Eyeless in Iraq: The L.A. Times and the Fog of War
by Lila Rajiva
May 4, 2004

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On April 19, the L.A. Times ran a piece entitled “Carnage Dims Hopes for Political Way in Iraq” written by staff writer Alissa J. Rubin. In many ways it is symptomatic of the way journalists today frame, obfuscate, and invert meaning through sub-textual narratives that are much more powerfully and insidiously self-censoring than any overt muzzling of the press. Rubin’s article is the kind of impressionistic piece awash with innuendo that masquerades as unbiased journalism these days. The assumptions under which it is written are a form of a priori restraint beyond the usual limitations of what news to cover, how, and with what words. All the worse, it is on the face rather innocuous -- just another bit of first-hand reporting, seemingly neutral, liberal in sympathies, hardly the war-mongering right. Just for that, it warrants taking apart: The title sets us up for the subliminal framework within which she works:

RUBIN: Carnage dims hope for political way amid U.S. military action, Iraqis increasingly loathe presence of foreigners.

We are not told to whom or to what this “carnage” is related. Using an abstraction devoid of the moral context provided by an actor and a motive creates an emotional disjuncture between a story and its reader. Notice how Rubin’s syntax avoids calling attention to the missing subject of the title -- the perpetrator of the carnage. Is it the Iraqis or the Americans? “Action” after all is a value-neutral word. In fact, the only emotionally charged word is attached to the Iraqis who are said to loathe the presence of foreigners. Notice the word “foreigners” -- not occupiers, foreign troops, mercenaries, or anything that would tell us anything real about the role and nature of these innocent-sounding foreigners.

RUBIN: BAGHDAD -- U.S. forces have stepped back from massive military action in the turbulent cities of Fallujah and Najaf, but the overwhelming sense here is that across much of Iraq, the ground is giving way beneath the Americans.

Here is a masterpiece of ambiguity. How are we to know if the U.S. forces “stepped back” AFTER massive military action or “stepped back” TO AVOID massive military action? As for the two cities, no mention is made of what has led in the past few weeks to “the ground giving way” “across much of Iraq” -- the cities are simply dubbed “turbulent” as though this is some kind of ingrained quirk.

RUBIN: A culture of impunity has taken hold in Iraq. There are few limits to who can be taken hostage or how a hostage might be killed. In this environment, virtually any level of violence is acceptable if it is aimed at the occupation.

The first time any violence is actually attributed to someone, it is to the Iraqis. Notice that this violence is described in terms beyond quantification -- “any level.” Why? Because one way to evoke a nebulous horror is NOT to use specific numbers but vague aggregations that loom larger because they are less defined. Thus, during the Korean war, the American press constantly referred to “hordes” of Chinese soldiers amassing in the north beyond the Yalu River in terms that evoked both the marauding Mongolian hordes of Genghis Khan and the discourse of population fear expressed in other phrases of the period like “yellow peril.” But, Rubin’s moral equivocation continues:

RUBIN: The loathing many Fallujah residents have for foreigners, an attitude bred of the Sunni Triangle city's long-standing insularity and 12 months of deadly face-offs with U.S. forces, has spread.

The “deadly face-offs” are of course not blamed on anyone, so a spurious appearance of neutrality between the two combatants is created. The next phrase, “long-standing insularity,” however, subtly shifts this: now it is the insularity of the Fallujans (subtext: those provincial xenophobes) which is to blame.

More of Rubin’s biased “objectivity”:

RUBIN: The moves on Fallujah, which Marines besieged two weeks ago, and especially on Najaf, where anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr has taken refuge, are pushing many Iraqis to choose sides between the occupation force and other Iraqis.

“Moves” is an effectively neutered adjective to describe the actions of the U.S., but notice that Sadr is clearly described as “anti-American.” The next paragraph builds on this:

Rubin: "If we force them to choose, they will choose their own," said a senior official in the U.S.-led coalition.

Iraqis, you see, are driven more by irrational feelings of tribal solidarity than enlightened reason, as we are.

RUBIN: For foreigners -- troops, diplomats, contractors rebuilding the country, and journalists -- kidnappings became a daily occurrence. Shootings of people who look non-Arab -- regardless of whether they were Western, Asian or African -- became routine.

For Rubin, the “disturbing” nature of the situation is counted only in terms of the foreign dead. Notice that no dead Iraqis figure in this.

RUBIN: Numbers are hard to come by, since many incidents go unreported. But among the victims were half a dozen Bangladeshis attacked as they left Baghdad in a minivan; four died. At least seven Americans who were escorting a military supply convoy near the town of Abu Ghraib were attacked with small-arms fire. Several are believed to be dead, and at least two were taken hostage. In another incident, four Italians were captured. The kidnappers shot one of their captives in the head and videotaped it, according to published reports.

Again, no mention of the Iraqi killings that led to these incidents. Notice again how the writer is able to reference “published reports” when these refer to killings by the Iraqis. Also notice the specificity of the details given when the dead are foreigners. But what about the numerous published reports in the Iraqi and foreign press regarding the causes of the violence? For instance, here is Jonathan Steele in the Guardian on April 2, 2004,

“But as residents ushered reporters into their homes shortly before last week's attack on four American security guards, it was clear that deep communal anger was lurking here, and had reached boiling point. They wanted to show the results of several US incursions over four days and nights the previous week. Rockets from helicopter gunships had punctured bedroom walls. Patio floors and front gates were pockmarked by shrapnel. Car doors looked like sieves. In the mayhem 18 Iraqis lay dead. On the American side, two Marines were killed. It was the worst period of violence Fallujah has seen during a year of occupation. So last week's retaliation comes as no surprise.” (“Driven By National Pride - the U.S. is creating its own Iraqi Gaza")

Of course, Steele’s term “security guard” is a euphemism -- the men were employees of Blackwater Security Consulting, a US subsidiary, which trains veterans of special operations as mercenaries.

RUBIN: Just three weeks ago, travel was easy outside Baghdad. There were risky stretches, but military convoys could pass. Foreign contractors could make their way from place to place, and journalists could drive to most areas of the country.

Travel was easy for whom? For foreign journalists and contractors. The entire piece is written from the point of view of a foreigner who now sees her relative privilege and protection about to evaporate. There is not even an attempt to describe the situation in objective terms.

RUBIN: On a recent trip to Karbala, a Shiite holy city about two hours' drive south of Baghdad, there were seven checkpoints manned by four different militias: the Al Mahdi army, a group mustered by Sadr; the Badr Organization, which is affiliated with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major religious party; the Hawza guards, linked to religious scholars in the pilgrimage towns of Najaf and Karbala; and the militia of the Islamic Dawa Party, a religious and political group. Only some of the armed men wore uniforms.

Descriptions of religion and ethnicity creep into the language when it is the Iraqis being analyzed. Once more, the subtext is that this is a religious, fanatical, and tribal group of people -- and by corollary, primitive. Much the same message was broadcast in the television pictures of Shia scourging themselves. By focusing on the cultural element again, Rubin gets to gloss over the very real, blood-drenched reasons why so many Iraqis have come to loathe the occupation.

RUBIN: Russia, France, Japan and other countries are urging their nationals to leave Iraq. Some reconstruction projects have stopped altogether; others have slowed substantially. In the absence of a robust rebuilding effort, the economic growth that underpins a democratic society cannot take off.

In the same neutral, impassive tone, the article links the violence of the resistance to the slowing down of rebuilding, economic growth, and democracy in an almost syllogistic manner. By now, a reader lulled by the superficial logic of the writing is likely to swallow the contorted reasoning it covers up -- a reasoning in which the resistance is the cause of economic chaos and not the brutal, bloody invasion and the twelve years of sanctions and bombing that preceded it. If economic growth is the precursor of democratic government, why did we ever destroy Iraq’s economy in the first place?

RUBIN: In some measure, the violence against Westerners is viewed as retribution for the violence in Fallujah. Whether that is true or not, belief that Americans behaved as barbarians and that thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead is widespread. According to Arab custom and especially tribal tradition, they should be avenged.

In some measure? ALL the violence against the Westerners is viewed in Iraq as retribution, whatever else outsiders might think of it. Arab papers have long indicated that. As for the Americans, is it only a “widespread belief” among Arabs that they behaved as barbarians? Is there no concrete proof - say, mass civilian casualties, drummed up evidence about WMD, shootings of ambulances and bombings of hospitals and mosques, looting and arson of libraries and museums? Is all this only a “wide-spread belief” among rumor-mongering Arabs who true to their “tribal” natures are pursuing a vendetta against the Americans? [Editor's Note: This article was written just before photos surfaced showing US military and intelligence personnel torturing and subjecting to sexual humiliation detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad]

RUBIN: No one knows for sure what really happened in Fallujah. All the parties involved have an interest in presenting the events in a manner that maximizes their advantage.


No one knows?

Can Alissa Rubin really not be certain what’s happening? Is this the famous “fog of war”? Trying to find out what has or has not been reported in the mainstream media (which I only occasionally glance at these days as it has become so unreliable), I did a Google search for “Fallujah massacre” expecting to find stories about the hundreds of civilians including pregnant women who were killed by US soldiers in early April. Instead, the search engine came up with accounts of the killings and mutilations of the 4 American mercenaries which were repeatedly shown on television and described as “savage.” So, to the establishment press, killing mercenaries counts as a massacre, but wiping out 700 civilians including women and children and shooting at hospitals, ambulances, and mosques does not.

But here is Dahr Jamail in The New Standard (4/12/04) reporting from this same Fallujah:

“What I can report from Falluja is that there is no ceasefire, and apparently there never was. Iraqi women and children are being shot by American snipers. Over 600 Iraqis have now been killed by American aggression, and the residents have turned two football fields into graveyards. Ambulances are being shot by the Americans. And now they are preparing to launch a full-scale invasion of the city. All of which is occurring under the guise of catching the people who killed the four Blackwater Security personnel and hung two of their bodies from a bridge.”  (“Americans Slaughtering Civilians in Fallujah”)

His accounts are seconded by Rahul Mahajan’s in CommonDreams.org, 4/12/04 (“Report from Allah - Destroying a Town in Order to Save It”)

Helen Williams, in a dispatch in NewsWales on April 12 (“Fallujah - An Eyewitness Account”), also confirms Mahajan’s and Al Jazeera’s accounts of ambulances being shot up and women and children being killed. Of course this could be simply Saddam-loving left wing bias, but another search proves that the fog of war has not penetrated the whole of mainstream media. For instance, Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor, April 15 (“Siege of Fallujah Polarizing Iraqis”) doesn’t quibble about the figures: 700 dead Iraqis is not a claim by rumor-mongering Iraqis but foreign analysts as well.

Meanwhile in an April 12 interview, CNN’s Daryn Kagan takes Al Jazeera to task for showing civilian deaths,. Her implicit admission is extraordinary in the context of so much self-serving denial, even while she takes the newspaper to task.

"Isn't the story, though, bigger than just the simple numbers, with all due respect to the Iraqi civilians who have lost their lives -- the story bigger than just the numbers of people who were killed or the fact that they might have been killed by the U.S. military, that the insurgents, the people trying to cause problems within Fallujah, are mixing in among the civilians.” (CNN, Wolf Blitzer Reports)

In other words, CNN wants to clamp down on showing civilian deaths as it gets in the way of the conduct of the war, a legitimate position for the Pentagon to take but surely an outrageous one for a news organization.

The army, in any case, seems to be conducting a different war from that reported on the ground. AP reports that 95% of dead Iraqis are “military age males” according to army leaders, not women and children. But an analysis of the figures by Jefferson Morley on April 15, in an article in the Washington Post seems to confirm the alternative press again. The 600 figure that is widely reported is from an AP story (“Fallujah Death Toll from Week More than 600”) which quotes a Fallujah doctor who claims that half that number were women and children This is partially corroborated by another AP reporter’s account of having seen fresh graves with women’s or children’s names. Most newspapers according to Morley have gone with an Agence France Presse report that quotes a senior Iraqi cleric who noted 161 deaths of women, 141 of children, and “many” of the elderly (“Fallujah truce extended to allow talk to end bloodshed: mediation”)

According to Morley, this is a “slightly lower” figure. Lower? 161 plus 141 plus “many” elderly surely adds up to MORE than the 300 cited in the other reports. Mahajan’s April 11 eyewitness account claims that the reality of the ground is closer to Al Jazeera’s account than the Americans’ and uses the number 500-600 with about 200 women and over 100 children. In fact it seems that while the AFP report cites slightly larger numbers than the others, all the accounts are actually amazingly similar.

But none of them have reached Ms. Rubin who is still stumbling around in the “fog of war,” morally ambivalent, making falsely equivalences between both sides. At least half the Iraqis who died in the hundreds at Fallujah were prima facie the most innocent sort -- women and children dying in their own country at the hands of an invader. The Americans whose death provoked the Fallujah siege were mercenaries protecting an occupying force that had already previously been guilty of illegal, indiscriminate civilian killings. They had been targeting civilian populations in reprisal -- indisputably a war crime. But Rubin does not make such fine distinctions in her faux neutrality. Instead she now turns to another kind of obfuscation:

RUBIN: But the specter of carnage at the hands of Western infidels taps deep into the Iraqi consciousness, raising revulsion. It summons images of domination by the Ottoman Empire and the British, periods of profound humiliation.”

Iraqis it seems are suffering from post-colonial stress disorder which like false memory syndrome makes them confuse the present with Ottoman or British colonial humiliation. Again, religious and racial factors -- which are plausible as exacerbating factors -- are not so subtly conjured up as the primary ones.

RUBIN: Now all the people, even the most ignorant, believe the only solution is resistance. The Americans are killing children, destroying homes, killing women," said Sheik Bilal Habashi, who runs a mosque in a Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Baghdad, near the road to Fallujah.

Though she allows that Iraqis are being killed, she presents the fact as a report made by a religious leader. Implicitly, its status is no longer that of a fact but of a nebulous Arab rumor.

RUBIN: But at the moment, it appears that the insurgency has managed to wreak havoc in enough places that 137,000 troops are not sufficient…..They never did have enough forces to establish security," said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations

Once more, the supposed neutrality of the observer breaks down. Increasing U.S. troop levels after all is only one of several options -- another of which could be withdrawal. But don’t wait for Rubin to bring it up.

RUBIN: "So they had to kick a lot of cans down the road, including Sadr and the militias -- there are a lot of militias around the country, not just his," Nash said, referring to the policy of avoiding a head-on confrontation with Sadr's and other militias.

In this doublespeak, shutting down Sadr’s newspaper is “avoiding confrontation.”

Rubin: To many Westerners, the ambush and mutilation of four U.S. contractors in Fallujah appeared to be the start of the troubles. But tracing the onset of this downward spiral, two other events stand out that at the time were viewed by Westerners as relatively ordinary. Six days before the attack on the contractors, newly arrived Marines had entered Fallujah -- the first time in months that U.S. forces had done so. In a battle for control near an entrance to the city, Marines killed between eight and 18 Iraqis, some of them civilians. That set off a cycle of revenge, including the ambush and mutilation of the contractors and a nearly simultaneous assault that killed five Marines.

This is a fascinating piece of writing not least for the way Rubin characterizes the slaughter at Fallujah as “relatively ordinary” in the eyes of Westerners. Which Westerners? Not the ones who marched in solidarity against the war. Not the German, French, or Russian governments, not the Catholic church, not most Middle East analysts or academics who always warned that violence against civilians would lead to a ferocious backlash. And the “relatively ordinary” killings which she places as between 8-18, including “some” civilians, is again detached from all context. James Conachy, posting on the World Socialist Website, April 1 , 2004, provides the circumstances which Rubin’s shaded account hides:

The California-based First Marine Division took over control of the area, which has been one of the centres of opposition and armed resistance to the US. The newly arrived troops have been attempting to assert their control using brutal tactics. Last Friday morning, hundreds of marines with tanks and armoured vehicles deployed into the city in force—the first time American troops have done so for months. Exchanges of mortar and gunfire flared throughout the day, especially in the working class suburb of al-Askari where the marines fought battles with local resistance fighters. Most of the 15 Iraqis killed and many of the wounded were non-combatants gunned down by the Americans.” Included in those killed was yet another journalist, this time an Arab free-lance for ABC. (“Iraqi hatred for U.S. occupation erupts in Fallujah”)

Moreover, this crackdown on Fallujah came at the end of a month which reported a sharp spike in fighting all over Iraq. Earlier, 143 Iraqis had been killed in Bagdhad and Karbala (Mike Whitney, Counterpunch, March 3, 2004). A March 7, 2004 New York Times article describes the rounding up of civilians - “more than 10,000 Iraqi men, from 11 to 75 years were locked up," "kicked in the head, choked, and put in cold, wet rooms for days at a time," with no legal rights or visits, although most (90%) were not considered a threat. (Jeffrey Gettleman, “As U.S. Detains Iraqis, Families Plead for News”)

A March 28 Reuters report describes US forces firing on a civilian car in Tikrit, killing a three-year old boy and wounding six women and children as well as their male driver, according to the police and reporters. (“U.S. troops kill 3-year-old boy”) It is in this context that the killings of the mercenaries, gruesome as they were, should be viewed. A context of mass arrests, beatings, Gestapo-like house raids, humiliating searches of women, aggressive shootings of civilians at checkpoints, and deployment of armored vehicles in residential areas. A better name for this type of “pacification” would be Gaza-fication.

RUBIN: What appeared as a spontaneous outpouring of anti-American emotions might in fact have reflected a secret compact between Sadr and insurgents in the Sunni Triangle to produce a national uprising around the April 9 anniversary of Baghdad's fall.

Rubin’s source for this is Adel Abdel Mehdi deputy leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and a member of the US backed Iraq Governing Council. In other words, besides a U.S. general, the only person whom she can think of interviewing is a member of the U.S.- installed regime. And what do these establishment worthies have to say? That the popular resistance that has brought Sunni and Shia together could not have been spontaneous but most have been orchestrated from above. Why? Because in the propaganda, intentional or unconscious of a democratic country, the one constant is that the “people” -- Iraqis and Americans, liberated and liberators -- can never be in opposition to the actions of that democracy. Otherwise, heavens, we would realize exactly how “democratic” the democracy was.

RUBIN: There is less violence in Fallujah now as well, but the city remains tense. No one believes the trouble is over. The U.S. is determined to root out the fighters, and it is clear that hundreds -- if not a couple of thousand -- are still there.

Again, Rubin continues to treat the popular uprising as though it were instigated and planned by insurgents, religious militia, or other professional cadres. Attaching blame to a country’s people is always risky business - far better to blame foreigners or mercenaries or militias wherever possible or the whole façade of liberating people who palpably don’t want it, will come apart.

RUBIN: Civilians will inevitably be caught in the cross-fire.

When the U.S. kills civilians, its always “inevitable,” “unintentional,” and in spite of the most precocious of smart bombs.

RUBIN: Bessam Jarrah is a slight, soft-spoken man who is willing to criticize violence by Iraqis.

By implication, Rubin seems to suggest other Iraqis are not (criticizing Iraqi violence). Underlying it all, it seems that she really cannot understand that violence in defense of one’s homeland is not equivalent to the violence inflicted by invaders and that most Iraqis and objective analysts are going to see it that way. The fact that she introduces this refrain of “violence of Iraqis” is an unconscious giveaway -- she simply does not see that the initial fact of invasion and occupation has erased the legitimacy of even bringing up the issue of Iraqi violence, civilian of course, but also military. It would be the equivalent of complaining about the violence of a man resisting an effort to burgle, maim, and murder his family.

It would be one sort of failure of journalism and a simpler one to deal with if Alissa Rubin were simply a mouthpiece for government propaganda. But she is clearly not that, for she has questioned, looked for reasons, and drawn inferences beyond the raw facts available. Her explanations, for instance her references to Arab culture and religion, are in fact liberal and seem to reflect an objective search for underlying reasons. But what speaks through her is a pre-conceived framework with a ready-made language attached, one in which religion, tribalism, and irrationalism are ranged against democracy, economic prosperity, and secularism, where state terror is law and order, and non-state war is terror, and where the West is a monolith because of shared values whereas Arabs are tribal whether they act as a monolith or fragmentedly. Mouthing the language of these preconceptions, her own human powers of observation succumb, and purporting to show her readers what is happening, she only convinces them of her blindness.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance media analyst based in Washington, DC who has written on political and social issues for Alternet, Antiwar.com, Himal South Asian and other online and print media in the U.S. and India. She has taught courses on media and U.S. foreign policy at the University of Maryland, and divides her time between the U.S. and India.