Assume the Position

Saturday, May 24, 2003
First To Spin, Wins. That seems to be a maxim to well describe the lasting impression or meme from many media reports. It may be the unspoken mantra of some reporters and pundits (public relations gurus and activists might be more blunt).

So when Micah Sifry asks, "Who is spinning the news from Baghdad?" maybe he should get a couple of examples.

On May 8, 2003, Sifry reminded his readers that the Army V Corps commander, Lieutenant General Wallace, was "the straight-shooter who told reporters during the war that the enemy he was facing wasn't the one they had wargamed against…" That is a version of the meme started by the New York Times or Daily Telegraph with a misquote of Gen. Wallace. The US didn't wargame against 1980's Soviet forces or Martians, and Gen. Wallace didn't say during the dust storm quagmire frenzy at the end of March[1], "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against," as the NYT reported on the front page April 1, 2003. He said, according to the NYT's correction on May 3, 2003, "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against," which makes more than a bit of difference in the impression it leaves. The more disparaging impression is the one Sifry reinforced five days later.

There is another kind of spin from omission, not dropping words from a quote to make it more ominous, but ensuring information isn't placed in perspective. That is the spin from those whose main objective is to find fault. This is characterised by the meme about the Oil Ministry receiving "special protection from US troops," which is also reinforced by Sifry.

Of course, there are other maxims besides "first to spin, wins," such as "location, location, location." While you probably recognize the phrase as the mantra of real estate agents, it also applies to military operations. It especially applies to where a unit is going to park themselves, whether for a day, week, month or longer. Instead of being concerned about resale value, the location concerns are things like defensibility, overlook positions and fields of fire. If you're going to establish a temporary headquarters or operations center, it helps if you pick a structure that is suitable and still standing rather than something that has been blasted into a pile of rubble. When you're occupying a hostile area, it also helps to pick a location that the locals don't have any legitimate claims on for their own use. (This last consideration was where the 1st Battalion of the 82nd Airborne screwed up in Fallujah, a pro-Hussein town some 30 miles west of Baghdad. They occupied an elementary school. When a crowd showed up on Monday, April 28, demanding they vacate the school so classes could resume on Tuesday, the protest quickly turned ugly and left 3-16 Iraqis dead and numerous injured. As is usual in these situations, the casualty numbers and stories vary wildly [here, here,here—this last story can't even decide whether Fallujah is 30 or 60 miles from Baghdad], but there is no doubt that occupying the school gave the Iraqis grounds for a legitimate complaint instead of the standard "Yankee go home" or cultural clash gripes[2].)

As in many cases of spin, it relies in part on the slippery use of terms. In this case, it's the terms "secured" and "special protection" that are used to torque up the spin.

For "secured," the minimum meaning is that the hostiles have been flushed out and either chased off, killed or captured. At the maximum, it means that an area or facility is under continuous guard and control, in other words, "occupied." What has been meant by "securing the oil fields" is the former, minimal definition. They didn't get blown up, the enemy was chased off, killed or captured. But there isn't a Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked at every oil well and an Abrams tank every half mile along the all the pipelines. The military can patrol areas, but they can't guard everything. Which means the majority of damage to the oil facilities, just like in the cities, has been caused by looters.

Before the war in Iraq, U.S. military planners had anticipated that Saddam Hussein's government would sabotage its own wells, and they were relieved when the threat proved a dud. American officials were surprised, however, by the scale and audacity of postwar looting.

Like marauding piranha, thieves have stripped vulnerable oil installations of sheet metal, computers, light fixtures and even copper wiring. In northern Iraq alone, they've stolen 300 oil company buses and 200 pieces of heavy equipment - including cranes, which they've used to loot oil pumps and other unwieldy industrial prizes.

Some of the theft has cost lives. Four Iraqis died in an explosion near the southern city of Basra on May 8 when they used a welding torch to tap into a pipeline containing liquefied petroleum gas, a popular cooking fuel.

Until now, American and British troops have been the sole source of protection for Iraq's oil facilities.

"The military is stretched too thin. We've had facilities that we checked out one day, and we came back the next day and the place was just trashed," said Gary Loew, the senior civilian in charge of oil restoration in Iraq for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

So British instructors have been re-training about 240 former Iraqi oil police in southern Iraq. After completing their three-day course, the men will be issued with firearms and join the first contingent of 160 gun-toting police who last week began guarding oil installations in southern Iraq.

Hundreds of armed Iraqi police have also taken up duties near the northern oil center of Kirkuk.

Their first task is to stop the looting. As much as 80 percent of the damage to Iraq's oil infrastructure has occurred since the war, Loew said. In a few cases, saboteurs have even riddled oil pipelines with bursts from heavy, Russian-made machine guns.

As "special protection" has been used in spinning the Oil Ministry story, it apparently means "not looted or looting was stopped because of the presence of US military forces." So what are some of the other facilities that received such "special protection?"
  • Saddam Baghdad International Airport.
  • Rasheed Airport
  • Information Ministry
  • Shaab Stadium
  • New Presidential Palace
  • Old Presidential Palace
  • Interior Ministry
  • Amusement park
But nobody complains that since the military could supply "special protection" to a Ferris wheel[3], surely they could have protected this library or that hospital. Why no complaints? Because those places were occupied by the military for their own needs, there was nothing "special" about the protection they received. And, unlike the 82nd Airborne's choice of headquarters in Fallujah, there are no groups that have a legitimate claim to demand the facilities be put to some other immediate use.

If "special" means extra, out of the ordinary, etc.; then "special protection" can only apply to places the military protected for somebody else, places they had no use for themselves. In that case, did anything receive "special protection" when Baghdad fell? Unfortunately, very little: the compound and warehouses of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a police armory (near Shaab Stadium), the Palestine Hotel where most of journalists were (which also became home to the Civil Military Operations Center), and maybe a few other locations.

As for the Oil Ministry, it really seems to fit the occupied category, not "special protection."

One of the reasons this meme took hold is that probably less than 1 in 10,0000 people who harbor and spread the meme even know where the information ministry is located in Baghdad, whether Sifry is among them is beside the point. It fits the "location, location, location" maxim pretty well; but that is for another post.

[1] It was little noticed that the dust storm actually proved advantageous to the coalition forces. While everybody was reporting that the Army field commanders were upset that their drive to Baghdad had "stalled," there was more going on:

Monday also brought the onset of three days of monstrous weather -- high winds and blinding dust that stopped virtually all helicopter flying and in some cases halted all ground transportation at a time when the military was so stretched there was concern the 3rd Infantry Division would run out of water, according to Army sources. Some units were "black" on food, meaning that they were down to within a day or two of empty larders.

By March 26, in the third day of the sandstorm, concern had turned to anxiety among the commanders. The 3rd Infantry Division had two M1 Abrams tanks and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit hard. It was the first time an Abrams had ever been lost in combat, and provoked concern that the Iraqi military had a better antitank capability than realized.

The battlefield looked much better from the Pentagon…U.S. forces were only 50 miles from Baghdad…Pentagon officials concluded the bombing of the Iraqi military had been far more effective than those on the ground realized. Even during the sandstorm, the Republican Guard's Medina Division, keystone of the Iraqi defenses ringing Baghdad, was being pounded around the clock by U.S. aircraft. Two Special Operations teams on either side of the Medina positions in the Karbala Gap helped guide the bombing with laser spotters and other devices.

Retired Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, a former chief of staff of the Air Force, noted that while the Army and Marines paused, Air Force and Navy warplanes were taking apart the Republican Guard. He said that with the expanded radar and spotting capabilities, "air power was able to continue with the battle plan while the ground forces stopped for needed rest and resupply."

[Gen.] Franks originally had scheduled the final drive for Baghdad to begin the weekend of March 29-30, a senior military officer recalled. But before giving the green light, he wanted to see an assessment of the effects of the bombing, and that couldn't happen until the storm passed. He delayed the attack by two days.

"Right after the sandstorm ended, we started getting indications that they were getting pounded," said a senior military officer. And when the Air Force's "bomb damage assessments" finally arrived that weekend, the results were astonishing. The Army had wanted to hold back until the Medina Division was judged to be cut to 50 percent of its original combat effectiveness. Instead, the Medina was assessed to be at just 20 percent.

Vagaries of bomb damage assessment and bribing enemy commanders aside, the big armor-on-armor battle against the Medina Division most likely never occurred because there wasn't much of a division left after the sandstorm.

[2] Culture versus military necessity, or overlook meets modesty:

In Fallujah, certain actions by US troops appear to have been badly misread. One youth who joined Monday's protest said that having US troops posted on the elementary school roof was an insult to local women - because the soldiers could look down into enclosed yards that protect unveiled women from being seen by a stranger.

''We are very conscious of the question of honor,'' said Ahmed Hatam, 21, who was injured in the shooting. ''We consider this an invasion of privacy.''

BTW, notice the spin there? A 21-year-old Iraqi is called a "youth" in the article. Better than "child," I guess, but not by much—nevermind that many (maybe most) of the "US troops" or "US soldiers" there are younger than he is.

[3] I will point out that the reporter and CWO1 Coppedge leave a bit of a mistaken impression on the status of schools under international law.

This is another constant about Iraq that continually surprises soldiers here. The military has frequently used protected sites such as schools and hospitals to house troops and store weapons.

"These sites are protected by international law," said Chief Warrant Officer 1 Steve Coppedge, 31, of Fort Worth, Texas, describing the tactics of the Iraqis. "They show up at the schools and kick the teachers out. They kick the students out and use it as a military headquarters. And look where we are now. We are at a kid's amusement park, and they were using it as a military headquarters."

The protected status of hospitals and places of worship is such that using them for military purposes is prohibited, and doing so is therefore a violation of international law. Schools, on the other hand, merely fall under the status of civilian objects, which just renders an obligation on the attacker to verify that they actually are being used as for a military purpose. Compare Art. 53 and Art 54. of Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions (a mess the US generally tries to observe, but never ratified):

Art 52. General Protection of civilian objects

1. Civilian objects shall not be the object of attack or of reprisals. Civilian objects are all objects which are not military objectives as defined in paragraph 2.

2. Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.

3. In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.


Art 53. Protection of cultural objects and of places of worship

Without prejudice to the provisions of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 14 May 1954, and of other relevant international instruments, it is prohibited:

(a) to commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples;

(b) to use such objects in support of the military effort;

(c) to make such objects the object of reprisals.

Thus, while the 82nd Airborne made a poor choice for a headquarters, it wasn't a violation of the Geneva Conventions (they didn't try to pretend the building was still being used as a civilian school), nor do I think that amusement parks fall under the classification of "cultural objects."

Original content copyright © 2002-2005 Lynxx Pherrett. All rights reserved.