Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Civil War - A War by Any Other Name...

The more hysterical of the MSM have now fallen to calling the conflict in Iraq "civil war." I suppose there is sufficient cause to go there, especially as the definition of civil war is extremely vague. I don't really agree that it is as simple as MSNBC would have you believe, but, if you have to go there at least be honest about the definition. I'd say that the area of this civil war is fairly limited and mostly restricted to Baghdad.
Today, as Air Force One was halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, a White House spokesman protested a decision by several American news organizations, including NBC News, to call the violence in Iraq a civil war.

"While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither Prime Minister Maliki or us (Bush White House) believe that Iraq is in a civil war," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe

However, the U.N. reported last week that an average of 120 Iraqi civilians are getting killed every day. This weekend, the violence in Baghdad claimed the lives of 215 people in one day. Several experts say Iraq reached civil war status months ago. And now, the Los Angeles Times is calling Iraq a civil war and so is NBC News.

Does counting corpses qualify as a part of defining civil war? I'd say it must be a part, but putting a value on it as the definition at Wikipedia does seems just down right foolish. Worse, they pull their definition from a journalist's article in the NYTimes. Nice that the research there is so especially pathetic.
This morning, on the Today Show, Matt Lauer said, "NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted -- that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas -- can now be characterized as a civil war."
And
So, the Bush White House has consistently argued against using that same terminology for Iraq. Last March, for example, President Bush undercut the credibility of Iraq's then-interim prime minister. A reporter referred to Mr. Allawi's comments and asked President Bush, "Do you agree with Mr. Allawi that Iraq has fallen into a civil war?" President Bush coldly responded, "I do not."

This fall, press secretary Tony Snow declared Iraq does not qualify as a civil war because the violence is different. "You do have a lot of different forces that are trying to put pressure on the government and trying to undermine it,” Snow said. “But it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force."

Several historians and analysts, however, say that a unified force is not a requirement in a civil war. Others argue that the roaming militias and death squads in Iraq constitute a unified force.

Bush answered "coldly?" Damn, that's great reporting, no slant placed in there. No opinion noted, move along.

Is there a requirement for unified forces to define a civil war. I'd say yes. I'm not saying that there must be two distinct opposing forces. I'm saying that the forces must be constant and identifiable. This can be seen in Iraq. I believe I can define several. In fact I found this article that defines some of them.
In May 2003 our enemy, the government of Saddam Hussein, was defeated. Our war against the leadership of the nation of Iraq was over. But as we all know the fighting continued, and has in fact increased year after year until today. The Iraq War’s second phase now consists of the following different types of violent confrontations:
  1. Iraqi insurgents fighting American and Coalition occupying forces
  2. Iraqi insurgents fighting Iraqi government armed forces, Iraqi police, and the Iraqi citizenry.
  3. Foreign fighters fighting all of the above.
  4. “Sectarian violence” between internal Iraqi factions.

Some people argue that numbers 2, 3, and 4 aren’t serious or intense enough to qualify as civil war. Again, that’s a semantic dispute. But what about number 1? Does that qualify as a civil war?

I also believe they are ignoring the inter-tribal warfare that is being seen both in the Sunni and Shiite regions of Iraq. The foreign insurgency fighters and the chaos they are causing is most obviously not part of a civil war. That falls under the category of 'other.' They have peripheral political purposes that are political and sectarian, but are mainly aimed at removing the US from the lands of Islam. Some of the tribal and sectarian fighting is revenge for the past Sunni domination by the Baathist party in Iraq. A great deal of the rest is various factions plying for local control. In the largest scope there is the fighting related to overall control of Iraq. I see the Mahdi Army under al-Sadr as part of this issue. I'd also note that this is likely the smallest actual influence in the present fighting.

In any case, this is not the first time U.S. troops have found themselves on foreign soil and caught in the middle of warring factions. In 1993 in Mogadishu Somalia, 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in a firefight with local warlords. The infamous “Black Hawk Down” episode, which includes the horrifying images of American bodies being dragged through the streets by an angry mob, came as U.S. troops were trying to help the United Nations police a civil war and distribute food and relief supplies.

Ten years earlier, U.S. Marines got entangled in the civil war in Lebanon. They were part of a multinational force trying to cool tensions between Lebanese Christians and Muslims in Beirut. On Oct. 28, 1983, a truck bomb blew up the marine headquarters in Beirut, killing 241 marines. It was the largest single day loss of life for the U.S. military since Vietnam.


There are two of the poorest examples I think they could have provided. The Marine Barracks terrorist attack was not part of the civil war. The civil unrest in Lebanon was fairly limited and never turned into a true civil war. The majority of the fighting was instigated by the PLO and drew Israel into an occupation of southern Lebanon. Then there was the Syrian occupation that left things just as unstable as before. I suppose you could call that civil war at a certain level. But in this case, there were a large number of external factions involved in the fighting that it becomes a much more complex scenario.

As for Somalia, I don't see any civil war in that event at all. Somalia is so finely divided between various war lords, and the complete lack of any central government of any sort, that it's a case where it falls away from the definition of civil war and becomes the poster child for anarchy.
Most recently, before Iraq's civil war, U.S. troops were in Bosnia trying to separate Croats and Serbs in what used to be known as Yugoslavia. That U.S. ground presence, however, was part of a multi-national force and came after U.S. air strikes had already pushed sectarian leaders to the negotiating table.
I'd also place the former Yugoslavia disintegration outside of the realm of civil war. The conflict was for control of the various pieces and trying to mine out as much of the territory as the various ethnic factions could get for themselves. There was essentially little by way of political control, and the ethnic cleansing was another example of tribal or sectarian strife. Politics didn't come in until the US coalition stepped in and forced the parties to negotiate.
In Iraq, U.S. forces are mostly on their own. And they are caught between rival Sunnis and Shiites as well as government security forces whose loyalties are often split. Meanwhile, the bombings, kidnappings, torture and execution-style killings are all getting worse. Some of the video we bring in to MSNBC these days from Iraq can not be broadcast on-air because it is too graphic.

Against all of this, U.S. troops in Iraq continue to die. The total number killed is now almost 2,900. Whether Iraq is a civil war or worse, the terminology doesn't really matter to U.S. service members. For them, Iraq is a chaotic killing field that has no end in sight.

I'm thinking that this last bit is a completely emotional tack. Not sure what relevance it could have to their topic, since people are dying everywhere and that includes troops in the US. The posture taken is that the troops are dying and don't care what you call it. Well, I find that unlikely. The troops do care about finishing the job that was started, and the MSM in placing the terminology at its worst for the US public further works the public mind set into the defeatist attitude. With that the troops will further understand that the public in general doesn't really care about their sacrifices, which will be in vain if Iraq collapses into a high level civil war.

So, is Iraq in "civil war?" Sure, but it does require qualifiers. A majority of Iraq isn't involved and the majority of the fighting is restricted to a very small region. Calling it a low intensity civil war would be accurate. Unfortunately, the press is deciding to call it "civil war" in the most simplistic of ways merely pushes the anti-war propaganda that Iraq is a failure and cannot be solved.


4 comments:

askROM said...

It's pretty funny reading you struggling to come up with ways to avoid calling the Iraq conflict a civil war, even though your own common sense is clearly screaming at you to do so.

Avoiding using an accurate common sense term because it might make the Iraq War look like a failure is allowing politics to trump military strategy. We failed to stop the insurgencies in Iraq from becoming what they are today for precisely the same reason: we pretended they were something less significant than they actually were by avoiding politically-damaging terminology, and our willful ignorance ("dead-enders", "final throes") allowed the threat to grow and grow right under our noses. Our quibbling over the term civil war is similar: it's based entirely on politics instead of common sense, and it's hurting our ability to manage and control the situation in Iraq because it allows the emerging threats (like Sadr) to become more and more powerful as we pretend they are less than they actually are.

It will *help* our military if we use the term "civil war", not *hurt* them. At this point, there are only two parties who will be hurt by us using that term: (a) Bush himself, and (b) the anti-democratic forces in Iraq.

Also: The fighting in the US Civil War was largely restricted to Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Towards the end, of course, Union soldiers marched throughout the South, but most of the dying occurred in one small region of the US. New England, like certain regions of Iraq, was largely unaffected by any direct violence or danger.

Nylarthotep said...

Oh please. I'm not struggling with anything regarding what to call the conflict in Iraq. In fact this whole piece is a discussion of the MSM's decision to use civil war as the definition, not because it is applicable, but for purely political reasons. I clearly state that the term civil war is a vague term at best and depends on the context the speaker chooses. Or did you completely fail to read what I wrote?

Most historical writers consider civil wars to be primarily centered on political change, which is only a minor portion of what is occurring here, unless you want to say the power grab by the Shia excluding all other parties is for political purposes and not just for power. That contention is silly at best. Note that I was also discussing the MSM definitions from the article, which in many places weren't upheld by the facts that they are themselves reporting.

As for the contention of helping of hurting the military by using the term civil war, that's pretty much irrelevant. They die the same irrespective of what you choose to call it. The difference comes in how the public sees the conflict and withdraws their support there from. When the public can't stomach any further fighting the politicos will abandon the conflict without regard to success or the potential for further harm and that will send a clear message to the troops that they and their compatriots were injured or died in vain. That is an important point. Unfortunately, people like askRoM seem to deny that the use of fourth generation warfare is in high level use and that wars in this country now are lost on the home front and not by the troops.

Oh, as for the the american civil war, I'm quite aware of the military history of that conflict. I also understand that troops from the northern states died in the conflict as well. Just because the majority of the worst fighting occurred in 3 states doesn't mean other states weren't effected. It also is foolish to deny that battles like vicksburg were of no consequence because they occurred in a secondary theater.

askROM said...

Today Colin Powell said it was a civil war. It's common sense to call the Iraq situation a civil war -- it's "political" to not call it a civil war. NBC's decision to start calling it a civil war was not a proactive political move. Instead, it is a decision to discontinue their compliance with the politicization of the vocabulary. They would absolutely have called it a civil war long ago if not for the fact that the whole world was told by the Administration not to do so (implying exactly as you suggest, that to defy the official Administration line was to take a overtly political position). Now that it's become ridiculous to call it anything but a civil war, they've decided to make their reporting match reality before they become a laughingstock.

You are simply rewriting history to fit your political motivations if you are seriously suggesting that Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and Somalia were not civil wars. Everyone calls those conflicts civil wars, and in the case of Lebanon they have done so for decades. Only now that we seem to need, for political reasons, a new definition of civil war that helps make Iraq look rosier than it is, only then do we somehow find more nuanced and narrow definitions of civil war, definitions that largely defy common sense.

The origin of the term "civil war" is the English Civil War of the mid-1600s, which defies all of your new-fangled definitions. Like Iraq, it was complex and nuanced. There were Parliamentarian vs. Royalist axes, ethnic forces (Scots, Irish, Welsh), religious/sectarian rifts (Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Quakers!), foreign influences. Nothing at all like any neat Bushian definition.

I think by your definition of a Civil War, perhaps the only one that would count would be the American Civil War! Can you name another civil war, one that fits all your criteria better than Iraq does? Korea and Vietnam come to mind -- can we agree on them? What else?

The common sense definition of the term, in my mind, is this: there's an awful lot of military violence and killing being conducted by native groups who want to control the destiny of their land and who pose enough of a threat that they might actually succeed in their objectives (as opposed to lower-level groups who act up out of nihilism but who don't stand a chance of success, such as the Basque ETA). Maybe they just want to control one region or change the government's policies, maybe they want independence from an occupier, maybe they want to simply change the political party in power. Many "civil wars" end up being called "revolutions", usually when the insurgent group succeeds, such as the case in Russia or China.

The only reason why there is any debate at all about this particular civil war is because the Bush administration keeps insisting on using an Orwellian level of vocabulary control. My jaw is on the floor at the level of semantic knots you and others are tying yourselves in to avoid common sense.

And yes, I do think that terminology is important for non-political reasons. If we avoid calling it a civil war, we automatically underestimate the depth of the threat and we will devise incorrect strategies for winning. Or, as appears to be the case, because we are in a state of denial about the situation we are actually wholly unable to even define what "winning" even means. Are we trying to defeat armed nihilists bent on revenge, people who simply want to kill for the emotional rush? Are we trying to stop a crime wave? Or are we trying to prevent military forces from taking over control of the country, forces which simultaneously enjoy increasing popular support, stir an increasing level of fear, and assert a growing reach of power? The military strategies differ in all three cases.

Case in point: If we had called the insurgents in Iraq insurgents a year earlier than we eventually did, perhaps the will and a plan to actually do something about them might have occurred to the military and civilian leadership. Instead, we used terminology that downplayed the threat to the point of pretending it didn't exist. You really and truly don't think that having Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush all telling the troops, the American people, and the world that there was no insurgency (and telling their generals that they were not even allowed to call it an insurgency) had zero effect on our strategy and our ability to effectively fight that insurgency? Do you think that their denial that the insurgency existed wasn't a purely political move at its heart?

Sometimes I think that the motivation here is somehow mystical in nature: that calling a problem by a name that sounds like less of a problem will magically make the problem become smaller. Conversely, by calling a problem by a name that makes it sound bigger than it is will somehow magically make it bigger. By calling them "dead enders" we can make them go away, but by calling them "insurgents" we make them stronger. I think the opposite is, in fact, the case: that by pretending the problem wasn't there, we allowed it to grow.

Do you not see that this civil war debate is the same damn thing, only bigger?

BTW, I'm perfectly aware that the American Civil War affected the whole nation (nations?). The Kurds, or the people of Basra, who are generally removed from the highest levels of violence, also experience the impacts of the Iraq civil war every day. My only point was to counter your apparent argument that battles need to be occurring across a whole nation to make the war truly a civil war. That's just another distracting and useless criteria.

Nylarthotep said...

Oh, Colling Powell says it civil war therefore it must be. General Pace says it's not so he must be a stooge of the administration. Both sides are playing political games. Are you saying that NBC's decision is to avoid looking silly, while the majority of the rest of the MSM not taking the same stand means they risk looking silly. Please, that argument as almost as vapid as your common sense argument. If the term has no clear definition and there are parties to argue the definition then there is no "common sense" in the issue. Playing semantic games to advance political positions is common place in this country, but it has little to do with common sense.

Since you're such a stickler for vague definitions, name how civil war applies to with all similarities to Somalia (civil tribal strife with no government) Yugoslavia (fracturing of a failed state with no central government and ethnic devisions in a land grab) and Lebanon (outside agencies - Israel and the PLO - using Lebanon as the battle ground while disrupting the normal government and expanding their influence base) all fit in that nice definition of civil war that NBC has decided to use. By the standard that they state, nearly any war would be considered a civil war at some point. An invading power would be seen as a political force that had taken power in a country and was resisted by the people. That makes most of the conflicts in WWII fit that mold. By being so imprecise they forward a vague definition and thus forward their agenda. Seeing as they are supposed to be journalists, and report events in a balanced manner, they are merely becoming another purveyor of vague truths.

As for the English civil war, it doesn't defy my definition, but proves my point precisely. The difference you completely missed is that the majority of the forces that were politically present in the English civil war weren't participating. They also didn't have a massive foreign army standing astride their country. The vast majority of the fight fell cleanly between forces supporting the parliament or the king. That isn't present in any aspect in Iraq. The foreign insurgency is not there to participate in the political process, they just want the US out of the land of Islam. Their methods clearly focus on creating and continuing sectarian strife,since that is what aids them in their asymmetric war to get the US public against the war aims. The tribal and ethnic groups are grabbing as much power as they can hoping to posses a strong voice in the government of take the biggest piece of the pie they can if it all fails.

I haven't actually stated any definition for civil war. I've offered the MSMs latest and some of the definitions that the nay sayers are pointing out, but I end the blog clearly stating that if you choose to call it civil war, have at it. It just doesn't mean much. Vietnam most definitely started as a civil war then turned into an interstate war after the UN division of the country. Korea may fit the mold as well, though that conflict had more clear exterior influences that merely used Korea as a battle field. I'd say Cyprus was a low level civil war. Algeria was close to a civil war with great similarities to Vietnam.

Oh, I was waiting for the evil Bushitler pulling the Orwellian shift on the innocent bystanders. What a crock. If you can only see Bush as having done this and can't see that it is a normal tactic in politics, you really need to step back and catch a clue. Semantic Knots. Horse shit. I'm clearly stating that the definition is vague and that it causes problems because that vagueness allows people to screech that they are being lied to or the evil Bushitler is doing something wrong, when in fact he's doing just the same as any other politician. You don't have to like the political or semantic games, but having a bit of honesty that they are occurring is most of what I've been trying to say.

"Dead enders" vs. "insurgents" is just another case that proves my point. Both mean relatively the same thing. Semantics is being used to move a political posture to the front. The politicos called them Dead enders, the press and the military called them a mix of those terms. Posture is everything in the political scope. If the negative terminology doesn't help your cause, then you use another term. That is why my conclusion was clearly that you can call it a civil war. You just have to be responsible enough to understand that the definition is quite vague and doesn't necessarily mean things are as devastatingly bad as the political gamers would want you to think.

Lastly, as for the American Civil war and the Kurdish portion of the discussion, the point is that the Kurdish state is for the most part an autonomous entity that is isolating itself from the majority of the fight. They aren't really part of the issue, and the civil war is being fought in essentially 3 provinces. That doesn't make it the Iraqi civil war, but a more isolated version. It isn't a distraction from the argument because it is an attempt to clarify the context. But since you and the MSM seem to like to remain vague, I'll concede the point.