Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Around-the-Clock Follies

During the Vietnam War, the Joint United States Public Affairs Office in Saigon gave a daily press briefing. Government spokespersons, who had not been in the field, would give the official line on what had happened that day. Reporters, some of whom had been with the troops before, knew that the official story often bore very little relation to reality. Yet they reported it anyway, and it got carried on the evening news. The reporters' resentment at being used this way led to them call the whole charade "the five o'clock follies."

Today, the deadline to make the evening news means little. We are used to a twenty-four hour news cycle, where both the crucial and the sensational events of the day can go out through the worldwide web instantaneously. But some things haven't changed.

The U.S. government still measures wartime success by the "body count," even though it has nothing to do with whether or not we are achieving anything in Iraq. As Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh said, in reference to the French, "You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win."

The difference is that now, the U.S. counts civilian casualties--when it suits. Back when the number of civilian deaths was climbing (far too many of them killed by U.S. troops), the Bush administration said, in effect, so sorry, but that's not our fault.

In recent months, the number of civilian deaths is still much, much higher than it was during the first three years of the war. Fewer people are dying than last year, so the administration is claiming the "surge" (a more comforting term than "escalation") worked.

What's wrong with this picture? Two things, at least.
  1. U.S. troop levels were not the only thing affecting the number of civilian casualties during this period. Shi'ite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr told his Mahdi Army to observe a ceasefire. Some Sunni militias decided they could fight the local al-Qaeda forces better if they didn't have to fight the U.S. at the same time. Neither of these is a permanent situation. Sooner or later, they will fight each other-if U.S. troops are still there, they will fight the U.S. too. Civilian casualties will rise again, maybe dramatically.
  2. Casualties are just the wrong yardstick to use. On today's On Point, reporters and generals agreed that Iraq, and especially Baghdad, have been ethnically cleansed. There are Shi'ite neighborhoods that are "no go" for Sunnis, and vice versa. People are not going across ethnic lines, so fewer are getting killed. Is this progress? Should we say "Mission Accomplished" again?
We have broken Iraq. It may take a generation for it to reassemble itself. Civil war, at this point, may be inevitable. All the U.S. is doing now is arming and training the sides in the coming war. To believe that this is worth doing because the number of people getting killed is down for a little while is folly.

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