Nuance and Innuendo in the War on Iraq

The caption on MSNBC for December 20, 2003, reads “US troops go on offensive,” next to a picture of armed men raiding a “student dormitory” in Fajullah. The accompanying article mentions, with a little bit of regret, that a case of mistaken identity resulted in American soldiers killing three Iraqi police who were on their side, “thinking they were bandits.” An unrelated incident in Najaf just happened to go along with the story: a former official of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was wounded when Shiite gunmen “fired on her and killed her son.”

The rhetoric in the press has gone through stages of linguistic nuance when dealing with the ongoing violence in Iraq. There was a moment when American troops were cast as saviors for an Iraqi populace still trembling in terror of Saddam Hussein. Then, when it became clear that Iraqis were just as hostile to the Americans, if not more, than to a return of the exiled despot to power, the language seemed to twist around to make American soldiers look like victims of the evil “remnants” of the Hussein regime. The only threat, officials droned on CNN and NPR, lay in the “Sunni Triangle.” During the summer, all the focus seemed to be on construing the anti-American violence as a localized problem, an outgrowth of Baathist persistence, and a problem that would easily be solved as soon as the troops could receive the green light to be more forceful in their handling of post-Hussein Iraq.

Now, with Hussein captured and there being no explanation for the continuing attacks on American troops other than the one that was most obvious to critics of the war–namely, the fact that our presence there is offensive, threatening, and understandably unwelcome to a large number of Iraqis of all persuasions–the language seems to be casting our men as beleaguered and soft-hearted warriors getting their second wind. The capture of Saddam Hussein was probably the biggest gust of that second wind, since it ostensibly proved that hardball tactics and ruthless persistence pay off in the end.

Beneath every headline is a carefully tailored inuendo. “US soldiers go on offensive” is a perfect example. Underneath its transparent representation of a change in policy is a cliche loaded with meaning: we’re tired of being Mr. Nice Guy. We’re tired of letting the bad guys just shoot at us. We’re tired of being criticized for doing our jobs. We’re going Rambo, full-throttle–we’re cocking our guns and not taking any shit. Turn up the soundtrack, heavy with brassy horns blowing and a melodramatic strings section. We must fulfill our destiny as the born leaders of the free world and the diesel-fueled, corn-fed, tough guys that we have every right to be. And there’s a warning in it, too: Shut up about the innocent deaths of Iraqis. We aren’t going to apologize anymore for anyone who gets in our way. Even if it means killing children, as we have done. Even if it means killing some of our own allies, as we have done. Even if it means targeting a specific faction (the “Baathists”) and licensing countrywide political persecution of them, as we have done. Even if it means telling the rest of the world, a large part of America, and a little part of our own conscience to fuck off–as we have done.

Bad faith is an art. It requires the systematic transformation of reality into a set of symbols that we can manipulate at will. With the symbols, we turn everything into a game of interpretation, a dance of language, a palette of fungible signifiers. If this sounds like postmodernism, you shouldn’t be surprised. This is the very reason I never trusted devotees of postmodernism (whatever that currently means) when I came to graduate school in 1998. There is something sinister and unconscionable about claiming that everything is a matter of perception and that reality can never be described in absolute terms.

What allows you to make glib statements like “there is no difference between autobiography and fiction” or “memory and imagination are indistinguishable” also allows George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and their abhorrent patsies in the press to imply, through layers of masked and misleading vocabulary, that a raid on a student dormitory on Fajullah is a case of refusing to be Mr. Nice Guy, rather than a case of breaking into a school and beating up a bunch of frightened kids in their early 20s.

The pinnacle of bad faith is the “I’m tired of being Mr. Nice Guy” moment. It combines the wounded ego of a self-proclaimed victim with the moral impunity of a bestialized soul and the ideological certainty of a martyr. This is the moment, I would suggest, that every soldier longs for, the brief and breathy window of time when all restraint must be discarded because some string of prior events have proved that any kind of consideration for someone else’s right to exist is a waste of time or playing into the enemy’s hands. You can really only say it when you have the upper hand and your enemy lies defenseless before you, with nothing to save himself but a sense of moral decency, which is precisely what you’re now announcing you’re ready to disregard. Being able to say “I’m going on the offensive now” allows you to pretend that you weren’t on the offensive, from the very beginning.

There is no offensive to go on. Americans are the offensive, the offenders, the offense itself. Bush’s cadre chose not to be Mr. Nice Guy when they adopted Shock and Awe as a military tactic, dismissed civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure as “collateral damage,” and thwarted the more patient and less violent path of allowing the weapons inspectors to finish their jobs. It is painful to face this. Nobody wants one’s own side to be offensive. But the only other option is to spiral into higher stairs of bad faith, which seems to be the current choice. At the top of that stairwell, I suspect, is a student dormitory full of scared 20-year-olds cowering before a posse of Hell-bent 20-year-olds, from halfway around the world, who’ve been told they don’t have to be nice guys anymore and that the folks at home won’t mind if a few of those students die.

ROBERT LOPEZ is a faculty member in the Rutgers University (Camden) English Department.


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