The Abyss: Two Versions of War in Iraq

When one person talks about the “war in Iraq,” he or she doesn’t always mean the same thing as another person.  There’s a disconnect, factually and emotionally, an abyss of meaning, a condition of double vision where people see just one and not the other.   

Here’s the “war in Iraq” as seen by the leaders of Congress:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw down a new gauntlet Friday before President Bush and Republicans in Congress, saying the House will vote in July on legislation to withdraw almost all American troops from Iraq by April.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said there also will be votes on the future course of the Iraq war next month, although he said he is consulting with other top Democrats on exactly what the legislation might entail.

The statements by Congress’ top two Democrats mean that the renewed confrontation with Bush over Iraq won’t wait until September, when the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, are scheduled to issue a report on how the surge of American troops has worked to quell sectarian violence in the Iraqi capital and other cities.

Pelosi and Reid, talking to reporters in the Capitol as Congress left town for its weeklong July Fourth break, made it clear that they want to pressure Republican members on their continued support for the war. They think a major break in GOP support for Bush is possible, after statements this week by senior Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio, who said Bush’s strategy isn’t working and called on him to start withdrawing the 160,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.

“We will put everyone on record,” Pelosi said. “We’re encouraged by the public demand for this. Hopefully, it will be heard by the president and the Republicans in Congress. I see some signs that that is happening.”

Fundamentally, for Reid and Pelosi, “war in Iraq” is a political issue.  The big event?  “Statements this week by senior Republican senators.”  To Reid and Pelosi and the people who take them seriously, these press releases landed with the force of a shoulder-fired rocket.   After those statements, why, everything is different now!  We can pass different resolutions.  Those who thought we would hold back until September:  Not!   The time to attack is now.

The embedded blogger Michael Yon describes a series of events from a completely different “war in Iraq” in this post:

On 29 June, American and Iraqi soldiers were again fighting side-by-side as soldiers from Charley Company 1-12 CAV—led by Captain Clayton Combs—and Iraqi soldiers from the 5th IA, closed in on a village on the outskirts of Baqubah. The village had the apparent misfortune of being located near a main road—about 3.5 miles from FOB Warhorse—that al Qaeda liked to bomb. Al Qaeda had taken over the village. As Iraqi and American soldiers moved in, they came under light contact; but the bombs planted in the roads (and maybe in the houses) were the real threat.

The firefight progressed. American missiles were fired. The enemy might have been trying to bait Iraqi and American soldiers into ambush, but it did not work. The village was riddled with bombs, some of them large enough to destroy a tank. One by one, experts destroyed the bombs, leaving small and large craters in the unpaved roads.

The village was abandoned. All the people were gone. But where?

Yon presents many photos of Baqubah villagers — men, women, children and their farm animals — after they were murdered by Al Queda during the period of occupation and retreat.  Children and animals that had been rigged with explosives.  Mass graves.  I won’t show the gruesome photos — if you can stomach it, you should go look for yourself — but here’s one caption:

Soldiers from 5th IA said al Qaeda had cut the heads off the children. Had al Qaeda murdered the children in front of their parents? Maybe it had been the other way around: maybe they had murdered the parents in front of the children. Maybe they had forced the father to dig the graves of his children.

And here’s more from Yon’s post:

Later in the day, some of the soldiers from the unit I share a tent with, the C-52, told me that one of their Kit Carson scouts (comprised of some of our previous enemies who have turned on al Qaeda) had pointed out an al Qaeda who had cut off the heads of children. Soldiers from C-52 say that the Kit Carson scout freaked out and tried to hide when he spotted the man he identified as an al Qaeda operative. Just how (or if) the scout really knew the man had beheaded children was unknown to the soldiers of C-52, but they took the suspected al Qaeda to the police, who knew the man. C-52 soldiers told me the Iraqi police were inflamed, and that one policeman in particular was crazed with intent to kill the man who they said had the blood of Iraqi children on his hands. According to the story told to me on 30 June, it took almost 45 minutes for the C-52 soldiers to calm down the policeman who had drawn his pistol to execute the al Qaeda man. That same policeman nearly lost his mind when an American soldier then gave the al Qaeda man a drink of cold water. 

I’m not trying to make Pelosi, Reid, Voinivich or Lugar look bad.  They’re reacting as politicians should to the pleas of the people who elected them.   They’re reacting, one hopes, to their own consciences, which are probably telling them Iraq is a lost cause, and it’s immoral to sacrifice American lives to a lost cause.  The war itself, and the blundering, lying Administration running it — that’s the enemy.  It’s a political enemy, one that can be defeated by press releases.

But the “war in Iraq” they’re talking about couldn’t possibly be the same war Michael Yon describes. Yon’s war is a war against pure evil.  There’s no withdrawing from that war, because it will follow you.

More specifically, Yon describes a war in which US soldiers fight alongside Iraqis, against invaders.  To be sure, Al Queda in Iraq has indigenous supporters, but essentially they are turncoats.  The Iraqi Al Queda members aren’t fighting US invaders.  They’re fighting to destroy any hope of civil peace in Iraq on terms other than their own. They will kill anyone in pursuit of chaos, fear and failure, and then booby-trap the bodies of their victims to kill more.

This vision of the war is not consistent with the one Pelosi, et. al. describe.  Linguistically, to square their policies with the war Yon describes, the politicos would have to say things like:

  • “The war against Al Queda is lost.”  
  • “Al Queda will control Iraq, and there is nothing further we can do to stop them.” 
  • “We must redeploy to other countries where Al Queda is not strong, so we won’t have to fight them.” 
  • “Al Queda is killing too many American soldiers, so we have to retreat.”

Are any of these comments untruthful representations of the meaning of a U.S. pullout right now?

If the anti-war members of Congress spoke in those terms, how much would that change the politics around this issue? 

5 thoughts on “The Abyss: Two Versions of War in Iraq

  1. John, it’s my understanding that most of the violence being committed in Iraq is from the insurgents, either Sunni or Shiite. Al Qaeda, according to most reports, accounts for perhaps less than 20% of the incidents. However, our government likes to talk about Al Qaeda because doing so makes it sound as if they are responsible for ALL the violence. Thus (assuming we forget that Al Qaeda had no significant presence in Iraq prior to our invasion) it makes Iraq sound like a legitimate front on this thing called the War on Terror. It is also my understanding that most of the American deaths in Iraq result from attacks from Sunni insurgents. So, is Al Qaeda a bunch of shits? Of course. But if Al Qaeda was the only problem in Iraq, we could finish this thing in a week. Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger, a massive civil war between native religious factions. This is the war in Iraq, and this is the war we shouldn’t be fighting.

  2. To me, the problem with respect to what’s been described as a civil war is one that requires a stronger Iraqi government. The U.S. has a limited but important role to play in helping that process.

    Saying Al Queda is “only” responsible for 20 percent of the violence isn’t really relevant to the strategic challenge we face or the threat they pose. It’s a meaningless statistic. Al Queda wants effective control over as much of Iraq as it can get. If we’re not there to oppose them, who will?

    What happens in Iraq now is of huge significance to the world. Whether the US was right or wrong to depose Hussein and put itself in the middle of Iraq’s ongoing sectarian conflict, the fact is, we’re there now, we are playing a positive role, and there is no good outcome conceivable without our military presence to shepherd it into existence.

    Many things about the war are frustrating, maddening even. It was botched. But those who are calling for a pullout now are not thinking through the consequences, for which we would bear much responsibility.

  3. Who is there to oppose them? How about all the Iraqis? If all it takes is a small Al Qaeda presence to require total military and economic buy-in on the part of the Americans, then boy, we’ve got a lot of other countries to invade. In truth, the Sunni and Shiite insurgents are much more powerful than Al Qaeda, and they’re both fighting to win. Once they settle their scores, I doubt they will have any interest in handing over the reigns of their country to the jerks from out of town.

  4. Seems like there are about 144 different ways to look at this war, depending on what time frame you want to use: 1918 to present? Baathist takeover to present? Just since 2003? Or just the past week? And then, you can take the intersection of whichever participants you choose to view: Just the Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites plus the Americans and Brits? Or do we include the Iranians, Syrians, Turks, Jordanians and Saudis? Can’t forget the Israelis, either. Or the Russians and Chinese. And of course al Qaeda, whatever that is.
    The Bush Admin seems to have decided long ago that it will lose this war, and is playing some sort of passive-aggressive, reverse psychology strategy that does not involve inspired leadership in any form. Maybe a shorter way of saying that is, “we watch the polls.” Imagine if they had decided back in 2002 or 2003 that they were going to win this thing.
    Meanwhile, Reid and Pelosi are trying to milk the golden calf of contributions from “anti-war” partisans without trying to kill the calf by actually cutting off funding or by admitting that maybe even they know this would be disastrous for the country.
    Anyway, one could go on in deep cynicism about everything associated with this adventure, but for the dream of a peaceful Iraq that somehow melds the deeper culture of the region, Islam, and what the West might offer in terms of democracy and participation in a global economy. Perhaps that’s what sustains the best of the soldiers over there and their Iraqi counterparts. They seem to be the only ones left who have any dream or vision at all.

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