War Words: Who's Writing this Stuff?

The media use language on Iraq that might have been taken from Bush press releases.

| Thu Aug. 19, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

What do we call the enemy? George and Laura Bush were the guests on Larry King Live this Sunday. In the context of the latest fighting in Najaf, King said to the President: "We've had more today, there are more eruptions in Iraq. And it seems never-ending, does[n't] it? What does it do to you?"

The President replied:

"We've got a great leader in Prime Minister Allawi. He's a tough guy who believes in free societies. And more and more Iraqis are being trained. And more and more Iraqis are stepping up to do the hard work of bringing these terrorists, these former Baathist and some foreign fighters to justice. And that's why we are going to prevail."

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So the President thinks that in Najaf we're up against Baathists, foreign fighters, and terrorists. In a similar vein, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the following of the fighting in Najaf at a recent press conference:

"In this case, the violence is being perpetrated by outlaws and by former regime elements and by terrorists who respect no truce, respect nothing except force. And as long as those individuals don't understand the spirit of peace and reconciliation, are not willing to work for democratic, free Iraq, they have to be dealt with. And so your question really should not be addressed to us. It should be addressed to those who are causing the violence, who are setting off the bombs, who are destroying the hopes of the Iraqi people."

Now statements like Powell's tend to be reported quite straightforwardly in our press even though the one thing you certainly couldn't say about the Mahdi Army in Najaf is that it's made up of former "regime elements" or "Baathists." These are, after all, the Shiites of southern Iraq whom Saddam brutally repressed in 1991 and whom we claimed our invasion was meant to liberate. It should be remembered, in fact, that the last army to reach the Imam Ali Shrine with intent to harm was Saddam's.

Should you want to imagine what the present situation looks like from the point of view of many Shiites and you're willing to search, you can probably find the odd comment buried somewhere in our torrent or Iraq reportage ("Saddam made mass graves in 1991," Abbos fumed. "Now the Americans are making mass graves in 2004, filled with Shiites again."), or you can go offshore or into cyberspace, where, for instance, Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service offers the following in the Asia Times on-line, quoting (the ubiquitous) Juan Cole:

"'What's going on right now looks a lot like April 1991, when it was [Iraqi president] Saddam [Hussein] who was crushing a Shi'ite uprising. But now it's the Marines who are playing the role of the Republican Guard,' Cole told Inter Press Service, adding that US policy in Iraq was looking increasingly like 'Ba'ath-lite,' particularly under Allawi."

Or you can read the piece (mentioned above) by Scott Balduff, who has done some superb on-the-spot reporting from Najaf, and writes:

"If the Americans and Iraqi Army do end up assaulting the Shrine of Ali, they will not be the first. Hussein threw the full force of his military against the shrine in 1991 after Shiite rebels launched an abortive rebellion. Artillery barrages damaged the shrine complex and special-forces soldiers killed the rebels inside the complex itself. The brutality of this crackdown at such a holy site turned most Shiites against Hussein, even those who had defended him in the past."

Of course, the labeling of guerrillas, rebels, and insurgents, religious or otherwise, as "outlaws" and "terrorists" has a long history in European colonial wars as also, for instance, in Japanese depredations in China in the 1930s. Similarly the language in the statements coming out of our military in Iraq these days has a familiar ring for anyone who knows something of the history of counterinsurgency warfare. For instance, here's part of a statement quoted in the Washington Post by Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, identified by the Post reporter as "Deputy Director for Operations of the U.S. led multi-national force":

"Clearing operations by Iraqi Security Forces and Multi-National Forces today in Najaf continue to further isolate the militia and restore control of the city to the government and people of Najaf… The combined Iraqi and multi-national security forces continue to operate in strict compliance with guidance from the Prime Minister [interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi] to safeguard and prevent possible harm to these holy shrines as well as protect the citizens and future of Iraq."

Our operations involving Predator drones, Apache helicopters, and jets in downtown Najaf, then, are "clearing operations" (though who exactly is being "cleared" isn't made particularly clear), and the forces, almost totally American, conducting these clearing operations are dubbed "multinational," and all this is supposedly being done under the "guidance" of Prime Minister Allawi to "safeguard… these holy shrines." Of course, it's obviously in the interest of American policy makers and military men to put forward such lies even at a moment when the only non-American troops fighting on our side in Najaf, the sparse Iraqi battalions we've trained, are evidently deserting in droves, as Hannah Allam, Tom Lasseter and Dogen Hannah of Knight Ridder have recently reported. ("'I'm ready to fight for my country's independence and for my country's stability,' one lieutenant colonel said. 'But I won't fight my own people.'") But if this sort of language is simply reproduced without comment in our news, then Americans will have little way to grasp the nature of what's happening in Iraq.

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?

In the Washington Post Outlook section this Sunday, correspondent Robin Wright wrote a particularly execrable piece (Not Just A Battle For Najaf) about the situation in Iraq, whose language might have been taken directly from Bush administration press releases. There are fantasy passages like the following, no less pure in their deceptions than those of Brig. Gen. Lessel: "A deepening backlash [in Iraq] could further complicate this second phase of the three-part political transition and damage the quest to build a model new democracy that would inspire a wider transformation in the Arab and l[sl]amic worlds." I'm sorry, but you'll have to remind me: What was the first phase of that three-part transition? And I was under the obviously mistaken impression that the new, silent American occupation regime inside Baghdad's Green Zone had left all thoughts of building "a model new democracy that would inspire…" etc. behind and opted instead for an ex-Baathist thug who has an iron fist tied behind his back.

But I wander. What I wanted to focus on was a relatively innocuous sentence about Muqtada al-Sadr and his men in Wright's piece: "The stakes are now far greater than whether a rogue cleric and his renegade militia can diminish the fledgling Iraqi government and its U.S. patrons." It's a modest but interesting example of how word choice sets the frame within which we view the world. On the one side Wright has marshaled two negative adjectives: "rogue" and "renegade." Both work well within the framework laid out by Colin Powell. After all "rogue clerics," like "rogue elephants," and their "renegade militias" fit easily enough into the category of "outlaws." In such a context, you couldn't even bring to mind an adjective like "nationalist" or "patriot" (even though we, here in the U.S., don't necessarily find any necessary contradiction between American religious fundamentalism and American patriotism). On the other side, you have that wonderful adjective "fledgling" linked to "government." No rogue elephants here just a fragile little government chick in a nest overseen by "patrons" (a word which, while it may have some modest negative connotations, brings to mind rich people who give money to the arts or museums).

As a start then Wright accepts that, whatever Allawi's group may be, it is indeed a "government," and we are nothing but its "patrons." No "puppets" and "masters" possible here. Not even "interim administration" and "occupiers." So before you get near the supposed content of what she's writing about, so much is already settled -- and settled in favor of a useful official fantasy about the nature of reality in Iraq; useful, that is, for an administration trying desperately to limp through to November.

Perhaps it's the nature of reporting, a trade done on the run and at top speed, that much of reality must regularly fall into a series of easily re-used set phrases and descriptions. After all, familiar modifiers have been wielded this way since Homer ("the fleet-footed Achilles") to remind, identify, and categorize. So it's always interesting when you see one or two of those identifying phrases change, as I did last week in reports by Alex Berenson and John Burns of the New York Times on the fighting in Najaf. It's always a small indication that journalists are registering a change in the landscape. So twice in that week in front page stories those two reporters put an adjective in front of al Sadr that hadn't been used before -- "populist" ("Guns fell silent across most of the city as Iraqi government representatives met into the night at the provincial governor's headquarters with emissaries of Mr. Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric.") That description was followed by another word that, I believe, had simply not appeared previously in Times reportage: "insurrection." In regard to the Sunni areas to the north, the word "insurgency" and "insurgents" had long been used to describe what was happening (a cautious usage I adopted myself), but here they suddenly wrote of a "widespread insurrection," as in general uprising. ("His stand against American forces here has stirred a widespread insurrection across southern Iraq, starting in Najaf and then quickly setting off fighting in at least eight other predominantly Shiite cities.")

Burns and Berenson used these two words on Saturday and then repeated them on Sunday. This represented a small but telling shift in the Times' assessment of what's happening in Iraq.

What to call -- how to label and categorize -- Muqtada al-Sadr has been a curious problem for American reporters and the Times reporting has reflected that. In one of the earliest Times references to Sadr, on May 12, 2003, Susan Sachs referred to him as "another ambitious cleric, Moktada al-Sadr" ("Iraqis More Bemused Than Enthused by Cleric"). Generally, when he appeared as a bit player in the paper's pages in the early months after Baghdad fell, he was little more than "young" or "ambitious." In his initial appearance on the Times op-ed page on August 29, 2003, Reuel Marc Gerecht referred to him as "a 22 year old firebrand" (though the age was wrong). On September 24, al-Sadr was still imagined to be nothing but a "marginal" figure and Noah Feldman wrote of him as "the rejectionist Moktada al-Sadr." ("Wisely, the coalition has declined to arrest Mr. Sadr; his hopes for a living martyrdom denied, he increasingly looks more like a small-time annoyance than the catalyst of a popular movement" -- from "Democracy: Closer Every Day"). In October 2003, in "Bomb at Turkish Embassy In Baghdad Kills Bystander," Alex Berenson and Ian Fisher spoke of him as " a radical, anti-American Shiite cleric." In May 2004, Ed Wong uniquely spoke of him as "the maverick Shiite cleric" ("U.S. Military Says Shiite Rebels Seem to Have Ceded Karbala"), but generally in these months he was referred to in headlines and texts simply as "the radical cleric."

In a headline for a piece reported by "Alex Berenson; Sabrina Tavernise and Iraqi employees of The Times, whose names have been withheld for security" ("Radical Cleric in Iraq Sets Off Day of Fighting) on August 6, just eleven days ago, he was still being called this. But on August 11, a change set in. In the very first paragraph of a Berenson piece that day (U.S. Forces, Close to Attack in Najaf, Decide to Hold Off), he was referred to as "the rebel Shiite cleric," as he was again the next day before, on the 13th, he morphed into a "populist" cleric (populist, or agrarian rebel, still has quite a positive ring in the American lexicon) "sparking" a "widespread insurrection," before today in two front-page pieces (Alex Berenson and John Burns, 8-Day Battle for Najaf: From Attack to Stalemate and Alex Berenson and Sabrina Tavernise, Cleric in Najaf Refuses to Meet Iraqi Mediators), he once again became a "rebel Shiite cleric" or a "rebel cleric." (The Berenson and Burns piece, by the way, quotes for the first time in a while "Senior officers in Baghdad, as well White House officials," who throw the blame for the launching of the Najaf offensive largely onto the shoulders of local Marine commanders, with Ambassador Negroponte only later deciding "to pursue the case." Although anything is possible, this seems unlikely to me.)

If you want a fuller picture of al-Sadr, you might -- and I apologize for directing you to his work so often -- check out Juan Cole's piece, It Takes a Following to Make an Ayatollah in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section on him, his movement, and the larger Shiite context of the moment and consider the wonderful, unexpected adjective he uses to describe him (along with "lower-ranking cleric" and "fiery") -- "beefy." Or consider the Scott Balduff piece mentioned above, which quotes "Amatzia Baram, a noted scholar on Shiite Islam at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington" as calling him a 'shrewd politician.'" Not a description we would normally read here.

In fact, while most of the Times' descriptive adjectives seem to catch something of al-Sadr, they do so within the context of his relationship to us, or at least within the context of the words available to us to describe political actors who fall somewhere between Colin Powell's very American "outlaw" and the Times' recent very American "populist." None of them surely catch al-Sadr in his Iraqi context particularly well and, given the general lack of Iraqi voices in our media, we're not soon likely to find out what the Iraqi descriptive range might be.

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. A couple of passing phrases from that inadvertently revealing Howard Kurtz mea-almost-culpa in the Washington Post might, however, offer a little help. For instance, the editorial decision-making that resulted in the highlighting of administration prewar propaganda and the burying of all critical thought in the back pages of the paper is referred to in the piece as "groupthink," or as Karen DeYoung, reporter and former assistant managing editor, commented bluntly: "'We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power… If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.'" Amen.

Read additional dispatches by Tom Engelhardt at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.