The Post-War War

Roadside bombs, Americans (and Iraqis) dead and wounded: a template for the aftermath of victory.


By Tom Engelhardt

Here’s the most basic news report from America’s Iraq over the last half-year, a recent Associated Press piece in its entirety; three sentences, each a paragraph — a kind of journalistic haiku from hell headlined, U.S. soldier killed in roadside bombing:

“A roadside bombing near the town of Samarra on Sunday killed one U.S. soldier and wounded two others, the military said.

“The attack, about 12:30 p.m., hit a passing patrol of 1st Infantry Division soldiers in Samarra, a hotbed of violence 60 miles northwest of Baghdad.

“As of Friday, July 30, 909 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the Defense Department.”

Fill in Baghdad or Ramadi or Falluja or Baquba or numerous other Iraqi cities and towns (without dropping that “hotbed of violence”) and you’ve got a template for the post-war war as it’s been fought for months. One rigged roadside bomb, one dead American and two wounded Americans — which may mean a young woman without a limb, a young man without his sight… who knows? This has been the drip-drip-drip of Iraq for us. One death, now generally tucked away well off the front page, because when anything becomes the norm in our media world, it ceases to be the news. In the same way, constant kidnappings or regular beheadings, if endlessly repeated, will also migrate sooner or later into the deep interiors of our larger papers and drop off the half-hour that each night (minus ten minutes of medicine ads for the aging) passes on network TV for our planet’s news.

Ken Dilanian of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who not so many months ago was writing of the media “underplaying the good things happening in Iraq,” makes this point in a recantation piece (“As for the turnaround, I couldn’t have been more wrong”) whose headline tells all, The situation in Iraq right now is not as bad as the news media are portraying it to be. It’s worse:

“A kind of violence fatigue has descended over news coverage of Iraq. Car bombings that would have made the front page a year ago get scant mention these days. Assassinations and kidnappings have become so common that they have lost their power to shock. More U.S. soldiers died in July (38) than in June (26), but that didn’t make the nightly newscasts, either.”

But that’s unlikely to remain the case for long. We like to say that our imperial media is “global”; in Iraq the truth of that is increasingly apparent. Like the rest of us on the planet, the insurgents, Islamists, ex-Baathists and other Iraqi resistors, having been summoned into existence by the “neocon sofa samurai” of the Bush administration, as Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis called them Sunday, now find themselves caught in the sensationalist gears of our media. Even if the Iraqi rebellion didn’t call for a constant raising of the stakes against the American occupiers and their Iraqi followers, the media process would. If you cease to raise the stakes, after all, it’s those back pages for you.

I don’t, by the way, have a typical story of an Iraqi casualty at hand, because the dead and wounded of Iraq tend not to get their own individual stories in our press. If enough of them die to create the sort of media-worthy story Dilanian writes about, then there’s a headline like the one in the New York Times last Thursday that read, “70 Are Killed By Car Bomber In an Iraqi City.” Cumulatively, under “we don’t do body counts” — a quote from former Centcom war commander and now memoirist General Tommy Franks — the Iraq Body Count website has carefully toted up the corpses in news reports from Iraq. It offers a minimum figure of 11,336 Iraqi “civilians reported killed by military intervention in Iraq” and a maximum figure of 13, 305. This not only doesn’t include Iraqi military deaths, which certainly numbered in the thousands, but is a distinctly conservative estimate, relying as it does on what’s reported in a world where so many deaths by definition go unreported and — as Western journalists are increasingly limited to brief, dangerous forays outside of Baghdad or simply outside their hotels in Baghdad — much else as well.

Just recently, according to al-Jazeera, a group of Iraqi “activists and academics,” who carried out a “detailed survey” of Iraqi civilian casualties in the fall of 2003, coordinating, they claim, with hospitals and gravediggers, offered the staggering figure of 37,000 civilian deaths — including 6,103 in bloody Baghdad and 861 in Kirkuk.

Eric Margolis, in his latest column in which he compares George Bush to George Armstrong Custer (“…an arrogant, opinionated, headstrong fool who spurned all warnings, boldly and resolutely leading his command to disaster on the Little Big Horn”), quotes a figure of 20,000 Iraqi civilian casualties. Eleven thousand, twenty thousand, thirty-seven thousand — it’s impossible to know. And that’s without the military dead (who for some reason seem not to count). Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 25,000 Iraqis have died in all. Compared to the 900-plus dead American soldiers (and a few dead American soldiers of fortune), these certainly might be typical figures from any colonial war of the 19th century when, by rule of thumb, perhaps one Westerner died for every 10-20 “natives.” And since Iraq increasingly looks like our country’s first full-scale attempted colonial grab since we emerged as the planet’s superpower in 1945, it’s perhaps not an inaccurate comparison to call to mind.

As part of the justification for this war, our President increasingly invoked Saddam’s “killing fields” while other justifications fell away. In his January 2004 State of the Union address, for instance, in a passage now famous for the switch from citing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to its “WMD-related program activities,” he said:

“Some in this chamber, and in our country, did not support the liberation of Iraq. Objections to war often come from principled motives. But let us be candid about the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power. We’re seeking all the facts. Already, the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictator’s weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day. Had we failed to act, Security Council resolutions on Iraq would have been revealed as empty threats, weakening the United Nations and encouraging defiance by dictators around the world. Iraq’s torture chambers would still be filled with victims, terrified and innocent. The killing fields of Iraq — where hundreds of thousands of men and women and children vanished into the sands — would still be known only to the killers. For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein’s regime is a better and safer place.”

We were, of course, implicated in many of those Saddamist “killing fields” — and not just because we supported his regime, and so its murderous acts and aggressive war against Iran, in the 1980s. After all, the elder Bush, having called for a Shiite uprising against Saddam after the first Gulf War, stepped back at the last moment and let the defeated dictator order his helicopters into the air and his forces into action to slaughter the rebellious Shiites, thus creating many of those killing fields, which were later to become part of his son’s war propaganda.

Now the killing fields of Iraq are back, though in a different form, and Iraq is again a charnel house, though this time with an occupying army and — as yet — no dictator, without in fact a central principle of order of any sort. Safer? Here’s the beginning of a description of America’s safer Iraq, as redefined by the rebels, taken from a piece by Akeel Huseen and Nicolas Pelham of the British Financial Times (Rebels’ writ runs large across the troublesome Sunni triangle):

“In the capital of the largest province of Iraq’s so-called ‘Sunni triangle’, rebels have taken to announcing their daily arrival by loud- speaker. ‘Close your shops before 1400. We don’t want to hit anyone. The fighting will begin after 1400. Stay safe,’ trumpets the megaphone strung to a white Nissan pick-up that circulates around the main thoroughfare of Ramadi at 1pm.

“By 13:45 the streets empty. The governorate buildings, the police station and shops close. The police and the Iraqi National Guard, who had patrolled the town, disappear from the streets… [The resistance] remain[s] until daybreak, when the local security forces arrive for their eight-hour shift and markets briefly spring to life.”

In the Sunni triangle and some southern cities, the Iraqi police have either made a kind of minimalist peace with the rebels, are besieged, or are simply absent, and whole regions of Iraq are now killing fields of largely unreported chaos and violence, kidnappings and murders, armed politics and crime, as Robert Fisk of the British Independent tried to indicate in a recent piece based on an American military document (Unreported war: US document reveals scale of conflict):

“US military reports clearly show much of the violence in Iraq is not revealed to journalists, and thus goes largely unreported. This account of the insurgency across Iraq over three days last week provides astonishing proof that Iraq under its new, American-appointed Prime Minister, has grown more dangerous and violent.”

Just recently, for instance, armed men broke into the Ramadi home of the governor of Anbar Province, kidnapped his three sons, set part of his house on fire, and fled. The governor has since announced that he will resign if his sons are returned.

This then is George Bush’s Iraq and, however much media fatigue there may be about it here, and however much people may imagine it as a kind of unchanging backdrop to the upcoming three-month presidential campaign and the three scheduled presidential debates, it is neither a constant, nor even a stable situation. Between now and November, it is likely to devolve further and more spectacularly, and so drive the Bush administration toward November 2 in an ever greater state of panic.

Companions to the killing fields in speech after presidential speech were the “torture chambers,” “rape rooms,” and “children’s prisons” of Saddam’s Iraq. “By our actions, our coalition removed a grave and gathering danger. We also ended one of the cruelest regimes in our time. Saddam’s rape rooms and torture chambers and children’s prisons are closed forever.”

Well, maybe not forever… and this is but one of a number of stories likely to board American consciousness in the weeks to come. Note, by the way, that according to al-Jazeera, the attempt by that Iraqi group to tally their own war dead ended (as so much has ended there) when “one of the group’s workers was arrested by Kurdish militias and handed over to US forces in October 2003. The fate of the worker remains unclear.”

Read a longer version of this dispatch, as well as other dispatches by Tom Engelhardt at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.

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