In Sunday’s New York Times, Edward Wong began an article about the state of Iraq by posing a popular question: “Is Iraq in a civil war?” In response, major news outlets have spent the week debating the term’s accuracy and congratulating themselves for finally uttering the term.
Near the beginning the Times’ piece, though, Wong answers his own question by laying out the two central conditions by which scholars categorize a civil war: “The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.” By that measure Iraq has been a civil war for at least a year, and probably longer. So why has it taken the press so long to call a spade a spade?
Many reasons but here is one of the biggest: Journalism — and newspapers in particular — is on its heels as never before, full of angst over its low regard among the public and the death knell sounding almost daily from Wall Street to the over-caffeinated blogosphere. Thus, caution is the name of the game, and caution has meant, among other things, not aggressively and overtly challenging the Bush administration’s refrain on Iraq. Now, a drastically weakened president and growing public disapproval of the war have given the press license to be honest.
Perhaps what is the most disappointing aspect of the media’s relationship to “civil war” has been the portrayal of the term, prior to this week, as an arbitrary and ineffectual descriptor for the situation in Iraq. In previous months, reports about the worsening violence were peppered with lines such as “descending into chaos” or “sliding towards civil war.” A statement like the former is dangerous specifically for its lack of parameters. By using an amorphous word such as “chaos” as if it were a concrete, verifiable level of degeneration, journalists could continue to depict a collapsing country without being forced to properly call it what it is. Moreover, by continually describing Iraq as “sliding” toward some arbitrary notion of civil war without adequately providing the accepted definitions of that term, journalists could avoid the full wrath of right-wing bloviators on TV, radio, and print, as well as aggressively deluded administration officials.
In many ways the press has a duty to be the caretaker of our public discourse, and that means paying critical attention to the language used by the various participants in that discourse. Iraq is being defined by its carnage, after all, and regardless of what terms they use, journalists must do the best they can to accurately and objectively convey the situation to the American public. Dismissing the media’s long neglect of the term “civil war” as mere semantics, however, obscures its historical context and precise implications. Terms like “sectarian conflict” and “cycle of vengeance” may describe particular aspects of the war in Iraq, but neither is as effective as “civil war” at depicting the true scope and depth of what is happening there. The New York Times’ executive editor, Bill Keller, issued a statement that said civil war is “like other labels” in that it “fails to adequately capture the complexity of what is happening on the ground.” True enough, but it comes much closer than the half-measures the press has used up to now.
In an appearance on “Hardball” Monday night, the Washington Post’s Dana Priest explained to Tim Russert that the administration’s continued reluctance to call Iraq a civil war stems from a fear that the term “equates almost a failure of U.S. policy.” If our government’s fear of the term “civil war” is any testament to its power, can there be any doubt as to the importance of its message? U.S. policy in Iraq has been failing pretty much from day one. It’s well past time that the language we use to describe it caught up.