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Iraq: The Precipice, the Brink, the Abyss

And Other Images from a No-Name War

| Thu Mar. 2, 2006 3:00 AM EST

The Vietnam War was known as such from very early on. (Of course, it helped that John F. Kennedy was pushing it as his counterinsurgency war of choice against the Soviets.) Similarly, while the war the elder Bush fought against Saddam Hussein in 1991 was dubbed Operation Desert Storm, it quickly became known as the Gulf War. That this war has no name -- and that no one even thinks to comment on it -- has represented a quiet success for the Bush administration.

In not naming the "situation in Iraq," the media and the public seem to have followed in the administration's footsteps. You can search the press, for instance, almost in vain for "the Iraq War," and when, on occasion, you do find it, that "war" is always lower-cased. Nor do people speak, say, of ?Raq, the way in the last years of Vietnam, Americans (following the lead of the soldiers there) spoke of ?Nam. In fact, though we now know, according to a unique Zogby poll just taken, that 72% of American soldiers stationed in Iraq today want the United States to "exit" within a year (over half within six months, and over a quarter tomorrow), if they have their own name or nickname for the conflict, we are blissfully ignorant of it.

War without a Name, Name without a War

The lack of a name for our "effort" in Iraq should not be seen as some kind of bizarre oversight, or even a reflection of the confusing or nondescript nature of that conflict. After all, the Bush administration regularly puts great time and effort into naming things. It has, for instance, created various Orwellian names for its programs in a game of opposites -- the Clear Skies Act, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, and so on. And much thought went into what to label the actual invasion of Iraq. After, at least one rumored false step -- Operation Iraqi Liberation (with its obviously unacceptable acronym) -- it was dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), a name the President has proudly used many times since, but which officially was over when he landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 and declared "major combat operations" ended.

Not naming something can be as much an act as naming it. Nearly three years have passed since George Bush stood under a "mission accomplished" banner on the deck of that aircraft carrier. Almost 2,300 Americans have now been killed and almost 17,000 wounded in Iraq; untold numbers of Iraqis -- undoubtedly well over 100,000 -- have died since our invasion, while families and livelihoods have been destroyed and, ever more commonly, neighborhoods ethnically cleansed and religious institutions damaged or destroyed. The country itself has been turned into an impoverished failed state, riddled with terrorists, filled with sectarian or religious militias, bled by a still growing insurgency, and threatened by ethnic and religious divisions which seem to widen by the week. Its government exists, to the degree it does, inside a fortified zone in a capital city that itself seems beyond normal rule, and whose streets are controlled by a variety of armed groups, militias, police, and gangs. Even for the Americans, the now-famous "Pottery Barn rule" of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, "You break it, you own it," is proving surprisingly untrue. The Americans seem to control little but the Green Zone and the giant military bases they occupy. And all for an unnamed conflict.

If, by some miracle, the archives of the Bush administration are finally pried open, I have no doubt we'll discover, as with so much else that was named by these officials, that the decision not to name "the situation in Iraq" was carefully considered and fully discussed. After all, they (and various neocons supporters in or on the edges of the government) have spent parts of the last few years constantly experimenting with names for the "war" that counts for them: The Global War on Terror, acronymed GWOT, aka World War IV, the Millennial War, the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, and (recently enshrined in the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review as well as attributed to Centcom commander and popularizer Gen. John Abizaid)) the Long War.

Once, to the suprise of this administration's top officials, a home-grown Sunni (and from time to time Shia) insurgency "situation" took hold (as American intelligence agencies had warned them it would in 2003), they would be very clear and precise in their non-naming practices. Iraq (like Afghanistan) was not to be a war at all. It was -- and the President, Vice President, and other key officials would regularly reiterate this in speeches, press conferences, and other appearances -- only a "theater" or, at best, the "central theater" in their Global War on Terror which, as the Bush liked to say dramatically, was being "fought on many battlefronts." In his American Legion speech, for instance, he spoke of Iraq and Afghanistan as but two "fronts in this war on terror."

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