The Bush Administration's War of the Images
The Bush Administration's War of the Images
Recently, speaking of his war in
The President's reply: "Mm-hmm. He could be right. There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence. And we're heading into an election."
The nationwide Tet Offensive has, of course, long been seen as the turning point in the Vietnam War, the moment when the American political establishment lost both the media and the American public in its
Nonetheless, for Bush, who (like the rest of his administration) had previously avoided Vietnam-analogy admissions like the plague, it was certainly a sign that he feared the loss of the war he had fought most fiercely since September 12, 2001 -- the war to pacify the American public and the media. No administration in memory has devoted more time to thinking out and polishing its language, its signature phrases and images, in the pursuit of that war; so, for instance, the announcement that the President is now "cutting and running" from his own signature phrase "stay the course" -- one-half of the linguistic duo (the other being, of course, "cut and run") on which he and Karl Rove had clearly planned drive the Democrats into retreat in the midterm election period -- is no small matter. (White House Press Spokesman Tony Snow: "[Stay the course] left the wrong impression about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is, when, in fact, it's just the opposite.")
If this is, in any sense, a turning-point moment, then it's important to take another look at aspects of the war on the home front that this administration has fought so relentlessly these last years and is now losing -- the first being its image wars in regard to Iraq and the second, the numbers games it's played when it came to deaths in that country.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
When it finally began to penetrate the Bush administration that things were going badly in
Former Bush State Department official Richard Haas, for instance, claimed only the other day that "we are reaching a tipping point both on the ground but also in the political debate in the
For a while, in 2004-2005, administration officials and U.S. military officers also spoke of "turning the corner" in Iraq -- an image that edged, however unconsciously, right up to the dark entrance to the Vietnam era's infamous "tunnel" at whose end, it was always hoped, you would see "the light." All such imagery was invariably linked to mini-schedules of progress. It was usually said that the next three to six months or even a year, would be crucial in determining whether the tipping point had truly tipped or the corner had actually been turned. But when the allotted time passed -- sometimes far earlier -- and around each corner proved to be but another armed disaster, all these images wore out their welcome.
Then, in late 2005, the Bush administration suddenly began falling back to new, far more alarming, far less optimistic images (though with the same mini-schedules attached). As panic spread after the blowing up of the Golden Mosque in Samarra last February and an internecine struggle already long underway at a low level suddenly ratcheted up, they began to insist, defensively, that Iraq had not yet reached the point of civil war. And yet they found themselves at, or near, or heading for "the precipice" (or "the brink") from which you could stare down into the ominous Iraqi "abyss" (or the "chasm") of full-scale civil war. In those months, if we had indeed reached that precipice and glanced down, we were also reassured that we had "stepped back," and that time -- those same coming months -- would only tell whether we had stepped back for good.
Of course, the months passed and it turned out that, if we had stepped back, the Iraqis hadn't. So, in the spring of 2006, a new administration image arrived on the scene. With the installing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, we had, it was said, a "last chance" in
Journalist John Burns of the New York Times quoted some of those anonymous military men who seem to swarm the corridors of Washington and Green-Zone Baghdad this way: "Senior officers have spoken of the [Baghdad] campaign in 'make or break' terms, saying that there would be little hope of prevailing in the wider war if the bid to retake Baghdad's streets failed."
So we're now at the make-or-break moment. Here's Kenneth Pollack, former CIA official and a leading proponent of toppling Saddam: "My real fear is that we've already passed the make-or-break point and just don't realize it. Historians in five or 10 years may look back and say 2006 was the year we lost
Given that we've been breaking things in
The Bush administration has essentially succeeded in breaking
In frustration, some influential officials are giving serious thought to officially busting up
There oughta be a law, of course. But as long as the Bush administration has no intention of setting a serious date for, or timetable for, departure from
The latest administration shuck is to present not itself, but the less than functional Iraqi "government" with a timetable -- in the form of a set of "benchmarks" for confronting the militias running rampart in
In the meantime, it just continues. This Monday, for instance, Michael R. Gordon, author of the bestselling Cobra II, had a front-page piece in the New York Times, "To Stand or Fall in
Playing the Numbers Game with the Dead
From the first, the issue of the Iraqi dead has been part and parcel of the Bush administration's image wars. For a long time (even after they started counting), administration and military officials, along with the President, remained on the page first bookmarked by Centcom Commander Tommy Franks during the early phases of the Afghan War. "We don't do body counts," the general said. We officially didn't do them, any more than we did "body bags" or returned the American dead from
On December 12, 2005, however, President Bush was faced with a reporter's question: "Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators."
To the surprise of many, the President responded for the first time with an actual number: "How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis." When asked for the President's sourcing, Press Spokesman Tony Snow responded two days later with "media reports which have cited information that suggests that some 30,000 people, Iraqi citizens, may have been killed."
As it happens, the White House has had something of a predilection for the pleasantly round number of 30,000. In 2003, before the invasion of
Last week, the President was challenged again at his news conference because of a recently published study in the respected British medical journal the Lancet that offered up a staggering set of figures on Iraqi deaths. Based on an actual (and dangerous) door-to-door survey of Iraqi households among a countrywide cohort of almost 13,000 people, the rigorous study estimated that perhaps 655,000 "excess deaths" had occurred in Iraq since the invasion, mainly due to violence. (Its lowest estimate of excess deaths came in just under 400,000; its highest above 900,000, a figure no one in the
When asked if, given the Lancet study, he stood by the number he had previously cited of 30,000 Iraqi deaths, the President responded, "You know, I stand by the figure. A lot of innocent people have lost their life -- 600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just -- it's not credible." The reporter answered, "Thank you, Mr. President" and all and sundry turned to other matters.
And yet, such a statement is little short of the darkest of jokes. Start with the fact that, by last December, 30,000 was already a ludicrously low-ball figure for the Iraqi dead of the war, occupation, insurgency, and incipient civil war. Early on, to give but one example of a study completely ignored in the U.S. press, a group of Iraqi academics and political activists tried to research the question of civilian casualties, consulting with hospitals, gravediggers, and morgues, and came up with the figure of 37,000 deaths just between March 2003 and October 2003, when they stopped due to the dangers involved. The cautious website Iraq Body Count, which now offers death statistics ranging from a low of 44,661 to a high of 49,610, was at that time in the 27,000-30,000+ range, but that was only for "media-reported" civilian deaths, not all Iraqi deaths, which, as the U.S. military surely knew, were far higher. An October 2004 Lancet study had estimated over 100,000 excess deaths.
Then, consider that between December 12, 2005 and his news conference last week, even the President has admitted that
So for the President to "stand by" his almost year-old figure in the casualty wars -- especially after this particular almost-year -- while claiming that the Lancet study's figures weren't "credible," is, on the face of it, absurd. It's hardly less absurd that nothing significant was made of this in the media, that George W. Bush was not called on the carpet for a figure that, even based on his own previous testimony, is close to criminally negligent.
The President said something else striking, while taking up the banner for 30,000 dead Iraqis. He certainly meant it to be the highest compliment he could bestow. "I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence," he commented at his press conference. "I am amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to -- that there's a level of violence that they tolerate."
In fact, there's no evidence whatsoever that Iraqis "tolerate" levels of violence that would horrify any society. For most Iraqis, life under such conditions is obviously hell on Earth. It's our President who "tolerates" such levels of violence in the pursuit of his policies, so perhaps he should simply applaud himself.
The fact is that the Lancet figures have largely been avoided because most Americans, including most reporters, can't entertain the possibility that our country might actually be responsible for a situation in which almost 400,000, or around 655,000, or possibly 900,000+ "excess" Iraqis have died. At the top end of that continuum, you would have to think of the recent wars and serial slaughters in the
It's hard to avoid the thought that a similar attitude toward Iraqi lives and deaths is at work in our government and in the media. After all, the kinds of denatured discussions now taking place about Iraqi deaths would be inconceivable if American deaths were at stake. Just consider, for instance, that the recent discovery of scattered human remains ("some as large as arm or leg bones") overlooked at Ground Zero in New York City has raised a furor and demands that all construction at the site be halted while it is thoroughly searched. Try to put that sort of concern for the dead back into the Iraqi situation or into perfunctory, daily, inside-the-newspaper passages like:
"In addition, about 50 bodies were collected Sunday around
How, then, do you even begin to grasp such losses in a war of "liberation" launched by your own country? How do you even begin to imagine such levels of suffering, death, and destruction, or the increasingly chaotic and degraded conditions in which so many Iraqis now live and for which we are certainly responsible?
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.