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April 18th, 2007

For those who would say that we are making “progress” in Iraq, that there is no civil war going on, and that we are “over-reporting” or exaggerating the violence in Iraq, there is a point in today’s domestic news that should be inescapable to these Iraq War apologists:the shootings at Virginia Tech, for all of their horror and bloodiness, represent a relatively quiet day in Baghdad.

This is not to suggest that the Virginia Tech shootings were not horrific; it is instead to point out that the violence in Iraq is even more horrific, incredibly more horrific. Look at our media coverage: wall-to-wall, and it will probably continue for at least a week or longer. And yet this exact same kind of event in Baghdad would disappear in the daily background of violence and horror that is now commonplace there.

Almost a year ago, Republican Congressman Steve King made a speech before the House in which he claimed that the violence in Iraq was less than what happens in major American cities: “It is getting a little safer in Detroit than it is in Washington, D.C., but still far more dangerous in Detroit than it is in Iraq to be a civilian,” he said. The problem with King’s statement: he played with the numbers, using highball stats from U.S. cities and lowball stats from Iraq, and then compared the death rate in compact, high-density urban areas to the entire country of Iraq, which includes large populations spread out over rural areas. A proper comparison would be city-to-city or country-to-country–but such comparisons would not provide a favorable picture of how things are in Iraq, which is what King wanted.

But that was a year ago; nobody would suggest the same thing today, right? Um, well, actually… “[Returning troops] indicate to me that 80 to 85 percent, in a conservative fashion, of the country is reasonably under control, at least as well as Detroit or Chicago or any of our other big cities.” That’s Tim Walberg, another Republican congressman, this one from Michigan. It was less than a month ago. Walberg is guilty of the same fallacies as King, he just doesn’t use statistics to obfuscate. Walberg is essentially saying that the least violent parts of Iraq are about as violent as the most violent parts of America, comparing the rural stretches of Iraq to the dense pockets of urban violence in America. And yet he stood by his statements, joining many conservatives in trying to downplay violence in Iraq and painting a rosy picture of how things are improving there.

But King and Walberg are not the only ones. Many conservatives have tried to downplay the violence in Iraq, claiming that our media only focuses on the negative news from there, that it’s not so bad. Witness John McCain in a bulletproof vest, ironically surrounded by a hundred troops and covered by five helicopters so he can go shopping in Baghdad; his fellow congressman comparing the visit to a trip to an Indiana marketplace.

But reality intrudes. Estimates vary, but almost all sources put the number of people killed in Baghdad every day at higher than 60–double the number killed in the shooting spree at Virginia Tech. In fact, mass killing at universities are not uncommon in Iraq:

In January, Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University sufferred a double suicide bombing in January that killed at least 70 people, including students, faculty, and staff. A month later, another suicide bomber struck at Mustansiriya, killing 40.

And yet, that one incident in America has spurred massive attention and media coverage, endless hand-wringing and head-shaking. Not that it shouldn’t; rather, what is happening in Iraq should not be downplayed. Imagine the Virginia Tech shootings happening twice, even three times, daily, in one American City, even one like New York, with bullet-riddled bodies dumped with their hands and feet bound, showing signs of torture. Imagine having to become inured to that level of violence in the city where you live.

Iraq is not “improving.” And the sooner we start making decisions not based upon that right-wing fantasy, the better.

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  1. cc
    April 19th, 2007 at 17:36 | #1

    Everything you have said here is not evidence that there is no progress. Of course there are going to be attacks. But in recent days and weeks I’ve read articles that make good arguments that progress is being made. To make a conclusion that Iraq is not progressing only based on attacks reported in the media, while ignoring any other factor, is closed-minded and frankly not responsible. I would respect your opinion ordinarily, except for one thing. Your opinion was made up a long time ago, and even if there is evidence of progress, you’re not going to change your mind. You want to beat it out of there, and if progress is ever made you don’t care. And unfortunately that’s where many people stand today. That is sad, because that kind of mindset is what leads to defeat. Subconsciously wishing defeat is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it appears to be the only outcome. Thank God not everyone sees it the same way.

  2. Paul
    April 19th, 2007 at 18:29 | #2

    I’ve said a number of times that the other factor to consider when we’re talking about Iraq is the relative population. The USA has about ten times as many people as Iraq does, so if you take the Iraqi numbers and multiply them by ten, then you get an idea of what it’d be if it were in the USA.

  3. Luis
    April 19th, 2007 at 19:38 | #3

    Cc: First, if the amount of violence is not an indicator of progress, then why do Bush, McCain, and so many others who support the war say that violence is decreasing and that is a sign of progress? What was McCain’s whole trip to Baghdad about except to try to claim that things have quieted down, and therefore progress was being made? Why has Bush pointed out specific cities like Tal Afar and pointed to specific decreases in violence at certain times as evidence of progress? Why have conservatives tried to claim that the Surge is working because violence, they claimed, was down in Baghdad? The level of violence being used as an indicator of progress has been a common theme amongst conservatives practically since day one of this war–but when I point out that violence is increasing, I’m wrong because violence levels are not an indicator of violence? Please.

    Second, what are indicators of progress? You neatly neglected to list these. What will ensure progress towards stabilizing Iraq and “winning” the war? What exactly is the end-game scenario? Bush and others who support the war shift endlessly on this, claiming a myriad of different “signs of progress” while never specifying what the end game actually is. The reason is pretty clear: they have no freakin’ clue, because there is no end game they have planned. Oh, I’m sorry–they have a “secret plan” to end the war, but it’s top secret. Right.

    The standard fit-to-the-situation take is that progress can be measured by how well the Iraqi government is coalescing into a stable authority which can control the violence within its own borders, and somehow ride herd on the sects and get them to live together.

    This has also been a common theme with conservatives. The problem: it’s been done to death. We’ve been through, what, ten, twenty, thirty different “major milestones” that were all such indicators of progress? End of major combat, establishment of a provisional authority, several separate “handovers” of power, authority, sovereignty, and so on, provisional governments, interim, transitional, “permanent” governments; various and sundry elections, coalitions, compromises, steps to establish constitutions, so on and so forth and et cetera…

    Every single one of these steps was ballyhooed as “progress,” and yet every single step forward was marked by several steps backwards, and things just kept getting worse, not better. The escalating violence is not the only indicator, but it is a very important one.

    I suppose that you feel that the ever-growing insurgency is not a threat to progress?

    That we can just ignore the eruption and escalation of sectarian violence as something that has no bearing on progress?

    That civil war is a moot point and really doesn’t affect progress?

    That we should simply ignore the massive and ever-increasing slaughter because the government has formed, even though it is completely ineffective in dealing with the issues that matter?

    Or perhaps you see as “progress” the fact that Iraq’s middle class, the people we were depending on to form a stable core, have virtually all fled the country? Is that progress?

    Or how about the fact that even after all this time of setting up and training the Iraqi police and other security forces, they still are incapable of even the most basic independent actions to keep the peace? Does that count as “progress”?

    So how about the current situation? Do you really see as “progress” Sadr’s power play with Maliki, and Maliki’s weakened stance and inability to act decisively? You really see the Iraqi government making “progress” here?

    No viable end game for success, a weak and faltering government, sectarian violence at civil-war levels, insurgents escalating to massive attacks, U.S. soldiers dying in ever-increasing numbers in heroic but ultimately vain attempts to create a momentary zone of quiet… vain not due to their efforts but because the Iraqi government will piss it away, the country not being even close to stable enough to work.

    So I am at fault here because I decided, apparently without any justification so you seem to feel, that the situation in Iraq is hopeless, even if we didn’t have a complete f***up running the show from Washington D.C.

    I am glad you are so hopeful. That must feel nice. Keep reading those right-wing publications for your weekly dose of rosy vision, and that will make it all real, and things will be all better, real soon.

    I, on the other hand, prefer reality. It sucks, but recognizing it tends to get better results. Or, in this case, where Bush has dug us into a situation with no possible good results, we must settle for the least bad result.

  4. Me
    April 20th, 2007 at 01:17 | #4

    Getting back to your main point, the main difference is that anyone who lives in Iraq goes out with the possibility in mind that today may be their final day alive. But on a college campus in suburbia America, one expects to complete their four years without getting killed.

    When we have something like Virginia Tech, the media personalizes the event very ably. But they put faces on the dead American soldiers in Iraq far less often, and they never do so for the Baghdad victims. Maybe if the media spent more time providing context for the hell that is life in today’s Iraq, maybe that would help fuel the outrage in America into something more contructive. Like impeachment proceedings or pulling at least some troops out.

  5. cc
    April 30th, 2007 at 09:51 | #5

    Luis, from a political – and sometimes a military – standpoint, progress has been reported… not often enough, but occassionally if you actually took the time to look. Once again, only counting deaths is not an indication what the progress (or the lack of it) is in a conflict, be it one way or the other way. I am not going to argue about this, since you’re the one who bases your argument on the death toll. Which after five years, by the way, is still lower than most of our major conflicts have been in far shorter spans of time.

  6. Luis
    April 30th, 2007 at 11:27 | #6

    CC: the wording of what you say is telling–not that overall progress has been made, but that “progress has been reported.” The “overall” part is the key. Of course, progress is being made… but in a one-step-forward-three-steps-back kind of way. You’re talking about the one step forward, and I’m talking about the net two steps backwards. Important distinction, there.

    Update: to put icing on the cake, one major source of reports of “progress,” i.e. construction of infrastructure in Iraq, is now taking a hit: so much of what companies like Halliburton were paid to rebuild have already broken down, including vital equipment at hospitals, water purification plants, airports, and so on. Another example of those “steps back” I mentioned.

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