Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I don't need your civil war

So apparently there's a big to-do over NBC finally exhibiting the sense to call a spade a spade and use the words "civil war" in its reporting on Iraq.

The Associated Press quoted Matthew Felling, a spokesman for the Center for Media and Public Affairs as saying, "[N]ot since Fox News Channel decided to stop saying 'suicide bombers' and start saying 'homicide bombers' has there been a starker linguistic stance taken by a news organization." (Fox adopted that terminology in April 2002 after the White House did, according to AP. And while my gut reaction is to wrinkle my nose at any terminological imprimaturs of either entity, this one gives me pause.)

Seriously though, what's the big deal? Why is the White House so insistent that Iraq is not in a state of civil war, and why aren't more media agencies calling it a civil war?

AP offers a feeble lesson in definitions:

Webster's New World College Dictionary defines it simply as "war between geographical sections or political factions of the same nation."

Some political scientists use a threshold of 1,000 dead, which the current conflict has long since passed.

There are more conservative definitions. The Web site GlobalSecurity.org, which provides information on defense issues, said five criteria must be met: The contestants must control territory, have a functioning government, enjoy some foreign recognition, have identifiable regular armed forces and engage in major military operations.

The Bush administration said Monday that it does not believe Iraq is in a civil war, and that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki does not, either.

"You have notr yet had a situation where you have two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power, but for territory," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said.

"What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy -- which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy."
The simplest and therefore broadest and therefore truest definition of civil war, it seems to me, is a conflict between individual groups of a single nation. But within this broad and potentially useful definition are, inevitably, broader and less useful definitions to be hashed over.

What constitutes a conflict, what constitutes a group, and most importantly here, what constitutes a nation?

There are those who say Iraq should be broken up into three separate countries, pointing to the fact that the modern country isn't any sort of organic concatenation but rather something cobbled together by the British in 1921.

That being true, then I suppose you could make the case that what's happening in Iraq is a war plain and simple, with nothing civil about it.

But then again, this could actually be closer to a civil war under the first definition cited by AP than most realize. Writes the New York Times:
Many Iraqis and Americans who have tracked the insurgency say it has been strongly shaped by former Baath Party members who want to keep Shiites from taking power. Even the newer jihadist groups have articulated political goals on Web sites -- most notably to establish a Sunni-ruled Islamic caliphate.

"There was a whole regime that ruled this country for 35 years," said Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish legislator. "Now they've gone underground. This is the main body of the resistance."
As for why the administration and the media are so squeamish about the term civil war, NYT is slightly more thoughtful. Consenting to call it a civil war could be construed as acknowledging the U.S. has failed in Iraq. Also, supporters of the war "worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in any Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal."

I'm not totally satisfied with the connotational analysis here. I, for one, would be just as much in favor of withdrawal if the administration started saying Iraq was in a civil war as I am now. I don't think there's any real tollerance for euphamism of this sort. The Korean conflict was a war, and everybody knows it. That's even more true for Vietnam. I don't think admitting there's a civil war on in Iraq would really shake the foundations of those who support the war. At this point I don't know what would (unless all this hoopla over the Baker commission pans out).

I suggest there's an altogether different connotation that those who dislike "civil war" are mainly worried about, consciously or not. To American ears, civil war brings immediately to mind the war between North and South, a struggle whose symbolics is as active and controversial as ever. While a goodly portion of the U.S. population is made up of Civil War buffs, perhaps our Leaders and Teachers are concerned if "civil war" became attached to Iraq as well as America then there would be an undesirable identification with the combatants there. It would suddenly be too easy to make equations, even moral ones.

(And yet, it seems there's not total agreement that the Civil War should be called a civil war either -- viz. "The War of Northern Aggression.")

Axl Rose, I write with a shudder, put it pretty well:
We got the wall of D.C. to remind us all
That you can't trust freedom
When it's not in your hands
When everybody's fightin'
For their promised land

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