Three years have passed since most Americans came to the conclusion that the Iraq war was a “mistake.” Reporting the results of a Gallup poll in June 2004, USA Today declared: “It is the first time since Vietnam that a majority of Americans has called a major deployment of U.S. forces a mistake.” And public opinion continued to move in an antiwar direction. But such trends easily coexist with a war effort becoming even more horrific.
In Washington, over the past 25 years, top masters of war have preened themselves in the glow of victory after military triumphs in Grenada, Panama, the 1991 Gulf War, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. During that time, with the exception of the current war in Iraq, the Pentagon’s major aggressive ventures have been cast in a light of virtue rewarded -- in sync with the implicit belief that American might makes right.
“The problem after a war is with the victor,” longtime peace activist A. J. Muste observed several decades ago. “He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay.”
The present situation has a different twist along the same lines. The Iraq war drags on, the United States is certainly not the victor -- and the U.S. president, a fervent believer in war and violence, still has a lot to prove.
Faith that American might makes right is apt to be especially devout among those who command the world’s most powerful military -- and have the option of trying to overcome wartime obstacles by unleashing even more lethal violence.
These days, there’s a lot of talk about seeking a political solution in Iraq -- but the Bush administration and the military leaders who answer to the commander in chief are fundamentally engaged in a very different sort of project. Looking ahead, from the White House, the key goal is to seem to be winding down the U.S. war effort while actually reconfiguring massive violence to make it more effective.
Two sets of figures have paramount importance in mainline U.S. media and politics -- the number of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and the number of them dying there. Often taking cues from news media and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, antiwar groups have tended to buy into the formula, emphasizing those numbers and denouncing them as intolerably high.
Meanwhile, the Iraqis killed by Americans don’t become much of an issue in the realms of U.S. media and politics. News coverage provides the latest tallies of Iraqis who die from “sectarian violence” and “terrorist attacks,” but the reportage rarely discusses how the U.S. occupation has been an ascending catalyst for that carnage. It’s even more rare for the coverage to focus on the magnitude of Iraqi deaths that are direct results of American firepower.
In the United States, many advocates of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq have focused on what the war has been doing to Americans. This approach may seem like political pragmatism and tactical wisdom, but in the long run it’s likely to play into the hands of White House strategists who will try to regain domestic political ground by reducing American losses while boosting the use of high-tech weaponry against Iraqi people.
Every night, I receive an email bulletin that’s called “U.S. Air Force Print News.” It’s one of countless ways the Pentagon does continual outreach to journalists with messages that encourage favorable coverage of what the military is doing. Those messages are filled with stories about the bravery, compassion and towering stature of -- in the words of retired Gen. Colin Powell a decade ago -- “those wonderful men and women who do such a great job.”
But journalists receive just a trickle of limited information about the bombing runs undertaken by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. The official sources have very little to say about what happens to people at the other end of the bombs. And, overall, U.S. media outlets don’t add much information about the human consequences.
In late May, an important challenge to those media patterns appeared on the website TomDispatch.com (and, in shorter form, in the Nation magazine). The in-depth article -- titled “Did the U.S. Lie about Cluster Bomb Use in Iraq?” -- went beyond probing the Pentagon’s extensive use of barbaric cluster bombs in Iraq since the spring of 2003. The piece, by journalist Nick Turse, also shined a bright light on fundamental aspects of a U.S. air war that has seldom seen any light of day in big American media outlets.
“Unfortunately, thanks to an utter lack of coverage by the mainstream media, what we don’t know about the air war in Iraq so far outweighs what we do know that anything but the most minimal picture of the nature of destruction from the air in that country simply can’t be painted,” Turse writes.
The article raises a key question: “Does the U.S. military keep the numbers of rockets and cannon rounds fired from its planes and helicopters secret because more Iraqi civilians have died due to their use than any other type of weaponry?”
Turse, an associate editor and research director of TomDispatch.com, has written for daily newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. His article pulls no punches about the press as he assesses huge gaps in media coverage of the Iraq air war funded by U.S. taxpayers.
Sadly, he observes, “media reports on the air war are so sparse, with reporting confined largely to reprinting U.S. military handouts and announcements of air strikes, that much of the air war in Iraq remains unknown -- although the very fact of an occupying power regularly conducting air strikes in and near population centers should have raised a question or two.”
The available evidence is strong that the U.S. air war is escalating -- with a surge of resulting casualties among Iraqi civilians. Their suffering and their deaths get very little coverage in the U.S. news media. “Since the Bush administration’s invasion, the American air war has been given remarkably short shrift in the media,” Turse writes. And he cites “indications that the air war has taken an especially grievous toll on Iraqi children.”
The combination of deceptive officials in the U.S. government and an evasive U.S. press has been a disaster for the flow of information to the American public. “With the military unwilling to tell the truth -- or say anything at all, in most cases -- and unable to provide the stability necessary for [non-governmental organizations] to operate, it falls to the mainstream media, even at this late stage of the conflict, to begin ferreting out substantive information on the air war,” Turse points out. “It seems, however, that until reporters begin bypassing official U.S. military pronouncements and locating Iraqi sources, we will remain largely in the dark with little knowledge of what can only be described as the secret U.S. air war in Iraq.”
As the summer of 2007 gets underway, the demand to “bring the troops home” is necessary but insufficient. The numbers of Americans fighting and dying in Iraq are not a reliable measure of U.S. culpability in the continuing slaughter.