March 26, 2003

American public not seeing the ugly war

By PAUL STANWAY -- Edmonton Sun


A grinning Iraqi soldier standing over the bodies of U.S. servicemen; a child in a Basra hospital suffering awful wounds received in the assault on the city; two British soldiers observing the bodies of Iraqi conscripts beside what appears to be a white flag of surrender.

These are images that for better or worse will help define the war to oust Saddam Hussein. What they mean, and whether you even see them, depends on your viewpoint and very much on your location.

The U.S. public is, as yet, seeing little of the ugly side of this war, but it's doubtful the American media will cling to the severe self-censorship it has been exercising in recent days. In a country at war no one in the media wants to be accused of damaging the war effort or - far worse - putting American lives at risk, but in a country with a free press it's inevitable that one or more newspapers or television networks will probe the bounds of what is acceptable.

The involvement of ground troops in the 1991 Gulf War lasted less than 100 hours, and there was little time or opportunity to grapple with such issues. Perhaps some thought, hoped, this war would be just as quick and decisive, but it's clear that is not going to be the case. There will be plenty of opportunity for disagreement over the conduct of the war and media coverage of it.

As one who has spent a good deal of time in the Middle East, it's hard to explain to Americans just how they are viewed in the Arab world. Perhaps the most difficult thing for them to grasp - particularly the U.S. military - is that their overwhelming firepower does not make them as feared or respected as perhaps they would like. The most widely held view among Arabs I have spoken to over the past couple of decades is that the U.S. has great equipment and is very good at remote-control fighting from a safe distance, but has no stomach for "real war" and the casualties that come with it.

In the macho world of Arab politics, where rhetoric usually takes precedence over reality, the U.S. is, often as not, viewed as morally weak and vulnerable. That's been the key to Saddam Hussein's defiance of the 1991 ceasefire agreement and UN resolutions, and it's clearly the key to his "defence" of Iraq: Cause as many casualties as possible (Iraqi and American) in the hope that international and American public opinion forces Washington into another ceasefire Saddam can once again paint as a triumph.

He's already having some success. Across the Middle East the two Arabic news networks, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have replaced CNN as the main source of information. Their coverage has concentrated on Iraqi civilian casualties and footage of Americans killed or captured in the fighting.

The message is clearly one of contempt for the way the U.S. is conducting the war and contempt for individual American soldiers. Anti-American opinion is being stoked and there is no mention of Saddam's strategy of deliberately placing civilians in jeopardy to save his own neck.

CNN and the other U.S. television networks seem to have adopted the opposite policy of not inflaming American public opinion. They have not (so far) shown the gruesome al-Jazeera footage of dead U.S. soldiers, several with their pants undone and some with what appear to be execution-style bullet wounds to the forehead.

In discussing the possible fate of U.S. prisoners, they have avoided mentioning the brutal treatment suffered by American PoWs in the 1991 war, including physical torture and the sexual assault suffered by two female captives - or that 12 years after Desert Storm one American serviceman remains missing and unaccounted for.

At this point there seems little doubt of the Bush administration's will to finish Saddam, or the ability of coalition forces to bring that about, but the Iraqi dictator had a dozen years to design a survival strategy, which takes into account none of the restraints placed on his opponents.

The only thing you can guarantee is that the fighting will be as bloody and awful as Saddam Hussein can make it - and that most of the world will get to see it unedited and unexplained.

Eighty kilometres from Baghdad, but there remains a very long way to go before the PR war is won.