Jihad with a yahoo

Thursday, November 25th, 2004

“The enemy has got a face,” a Marine lieutenant-colonel told an embedded reporter just before the invasion began. “He’s called Satan. He lives in Fallujah. And we’re going to destroy him.”

And with that fair warning, 10,000 or so heavily armed avenging angels descended on a latter-day Sodom and reduced it to rubble. It was jihad with a yahoo, “a return to the simplicity of combat,” wrote Paul Wood of the BBC, “after the complexities of peacekeeping and an enemy that never shows itself.”

Who knew there was such a fine line between democracy and genocide? Destroying a city in order to save it is back in style, as long as a queasy public is spared raw footage of the details.

Yeah, NBC aired that video of the injured Iraqi in the mosque: Ka-blam! “He’s dead now!” But as usual, the war criminal was a low-level grunt; appalled higher-ups, their holy war momentarily interrupted, took refuge behind their love of the Geneva Conventions and the Iraqi people, and promised a full investigation.

What a weird war. We’re officially ashamed of what we’re doing and get indignant not so much at criticism of our actions as unvarnished documentation of them. NBC, for its part, took pains to apologize to the country for being unable to fit its troublesome footage into the big, reassuring picture of American compassion. And except for that aberration, mainstream journalists have mostly behaved themselves, only giving us news embedded in official context: 1,200 insurgents (and no civilians) dead, the January elections on track, a great victory for the forces of good.

Thanks to them, George Orwell still has our number. “The nationalist,” he wrote in 1945, “not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

Actually, I think Orwell (who was quoted in an excellent piece by Linda S. Heard, writing recently for al-Jazeera), is only half right. We do disapprove of atrocities; Abu Ghraib, after all, was a PR nightmare. Public enthusiasm for war is a lot more iffy than it used to be. That makes “not even hearing about the atrocities” all the more crucial. It’s a lot easier to support our troops if we don’t know exactly what they’re doing.

So most of us are not going to read about children in Fallujah bleeding to death from shrapnel wounds because they can’t get medical attention. Nor will we hear about Abrams tanks firing randomly into residential neighborhoods or families huddled in their houses wondering where the next bomb or shell is going to hit.

We won’t know how badly the streets of Fallujah stink from rotting corpses, or that coalition mop-up operations included heaving bodies into the Euphrates. We won’t hear that at least 800 civilians (many women, many children) are dead from the latest onslaught, added to the 800 who died when we pounded the city last spring.

And that figure, a Red Cross estimate, is “extremely conservative,” independent journalist Dahr Jamail told Democracy Now. It “doesn’t take into account people buried under the rubble of homes, and other horrendous things that have happened there.” Officials expect the final toll to be “far, far higher.”

Nor are we likely to realize, as non-embedded news organizations are reporting, that a humanitarian crisis of daunting proportions is looming in Fallujah. Residents trapped in their houses have nothing to eat or drink. “There’s no water,” one resident told al-Jazeera. “People are drinking dirty water. Children are dying. People are eating flour because there’s no proper food.”

OK, war isn’t pretty, but at least what’s left of Iraq when we finish our job will have a fresh, new democracy to enjoy, right? That’s the big picture we’re asked to believe in, the context that allows — demands — forgiveness for the occasional American war crime we learn about, and stops us from asking whether the entire game plan isn’t a war crime.

And besides, the other side fights dirty too. I’ll concede a ruthlessness to the insurgents that may well be equal to our own (though lacking tanks, bombers, fighter jets, attack helicopters, etc.), but I won’t concede them stupidity.

The embedded and approving Paul Wood described “the simplicity of combat” we were expecting and hoping for in Fallujah. But why would the enemy oblige us? Scott Ritter called the Fallujah operation “squeezing Jell-o.” As we were shelling civilians, taking out the hospital and leveling the city with Old Testament fury, the insurgents were regrouping and attacking targets in other parts of Iraq.

The sickening truth is that we may have destroyed a city the enemy had already conceded to us. We went gunning for Satan and wound up slaughtering the innocents.