Classic war propaganda: A case study


The Wednesday, May 21st edition of the New York Times had a front-page article labeled “News Analysis” that gets the story completely wrong, even while reporting many of the facts needed to get the story right.

It was a fascinating article. Indeed, I consider it a classic example of (intentional or unintentional) propaganda. Let’s have a look.

The headline of this “analysis” was “An Iraqi Success, So Far Taking of Sadr City Bolsters Government, But Questions Linger Over Militias’ Role.”

This “analysis” was written by the “chief military correspondent” for the Times, Michael Gordon. Here is the lead paragraph:

“Iraqi forces rolled unopposed through the huge Shiite enclave of Sadr City on Tuesday, a dramatic turnaround from the bitter fighting that has plagued the Baghdad neighborhood for two months, and a qualified success for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. As it did in the southern city of Basra last month, the Iraqi government advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militias.”

The next paragraph gave a hint of the real story here:

“This was a hopeful accomplishment, but one that came with caveats: In both cities, the militias eventually melted away in the face of Iraqi troops backed by American firepower. Thus nobody can say just where the militias might re-emerge or when Iraqi and American forces might need to fight them again.”

And, several paragraphs later… “The recent fighting flared up in late March after Mr. Maliki sent troops to gain control of the port city of Basra.” Gordon points out that, as that “operation proceeded and Iraqi troops began to pour into the city, militia commanders drifted away.” Later, says Gordon, “Shiite militants responded by taking over Iraqi Army checkpoints on the outskirts of Sadr City and using the neighborhood as a launching pad to fire rockets at the Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government and site of the United States Embassy.”

So, reports Gordon, in the face of each of these big attacks by the Iraqi military (“with the support of American airpower,” as usual) the enemy “melted away” or “drifted away.” In one case attacks on a different front were soon seen, and in the other case “nobody can say just where the militias might re-emerge.”

The Missing “Analysis”

While Gordon’s “analysis” tells us that the Basra and Sadr City operations “curtailed the powers of the militia,” for anyone with a little knowledge of guerrilla warfare it appears to be just the opposite. I have no idea if the “chief military correspondent” of the New York Times is familiar with the concept of guerrilla warfare. I’d be shocked if he were not. Yet, in his “analysis” of what is going on in Iraq, he failed to mention the concept, thereby missing a really great opportunity to help United Statesians to understand the nature of the conflict in Iraq.

It’s not as though the concept has not been mentioned in discussion of the occupation. In the year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq it was easy to find references to the “guerrilla war” in Iraq. On July 16, 2003, for example, the Voice of America headlined a story “US Facing Guerrilla War in Iraq.” The next day, July 17, the Washington Post reported that “The U.S. military’s new commander in Iraq [Army Gen. John P. Abizaid] acknowledged for the first time yesterday that American troops are engaged in a ‘classical guerrilla-type’ war against remnants of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party…” A year later, on September 20, 2004, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “To many experts, the conflict in Iraq has entered a new phase that resembles a classic guerrilla war with U.S. forces now involved in counterinsurgency.”

The Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation is complex, and only part of it has taken the form of a guerrilla war. (For a great discussion of this, see Michael Schwartz, “Contradictions of the Iraqi Resistance: Guerilla War vs. Terrorism.”) Still, understanding just a tiny bit about the principles of guerrilla warfare can help us understand what is going on in Iraq. For that purpose, let’s hear from three well-known theorists of guerrilla warfare: Mao Tse Tung, Ché Guevara, and Carlos Marighella.

Mao, in his classic 1937 work “On Guerrilla Warfare,” explains that “When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws.”

In 1961, Ernesto “Ché” Guevara wrote “Guerrilla Warfare,” in which he said, “The great desperation of the enemy army . . . will be to find something to receive his blows. Instead he will find a gelatinous mass, in movement, impenetrable, that retreats and never presents a solid front, though it inflicts wounds from every side.”

Both Mao and Ché were operating in a largely rural environment, but in 1969 the Brazilian guerrilla fighter Carlos Marighella wrote his famous “Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla,” which may apply more directly to the situation in Iraq today. Here’s what he said: “With the arrogance typical of the police and the military authorities, the enemy will come to fight us equipped with heavy guns and equipment, and with elaborate maneuvers by men armed to the teeth. The urban guerrilla must respond to this with light weapons that can be easily transported, so he can always escape with maximum speed without ever accepting open fighting. The urban guerrilla has no mission other than to attack and quickly withdraw.”

As we can see, in a guerrilla war the weaker guerrilla force will never stand to face the stronger enemy. So it is entirely predictable that the Iraqi army would meet little or no resistance when they drive into Basra or Sadr City. Gordon even reported in his article that “leaders of Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army . . . told one reporter [before the attack] that the militia was convinced that military operations were imminent.” So, as expected, they “melted away.”

Yet the Times headline calls this “An Iraqi Success.” I suppose it was, when we consider that the guerrillas are “Iraqis.” But that is not the “success” that is being reported here. Instead, the Times reports that “Mr. Maliki was strengthened politically in his drive to shape an image as a strong and decisive leader” who “was inclined to see the struggle as a test of wills, which he could win by striking a decisive blow, the officials said.”

The one thing that did not happen in either Basra or Sadr City was any sort of “decisive blow.” In fact, what appears to have happened in each case is, at best, that the Iraqi Security Forces engaged in a colossal waste of resources and time. At worst, it looks like an indication that the current Iraqi leadership is clueless, and further from “success” than ever.

But that is not why I said at the beginning of this article that I consider Gordon’s piece a classic example of (intentional or unintentional) propaganda. I said that because this “analysis” leads readers off on a completely misguided path. And that path is the idea that what is happening in Iraq is a “war” against an “enemy” that is primarily military. It’s not.

Instead, what we are seeing is a military occupation that is targeting a population that is increasingly mobilized in opposition to it. In addition, it appears that the portions of that population that are not mobilized are at least supportive of the resistance since, as Ché Guevara says, “The guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area. This is an indispensable condition.” The only way to defeat a guerrilla movement is to get the majority of the population to withhold support for them. And that is not a military struggle; it is a political one.

And here’s the propaganda: If we believe that the occupation is primarily a military struggle—and the “analysis” of the New York Times appears to assume that to be the case—then we are likely to believe that more “decisive blows” will lead to “victory.” However, if this is primarily a political struggle having to do with an illegitimate occupation of one country by another, then just the opposite is the case: More military “blows”—decisive or not, it doesn’t matter—will most likely strengthen the opposition.

And thus is a political—and military—failure by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq portrayed in the most powerful newspaper in the U.S. as “an Iraqi success.” That’s powerful propaganda.