Feature

Iraq

Should the conflict be called a ‘civil war’?

'œForget the debate over what to do about the war in Iraq,' said Peter Baker in The Washington Post. The White House would rather argue over what to call it. Despite the growing number of news media, politicians, and scholars who now refer to the violence as a civil war, the Bush administration refuses to use the term. The Sunnis and Shiites are fighting 'œto express differences,' the White House says, not to achieve clear political goals, so it's not a classic civil war. It's a rather arbitrary distinction, said Geoffrey Nunberg in the Los Angeles Times, but it has real political import. 'œPeople think of insurgencies and insurrections as things that can be suppressed or defeated.' To define the violence in Iraq with a charged phrase like 'œcivil war,' on the other hand, would be to admit that military victory is impossible, and that our troops are now caught between a backward nation's warring Islamic sects.

How dumb does the White House think Americans are? asked USA Today in an editorial. No semantic legerdemain can hide the fact that Iraq has descended into chaos. Roving death squads and car-bombings are filling Baghdad's streets with bodies. 'œU.S. troops are shot at by Sunnis when they try to defend Shiites and by Shiites when they try to defend Sunnis.' The butchery is compounded by numerous splinter groups, criminal gangs, and foreign fighters aligned with al Qaida, all ruthlessly engaged in murdering civilians and killing the foreign occupiers—our soldiers. If anything, 'œ'civil war' is too simple a term to describe what's happening.'

Not to be niggling, said John Keegan and Bartle Bull in the Chicago Sun-Times, but the White House has a point. True, this conflict bears a passing resemblance to a classic civil war. 'œIt is taking place within a single country, and it primarily involves local people killing local people.' But it doesn't involve organized armies, stated aims, fixed ideologies, or a struggle for 'œsole authority over the state.' It's a bloody mess, to be sure, but calling it a civil war is historically incorrect.

This isn't about historical accuracy, said Rhonda Chriss Lokeman in The Kansas City Star. The 'œWhite House propaganda machine' has always practiced the principle that to name things is to own them, and thus to frame the debate. In Bush-speak, we don't torture suspected terrorists; we use 'œenhanced interrogation techniques.' The war in Iraq is part of the 'œglobal war on terrorism,' not a failed experiment in nation-building. For a long time, the administration got away with this Orwellian repackaging, said James Poniewozik in Time. Reporters or commentators who didn't submit to the deception were attacked as defeatists or, worse, as traitors. But the media is now rebelling, and so is the public.

If only this were a civil war, said Ralph Peters in the New York Post, the Bush administration's problems would be far simpler. We could just choose one side and crush the enemy. But the internecine conflict there is a stew pot of ancient religious feuds, modern terrorism, and nationalism, and no existing term adequately describes it. That's not just a semantic problem: 'œWe not only speak, but think, in language.' Not knowing what to call what's happening in Iraq 'œmakes it far harder for our civilian leaders to understand it,' and to devise an effective response. Are our troops in Iraq to defeat an enemy, or 'œto buy time with their lives in the forlorn hope that something will go right?' That is a distinction with a real difference, whether we call it a civil war or not.

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