Monday, November 27, 2006

War by another name

Civil war. The phrase resonates regardless of what ideology you follow, or what country you live in. It's that special war with a special, self-consuming savagery meted out by combatants who know each other like brothers, because they are. The American media is finally coming around to the grim majesty of that phrase in the context of the Iraq war, and starting to accept what it means for the United States.

Among the media majors, NBC and its news partners have bitten the bullet and acknowledged the Iraq situation as a civil war. The network announced the decision on Monday, at virtually the same time that the number of days America has fought in the Iraq war were the same number as the days Americans fought and died in World War II.

NBC, in a welcome departure from the mainstream thinking in American media, separated itself from the strategy of misnomer used by the administration in the past, evidenced by any of the latest batch of geopolitical and military malapropisms (“War on Terror” and “detainees” are two). Maybe without meaning to, NBC has called the question, has called on the Bush administration to set a yardstick – to draw a line in the sand, if you will – and, in the inevitable discounting of NBC’s assessment, be forced to finally establish its own threshold for the agony of the Iraqi people and the depth of our agonizingly unnecessary national conundrum.

Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said it "certainly is a major milestone." "That does change the terminology and is likely to change the perspective of viewers, and one suspects other media outlets will sooner or later follow suit," Carpenter told Reuters.

The Bushies obviously disagree. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told the news agency that, while the situation on the ground is serious, neither President Bush nor Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki believe it is a civil war. We can therefore all rest easy tonight; those two most brilliant military strategists of our time have decided things are not as bad as they seem.

Sound familiar? With NBC’s breaking of ranks, we have a situation at least roughly analogous to that of March 1968, when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite -- a voice of the public’s sensibility, and increasingly one of the public opinion – broke ranks with the storied disinterested decorum of American journalism and said, plainly and clearly, that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable.

The NBC decision happened despite the protestations of the Bush administration -- and the painfully obvious fence-sitting by the Joint Chiefs, and hardened military silos like the TV analysts, all of them old enough to remember Vietnam. One of them, Gen. Bernard Trainor, had the curious nerve a few nights ago (after mosques were torched and worshippers burned alive in a daylong fugue of violence that claimed 215 lives) to call the current situation in Iraq "sectarian strife."

But NBC’s willingness to use the words “civil war” in the Iraq context is really a wider embrace of the positions taken for months by Keith Olbermann, host of “Countdown,” the popular news and commentary program on MSNBC [the cable arm of my employer]. With “special comments” that combine a savage wit, a solid command of facts and an unshakeable sense of the wrongness of the Iraq conflict and this nation’s complicity in it, Olbermann reset the baseline for journalism, recalibrated the laser of skepticism and frankness journalists are supposed to have, and to use, as a centerpiece of their profession.

Olbermann, who clearly admires the work and career of Edward R. Murrow, is in many ways the perfect counter to the acerbic, lacerating wit of Jon Stewart or the predictable diet of one-liners from the late-night kings. The growing populist sentiment against the war has expressions of every side of the emotional spectrum. President Johnson, who lamented after Cronkite’s statement that as of that moment he’d “lost Middle America,” wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s multichannel mediascape.

You wonder who’s next. Carpenter at Cato said others would follow suit. Will the New York Times or the Washington Post step up to the mike? How about you, Los Angeles Times? Y’all need to get up and make some kind of statement. Chicago? Atlanta? Seattle? Somebody, anybody – who’s got NBC’s back?

Eventually, yes, others will follow; these things are like runaway trains rolling downhill. That demand for frankness and clarity from the government as it relates to Iraq will only go up. The times demand it. What's at stake demands it. The facts at hand demand it.

Among those facts are those published in Sunday's New York Times, in a story reporting that the insurgency in Iraq has become financially self-sustaining, raising tens of millions of dollars a year from kidnapping, oil smuggling, counterfeiting, corrupt charities and other crimes.

According to a classified United States government report, a copy of which The Times obtained, groups responsible for a variety of terrorist attacks are raising, from a variety of illegal activities, between $70 million and $200 million a year.

If there was ever a time to call a spade a spade and a civil war a civil war, if there was ever a time for clear-eyed assessment of the challenges in front of us, the time is now.

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