Spinning Fallujah

Why the Marines say they’re fighting “anti-Iraqi” forces.

When is an Iraqi not an Iraqi? When he’s described by the United States Marine Corps.

As American AC-130 gunships pounded away at targets in Fallujah last week, Marines struggled to put down an uprising in the central Iraqi city. But who were the people getting pounded? In an April 28 news briefing, Maj. Gen. John Sattler, USMC, director of Central Command operations, called them “those who have taken the town away from the Fallujan people—what I refer to as anti-Iraqi forces.”

Sattler, I presume, was trying to communicate the idea that the United States forces were the good guys while the rebelling Sunnis, many of whom maintain allegiance to Saddam’s Baathist party, were the bad guys, or (at the very least) the misguided guys. This is a formulation with which most Americans would surely agree. There was even a time—one hope it hasn’t passed—when most Iraqis agreed, too. But military propagandists just can’t quit while they’re ahead. The bad guys can’t just be bad guys. They have to be redefined as foreigners, outside agitators, viruses newly burrowed into Iraq’s body politic. Even the uncertain number of real foreigners fighting in Fallujah—Islamist fanatics come to Iraq to do battle with the Great Satan—can’t accurately be described as “anti-Iraqi” (or, if you prefer, “anti-Iraq”). What really defines that group is its hatred of Iraq’s American occupiers.

Thus far, the mainstream American press has kept the phrase “anti-Iraqi forces” at arm’s length, though it turns up now and then inside quotation marks. Even conservative newspapers like the New York Post apparently know Newspeak when they see it. As best I can make out, the only fish to swallow this bait is columnist Oliver North, the can-do retired lieutenant colonel made famous by the Iran-Contra scandal. Maybe it’s because he’s a former Marine.

According to the Marines, the propaganda phrase was born in late March, shortly before the corps took over responsibility for the Al Anbar Province from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Maj. Thomas V. Johnson, a public affairs officer in Fallujah, told me via e-mail that the chief of staff of the First Marine Expeditionary Force challenged his officers to come up with a better term to describe the enemy than the bland (but more accurate) phrase “anti-coalition forces.” Lt. Col. James S. “Hammer” Hartsell, the liaison officer from First Marine Division, offered up “anti-Iraqi forces.” Before the Marines decorate Lt. Col. Hartsell for this flash of brilliance, however, they ought to know that Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director for coalition operation, was using the same phrase at least as far back as December 2003.

Maj. Johnson argues that it’s more self-effacing for the Marines to say “anti-Iraqi forces” (if you’re in a hurry, “AIF”) than to say “anti-coalition forces” because “It’s not about us. It’s about Iraq’s future and progress.” But this is false humility. If Sunni rebels are the “anti-Iraq forces,” logic dictates that we must be “pro-Iraqi forces.” That doesn’t make sense. Sunnis are Iraqis. The simple fact that some of them—one might even say many—choose to lob mortar shells our way strongly suggests that the United States isn’t “pro” all Iraqis. (If we were, we wouldn’t lob mortar shells back.) The United States position (at least for the moment) is “pro-Iraqis-who-favor-peaceful-transformation-to-democracy,” which I guess makes the Marines PIWFPTDs. Since that’s a mouthful, let’s call them coalition forces, and go back to calling the people they’re fighting “anti-coalition forces.”