even merit coverage.

“Sorry, but the Chick was in the Way”

Worried about the ethical blank check given to US military forces by blindly approving “Support Our Troops” (at all costs) sentiment? Concerned that supporting soldiers to carry out orders to slaughter might not be the best way to foster basic mental health among military personnel who will become returning veterans in our midst? Your concerns are born out by two front-page articles that appeared in last Saturday’s New York Times. The first article is titled “Either Take a Shot or Take a Chance.” It quotes Marine “sharpshooter” Eric Schrumpf to chilling effect. “We had a great day,” Schrumpf told Times reporter Dexter Filkins. “We killed a lot of people.” According to Filkins, Schrumpf “recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi solider go down. ‘I’m sorry [Schrumpf] said. ‘But the chick was in the way.’”

The second article was titled “Haunting Thoughts After a Fierce Battle.” It related the moral crisis Sgt. Mark N. Redmond faced after killing untold numbers of Iraqi fighters heroically resisting the invasion of their homeland by superior American forces. “I mean, I have my wife and kids to go back home to,” Redmond told Times reporter Steven Lee Myers. “I don’t want them to think I’m a killer.” Redmond “did not,” Myers noted, “want to dwell on the details of the deaths his weapons caused.”

The article concludes with the comments of Army chaplain Mark B. Nordtsrom, who happens to belong to a branch of the Mennonites with a pacifist theology. Noting that American troops had “killed thousands” in the “last few days,” this “pacifist” comforter of troops charged with murder observes that “nothing prepares you to kill another human being. Nothing prepares you to use a machine to cut someone in two.” (Well, we can think of a few “things” that do, including the US Army and Marines…). “It bothers” US soldiers, Nordstrom told Myers, “to take life, especially that close.” It is apparently easier on the soul to kill from 30,000 feet or from a distant air-conditioned missile targeting office. “They want to talk to me so that they know that I know they are not awful human beings.”

Social service agencies and law enforcement back home, get ready. And remember America, your president, as reported in the mainstream press, is proposing to significantly cut veterans’ benefits.

“You Realize It Was Real”

Concerned about the moral implications of modern satellite-guided “war,” where masses are dispatched to the grisly hereafter at the tap of a computer key by indifferent technical personnel in distant antiseptic command centers. Your anxiety finds justification in a front-page WSJ story that appeared last Thursday. It related the comments of an officer in a Hawaii-based US Navy Strike Center, where “planners stare at screens, outwardly oblivious to the havoc they were wreaking far away.” “It was surreal,” the officer told WSJ reporter David S. Cloud, speaking of his experience during the initial cruise missile strike on March 21st. “It was no different than exercises we’ve practiced again and again…Hours later you take a step back and see the video and see the hits coming in Baghdad and you realize it was real.” Take note, American mental health practitioners.

No Vile Self Interest?

Skeptical of official White House claims that Operation Dominate Iraq is unrelated to something as petty as economic self-interest on the part of key US policymakers and the massive corporations they represent? Your suspicion that some of the warlords might be acting on what Adam Smith called “the vile maxim of the masters” – everything for me and nothing for anyone else – will find reinforcement in the March 24th issue of the elitist New Yorker. New Yorker writer Seymour Hersch, no radical, detailed Perle’s vested interest in the terrorism that can be expected in the wake of current US assaults on the Arab world, very much in line with the hopes of Osama bin-Laden. Perle, it turns out, is a managing partner in Trireme Enterprises, a venture-capital company that invests in technology, goods and services of value to “homeland security and defense” around the world. Its projected clients include Saudi Arabia, a leading bin-Laden target.

A story that appeared in last Thursday’s WSJ under the title “Perle’s Conflict Issue is Shared by Other Defense Board members” will further reinforce your suspicions. It shows that numerous members of the Defense Policy Board, a key Pentagon advisory body that has that has argued effectively for war on Iraq, work for corporations poised to make considerable sums in the areas of homeland security and “national defense.” Well before the beginning of the war, moreover, the WSJ reported that a small number of politically connected American firms (including Cheney’s own Haliburton) were situated to make hundreds of billions off the task of rebuilding the very Iraqi infrastructure the White House and Pentagon were planning to bomb. A rather instrumentalist new wrinkle on the economic theory of “creative destruction.”

Wondering if the world’s millions of antiwar protestors might be on to something more than a just a catchy phrase when they chant “No Blood for Oil?” Evidence that they are was presented last Fall by reporters for the online version of MSNBC. In an article titled “Iraqi Oil, American Bonanza,” MSNBC quoted industry analysts who “say that it’s unlikely that American firms will be left empty-handed if the U.S. follows through on military action.” There is not room here to recount the large number of mainstream stories that have detailed the considerable and diverse ways that American oil and other corporations can expect to benefit from the projection of US power in the Middle East.

Military Globalism vs. Recovery in an Age of Economic Multilateralism

Don’t buy the administration’s rosy forecasts of a strong recovery once the war is (not-so quickly) concluded? Your skepticism was supported by an opinion-editorial published in last Monday’s New York Times by James Grant, editor of the respectable Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. According to Grant, no radical, “the war didn’t cause America’s financial and economic problems. But it’s not so far-fetched to assume it may soon worsen them.” Grant’s pessimism rests on the simple observation that the costs of the war are going to be met by the printing of more dollars leading to inflation and the cheapening of American currency. That cheapening is going to reduce America’s ability to finance its massive foreign current account deficit – the US imported $500 billion more than it exported in 2002 – with dollars. “Up until now,” he notes, “the rest of the world – America’s creditors – has more than happy to exchange its merchandise for our currency, a currency they have coveted both as a medium of exchange and a store of value.” This will change with the officially mandated superabundance of dollars required to pay for this and “future…wars, pacifications and occupations” (Grant), something that will deepen related underlying US economic problems of excess capacity and stagnant stock shares.

An interesting line comes in Grant’s sixteenth paragraph, where he argues that “unilateralism in military affairs may be necessary and expedient. But the relationship of a debtor nation to its creditors is necessarily multilateral. This is especially true in the case of a debtor nation that prints the money with which to service its debts.” Hmm…maybe the Europeans aren’t as irrelevant as Bush and Rumsfeld want us to believe. One can find numerous similar negative economic judgements in the mainstream press (especially The Financial Times), suggesting a conflict between the global militarism of the White House and the “rational” economic globalism of cooler headed American and world-systemic corporate minds.

“Budgetary Shock and Awe”

Wondering about the domestic social-democratic opportunity costs of the extravagantly expensive war of occupation the Bushies are determined to pursue as countless American communities slip further into poverty and isolation? Wondering about the true “patriotic” priorities of a government that spends hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign conquest while slashing taxes for the super-rich and claiming to lack the money to adequately fund education, provide universal health coverage, and adequately match unemployment benefits to the numbers out of work? Questioning the sincerity of the White House officials and Congressional allies who pontificate on behalf of “shared wartime sacrifice” by all Americans?

Your concerns were seconded by a strident, outraged New York Times editorial that appeared last Tuesday under the title “Budgetary Shock and Awe.” “The country,” noted the Times’ editors, “is facing plenty of financial problems: the economy, the cost of the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. Stunningly, Congress is prepared to make things worse, far worse with more than $500 billion in tax cuts for the upper 1 percent of taxpayers. To finance these spoils for the wealthiest Americans, House leaders…plan deep cuts of $475 billion in vital programs for the bottom 99 percent. These direct hits will range from Medicaid to child care, education to food stamps, environment protection to emergency doles for the poor.”

No, It’s Not a Left Press

What’s going on here? Is the American print media acting in accordance with a liberal and even “left” bias, as posited by crackpot “media critics” working for various assorted radical-right lunatic asylums like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute? Hardly: the majority of opinion-editorials in the mainstream press have been pro-war in the months leading up to the unjust and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. It remains taboo in that press to honestly acknowledge the underlying crypto-fascist immorality and indeed insanity of the war and the doctrines that inform US policy. Strong moral criticism of domestic policy is permissible but such criticism of related, deadly foreign policies is not. The criticism of war conduct remains essentially practical, not moral in nature: it’s about whether and how the military campaign is “working” and not about whether it’s right or wrong. It is unthinkable, of course, for a mainstream reporter to acknowledge the heroic nature of the resistance being carried out by many Iraqi fighters.

The few horrific actions of US forces that are acknowledged appear as tragic, inevitable anomalies, inherent in the fateful logic of war, whereby “shit happens” and “The Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning.” As presented, they appear largely devoid of connection to any living human agents that might be traced to the White House, where top officials have emerged as certifiable war criminals by any reasonable world standard. Stories that might seem to question the administration and Pentagon often seem lost in a bigger sea of war stories that do no such thing. The massive coverage (it practically takes hours to wade through it all now) is loaded with respectfully treated rationalizations and disinformation from the dominant ideological authorities.

It is left to the reader to make the broader horrific moral implications of unpleasant items like the story of the sniper who shrugged off his murder of an Iraqi “chick.” A morally responsible journal might have titled that story, “Mennonite-“Pacifist” Army Chaplain Helps Soldiers Feel Better About Murders They Are Ordered to Commit by George W. Bush.”

There’s a general tone of denial in the establishment US press about the incredible fact of what we are in fact witnessing – imperialist gangsters gone wild. Their global wilding is being aided and abetted by a morally spineless press. You will find no reasonable recommendations in the mainstream press for the obvious citizen response to the immoral madness of their current US government: mass action to disrupt “business as usual.”

Interesting, in that regard, to read a recent New York Times article praising the antiwar movement for toning down its supposedly original “wild-eyed” response to Bush’s war to embrace more orderly and respectful patterns of resistance. The same issue of the Times in which this condescending article gave indications that US military planners were responding to the unexpected Iraqi resistance by upping their already considerable level of thoroughly illegal barbarism, in accordance with commanders’ insistence that the “rules of engagement” be loosened to permit more civilian casualties.

A Useful Dichotomy: Grassroots and Treetops Audiences

To understand the significant extent to which peace and justice activists can nonetheless find useful information in the establishment American press, it is important to realize that the American mainstream media crafts two different versions of U.S. policy for two different audiences. The first audience, call it (following the work of the late Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey) the “grassroots,” comprises the general mass of citizens whose essential role in society is to keep quiet, work hard, be entertained, and do what they’re told. In rare moments when media managers feel the need to do more than just divert this sorry human “rabble” (to use Noam Chomsky’s term characterizing the master’s view of most of the populace) from thinking about policy at all, as during times of U.S.-led war, they feed it nonsense about America’s supposed global humanitarianism, freedom and supposed great threats from overseas. The “Wizards of [corporate] Media Oz” did precisely that during Operations Desert Storm and they are doing it today. The leading tools of ideological population control for this audience include major spectator sports, sit-coms, reality TV shows and the FOX News Network. The second target group comprises the relevant political class of Americans from at most the upper fifth of society. Call this audience (again following Carey) the “treetops” – the people who matter and who deserve and can be trusted with something approximating the real story because their minds have been properly disciplined and flattered by the processes of higher education and professional certification. This segment includes such privileged and heavily indoctrinated persons as corporate managers, lawyers, public administrators, and (most) university professors. Since these people carry out key societal tasks of supervision, discipline, training, and indoctrination, they cannot be too thoroughly misled about current events and policy without deleterious consequences for the smooth functioning of the dominant social and political order. At the same time, information and commentary for the political class sometimes reflects a degree of reasoned debate among its members as to how best to manage the world in its interests. More than many in the activist left may know, there is considerable such debate at present. A portion of the US business, intellectual and political establishment does not support Bush’s foreign policy. Their opposition is based less on morality than on practical and conservative calculations. For some parts of the ruling-class, Bush and his “posse” – as the Fundamentalist Cowboy from Crawford likes to call his “team” – are following a reckless and radical path which threatens to destabilize a system that was serving the privileged quite well. There is an interesting tension, as William Greider notes (and probably overstates) in a recent issue of the left-liberal Nation, between the “free-market corporate globalization” embraced by key segments of the ruling-class and the over-the-top military globalism on which Bush has audaciously bet his political future and historical legacy.

The Grant editorial quoted above is an example of this tension. Another example is found in the March 17th issue of the establishment magazine Business Week, where Jeffrey E. Garten, Dean of no less a respectable establishment institution than the Yale School of Management, criticized the current “disconnect between national security strategy and economic policy.” According to Garten, “a foreign policy that involves continual military interventions abroad while securing the U.S. itself is bound to erode economic vitality, reflecting a new chapter in historian Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overstretch” hypothesis.

For these and other reasons, we should survey the mainstream press carefully, reading always between the lines to extract the useful kernels of politically useful information. It is often useful, of course, to be able to cite the establishment press in making the cause for radical-democratic criticisms of US policy: “don’t take it from me – you can look it up in the Wall Street Journal.” It is ultimately left to activists (whose willingness to question received wisdom does not stop at the door of risk to their careers and savings accounts), to provide the necessary overall moral and political context and to draw the obvious conclusions for responsible citizen action.




Paul Street ([email protected] ) researches urban social policy in Chicago and lectures on class, race and urban economics at Loyola University.

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