The first casualty of war is not truth, which generally dies well before hostilities begin. It is language. Consider how Iraqi resistance fighters and the Ba’ath Party militia have been renamed in only a week.
At first, American spokespersons referred to them using neutral words like “irregulars” and “guerrillas”, for even if they are not wearing uniforms, their actions are legal so long as they are clearly armed and not pretending to be civilians. But after the first suicide bomb attack, the Pentagon started calling Iraqi militiamen “terrorists” even if they are fighting in the open against allied soldiers — and Donald Rumsfeld started to talk about “death squads”.
This change of terms helps to buttress the fiction, now believed by 55 per cent of Americans, that Saddam Hussein has links with the al Qaida. Indeed, 42 per cent of Americans have been tricked into believing that Saddam was responsible for the attacks on the United States of America on September 11, thanks to the relentless juxtaposition of the two in George W. Bush’s speeches (though he never lies outright by actually saying so). But this manipulation of language pales in comparison to Saddam’s latest change of skin.
Saddam joined the Arab Socialist Ba’ath (Rebirth) Party as a teenager, and has shared its secular and even anti-religious views all his life. But last Monday, he wrote this in an appeal to the Iraqis and the broader Arab and Muslim worlds: “The aggression...against the stronghold of faith is an aggression on religion...and on the land of Islam. Jihad is a duty. Whoever dies will be rewarded by heaven.”
Iraq the stronghold of faith' Jihad as a duty' Iraq’s Ba’ath Party is modelled on the eastern European communist parties of the Fifties (including party militias, torture chambers, and hostility to religion). Saddam’s hero is Joseph Stalin, not Osama bin Laden. But just as Stalin enlisted the Russian orthodox church during the German invasion in 1941, Saddam is willing to ally himself with popular Islamic sentiment in his moment of supreme crisis. And the Arab Islamists, every bit as cynical as Saddam, are willing to let bygones be bygones.
Everybody in this conflict is sailing under false colours — of course, including the “coalition forces”. The US and Britain always use this phrase because it links their enterprise to the legitimate, United Nations-backed coalition — of 28 countries, 13 of them Arab — that drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in the1991 war.
Enough of hypocrisy
Bush’s “coalition” has no UN authority because the overwhelming majority of UN members, including most security council members, saw an invasion of Iraq before the arms inspectors had time to finish their work as a wanton act of aggression. It includes no Arab or Muslim countries except Kuwait. Indeed, not one of the non-Western countries that did enlist in this coalition of the bullied and the bribed has actually sent combat troops.
Several of the European countries that the US claimed as members of the “coalition” turned out not to be. Slovenia protested against its inclusion (the US state department confused it with Slovakia), Croatia denied that opening its airspace to US planes made it a member, and the Czech Republic still denies that it supports the war even though it sent some chemical warfare specialists to Kuwait. The right-wing governments of Italy and Spain publicly back the US, but faced with huge popular disapproval, can make no concrete gesture of support.
Poland, Romania and Bulgaria sent a couple of hundred troops each, but dare not commit them to combat because their own voters are strongly opposed. The Antiguas, Angolas and the Marshall Islands stay bought, but do nothing. The “coalition” this time is two and a bit English-speaking armies — American, British, and around 2,000 Australians — attacking an Arab country all on their own.
The independent Arabic-language television network al-Jazeera started out calling the US and British troops by their own preferred title, “coalition forces”, but now refers to them as the “invaders” or “occupiers”. Its viewers got fed up with the hypocrisy.