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“Columnist” Resents Attention Paid 2 Killed GIs

We usually don’t post rants from blogs, but Pierre Tristam is also an editorial writer for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. He seems to be considered by them to be a responsible opinion maker.

You be the judge. This is his current offering at his site Candide’s Notebooks:

U.S. soldiers Thomas L. Tucker and Kristian Menchaca, 25 and 23, were captured in Iraq Friday, tortured, killed and dumped south of Baghdad Tuesday. Thirty-five Iraqis are kidnapped every day. Many of them are tortured, killed and dumped as Tucker and Menchaca were.

Self-Indulgence as Strategy

American Lives, Iraqi Props

Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 20, 2006

It’s one of those stories that took on a life of its own with outlandish, and ultimately offensive, disproportion. Two American soldiers go missing last Friday. The military in Iraq devotes the equivalent of 6 percent of American ground troops to the manhunt. The press in the United States devotes what looks like a fifth of every front page to trailing the story. (Television’s focus is by nature disproportionate, so no surprise that that the networks go Geraldo on the story, camouflaging the Natalee Holloway script for Iraq.) The rest of the world’s press is next-to-mute about it all, for a fair reason: it would be strange if non-American newspapers were to hydroplane over the fate of two missing Americans when thirty-five Iraqis are kidnapped every day, and fifty are killed every day. What exactly would be the justification of a paper in Canada or Laos or Argentina to highlight the fate of two Americans over that of countless Iraqis? But then why not pose the same question reagrding the American press?

Before we go on, the numbers are instructive. Nina Kamp and Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution have been keeping track of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s collaterals since the war began. In May 2003, their numbers show that two Iraqis went missing every day, and about eight were killed per day. A year later, kidnappings were up to 10 per day, civilian deaths up to 35 per day. In May 2005, kidnappings were up to 25 per day, and this May, up to 35. For precision’s sake, let’s also note that as of now Iraq body count has the death toll somewhere between 34,000 and 43,000, which means that the year-over-year kill ratio in Iraq during the American occupation has matched or perhaps slightly exceeded that of the Saddam years.

So two Americans go missing. It’s not that the U.S. press shouldn’t react, or that the military shouldn’t do all it can to recover the missing men. That only speaks honorably of both: caring is not a bad thing, even when it’s disproportionate. The question is, disproportionate at whose expense? There’s no objection when the story of two missing Americans should displace stories about summer beach bums, toe-ring fashion, some of the half dozen daily dispatches from the war on fat, most of what Bush is up to and all of what that powder-puff sorority once known as Congress is up to. (Newsweek’s current cover story? “The Pirate in Johnny Depp.”) Except when the disproportion in this case implicitly reveals something else less honorable and quite telling about why America is losing the war in Iraq, and why Iraqis despise the American presence, regardless of their dependence on it for survival (dependence isn’t love, as any jailbird can say of his warden): Americans don’t give a crab’s beard about Iraqis, neither at home nor in Iraq. A kidnapped Iraqi is sand in the wind, a dead Iraqi as valueless as the nano-weight of newsprint it takes to record the nameless figure. If it’s recorded. The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t know that dozens of Iraqis go missing every day. Most don’t care. Most don’t want to care. Johnny Depp and the cholesterol watch keep them busy enough. It’s ignorance indistinguishable from contempt, because the ignorance is willful: it’s what lets Americans, and the official White House line, continue to pretend that there’s reason enough to have gone to Iraq and to continue being there now—as long as the actual theater remains abstract, as long as the funerals of dead American soldiers aren’t visible, as long as the president keeps up his oh, so honorable refusal to attend a single one of those funerals. It’s also the kind of ignorance that leads to that absurdly disproportionate reaction when Americans go missing, as if news of a kidnapping was, in fact, news, as if it was unique, as if the value of two American lives was that gigantically higher than the value of two Iraqi lives (or that of the 140 Iraqis who have gone missing since last Friday, or the 200 who’ve been killed). The story of the missing Americans is another example of that divide between the storybook scenario the Bush administration keeps feeding the American public and the Iraqi reality neither the public nor Bush want to know. Dramatic stories of American losses or suspended tragedies spring up as out of nowhere—Jessica Lynch, the four American mercenaries killed and strung up on that Fallujah bridge, the two missing soldiers. The story plays out in the media in that Black-Hawk-Down language of inspiring honor against overwhelming odds no matter the outcome. The Iraqi background, where everything is more collectively violent, more tragic, more abject than anything the Americans are suffering (remember: civilians have no armor), is nothing more elaborate in the storyline than those painted backdrops the old Hollywood studios used interchangeably movie after movie. Iraqis extras aren’t even in the picture, begging the indelicate cliché: when an Iraqi dies out of America ’s line of sight, has he even existed?

The Wall Street Journal described exactly how deep and how odious is Americans’ contempt for Iraqis. The Journal story last Saturday made the point through the immense differences in the way American soldiers live and work compared with Iraqi soldiers they’re training on the same base, and how those differences apply when the soldiers are in the field. The opening paragraphs:

“This sprawling military base is divided down the middle by massive concrete barriers, a snaking fence and rifle-toting guards. On one side, about 10,000 U.S. Army soldiers live in air-conditioned trailers. There’s a movie theater, a swimming pool, a Taco Bell, and a post exchange the size of a Wal-Mart, stocked with everything from deodorant to DVD players. On the other side are a similar number of Iraqi soldiers whose success will determine when U.S. troops can go home. The Iraqi troops live in fetid barracks built by the British in the 1920s, ration the fuel they use to run their lights and sometimes eat spoiled food that makes them sick. The only soldiers who pass regularly between the two worlds are about 130 U.S. Army advisers, who live, train and work with the Iraqis. For many of these advisers, the past six months have been a disorienting experience, putting them at odds with their fellow U.S. soldiers and eroding their confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to build an Iraqi force that can stabilize this increasingly violent country. Army commanders back in the U.S. “told us this was going to be the most thankless and frustrating job we have ever held, and boy, were they right,” says Lt. Col. Charles Payne, who until last month oversaw about 50 Army advisers. He and fellow advisers say U.S. troops on the American side of the base saddle Iraqis with the least-desirable missions and often fail to provide them with the basics they need to protect themselves against insurgent attacks. “They treat the Iraqis with utter scorn and contempt,” Col. Payne says. “The Iraqis may not be sophisticated, but they aren’t stupid. They see it.”

Another colonel disputes that interpretation of course. Keeping them separate is a matter of security. Keeping them separate is a matter of resources. Keeping them separate is a matter of logistics, language, survival, god’s plan. What bunk. The separation is symbolic of the American effort’s inherent failure in Iraq, its fundamental, built-in failure that explains why Iraqis are not succeeding, and why the mass of Iraqis in the streets have themselves taken the contempt heaped on them and turned it back on the Americans—the mass of Iraqis whose backing the war effort cannot do without, if it’s to be successful (the proportion of Iraqis optimistic about their future, according to the Brookings reports, has plummeted virtually in sync with Bush’s approval rating: 75 percent in May 2003, 51 percent in May 2004, 60 percent in 2005, 30 percent last month).

That has been the most dependable constant of the war in Iraq: The divide between what Iraqis live through every day, and what Americans pretend to know, what they pretend to be doing, all the while blindly worsening a situation by the very means intended to improve it. That wall between the American and the Iraqi side of the base described in the Journal story is the symbol of that divide, and conditions on either side of it the consequence. Let the little detail about Iraqis living in barracks built by the British not be lost on the reader: The British were the former promise-breakers, the former occupiers with the golden tongue and the punishing boot, the myth of Lawrence of Arabia, the reality of surgical genocides, village by village, town by town, when necessary.

So let’s say it again: two American soldiers go missing. The reaction in America is nearly hysterical, especially with the added spin that the men were captured by “al-Qaeda,” a hysteria not dissimilar from the kind that greeted the killing of Zarquawi, the capture of Hussein, the killing of his two sons, the “rescue” of Jessica Lynch, the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Fidros square: all set pieces on a stage controlled from a make-believe war room in Washington the way the Air Force controls its unmanned drones over Iraq and Afghanistan from a small hangar at the edge of a runway in Las Vegas. In that context, the story of the missing Americans, the way it’s been told, the way it’s been hyped, is more of those piled-on insults on Iraqis’ daily fate, more of that attitude Iraqis have had enough of—that Americans count, they have names, they have faces, families, stories to tell, while Iraqis don’t. But even that distinction should be qualified by another divide.

I began writing this when news of the two Americans’ death was announced this morning. They were found dumped on an Iraqi street, after being tortured, the very same way dozens of Iraqis are found dumped with signs of torture day after day. I deliberately did not mention their death until now because in the end, their fate, the way the press plays it, is also irrelevant. It is secondary to the story the White House and its acolyte press want to tell. Should they have been found alive, it would have been another one of those fantastic rescue scenarios. Now that they have been found dead, it’s the other scenario—the one that reaffirms the need to “get the job done,” to not let their death be “in vain,” to (and that’s the best one yet) “stand by” our Iraqi friends. Even when it comes to American deaths and survivals, the names are becoming interchangeable, the faces irrelevant except as tear-jerking props for the newscasts and the magazine narratives. But in truth Americans couldn’t care less even about their own boys dying pointlessly. The stories don’t touch them in the least, except for those few military families that are feeling the destruction in isolation, to the tune of parodies of sympathy and yellow-ribbon gimmickry. The divide is not only in Iraq. It extends all the way here, to between those few who live the war’s losses and the many who glance it once in a while as an episode of CSI-Ramadi.

The two soldiers’ names, by the way, were Thomas L. Tucker of Madras, Ore., and Kristian Menchaca of Houston. Tucker was 25, Menchaca was 23. They’ll be forgotten by this evening’s ESPN recap of interleague baseball scores. By then their story will have fed a few news cycles well enough to profit a White House starved for fresh public fear and rage at “the enemy,” to give the president’s approval rating a little bounce on the back of corpses choreographed just so. But the one thing Tucker’s and Menchaca’s death will have been for sure is in vain.

"Self-indulgence"? You’re soaking in it, Pierre!

The contact information for the Daytona Beach News-Journal can be found here.

Maybe they should get to know their "award-winning" editorialist a little better.

This article was posted by Steve on Tuesday, June 20th, 2006. Comments are currently closed.

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