Last Sunday, the New York Times published an article on how important it will be to keep civilian casualties in Gulf War II to a minimum -- not just for humanitarian reasons, but for political ones as well. Support for the war in this country is, at most, hesitant, and televised pictures of dying civilians would quickly shrivel that support. It would also create greater hostility to American troops in Iraq, making reconstruction all the harder, not to mention sparking anger all over the world. If we had a reasonable and competent administration, it would be easy to assume the Times was right. Bush and Company have everything to gain from planning for humanitarian needs and minimizing causalities. Any fool can see that. The only question is whether this particular collection of fools can see it. At least we can hope they've noticed one special thing to be gained: the opportunity to discredit their critics by proving fears of a humanitarian catastrophe ill-founded.
Of course, that fear of massive casualties and a humanitarian disaster didn't come out of nowhere. It grew in reaction to an administration that spoke of using nuclear or biochemical weapons, and of employing a strategy of "shock and awe" -- which sounds an awful lot like an act of terrorism. Fear grew in reaction to an administration which has given little cooperation to humanitarian organizations trying to plan for the emergency. The best we can hope for, I think, is that this was nothing but bravado -- little boys waving their sharp sticks and hoping to freak out the grownups, or the other little boys -- and that in the end they will do everything possible to keep from harming innocent people.
But there's a contradiction between the adolescent attitude toward grotesque weapons and strategies that this administration has demonstrated, and the Pentagon's apparent caution, as described by the New York Times. A reasonably informative article about the threats to civilians in Iraq would have at least mentioned the contradiction, and the reasons for fear. A decent model would have been Anthony Dworkin's article in The Guardian, which looked at why the "shock and awe" strategy deeply concerns human rights groups, while still demonstrating that it's not unreasonable to think -- or at least hope -- that civilian casualties might be minimal.
But there's an even more important objection to the NYT article that should be made: It is historically evasive. A reader recently forwarded to me a letter he sent to the Times complaining about important facts the article omitted, and pointing out that those evasions were part of a pattern that revealed a particular kind of bias at the Times. Let Donald's letter explain it:
To the editor:
James Dao's piece on civilian casualties was conspicuously incomplete. The fact is that in Gulf War I the US did attempt to avoid blowing up civilians because of the public relations problem, but at the same time they deliberately hit civilian infrastructure in order to accelerate the effects of the sanctions and cause civilian suffering. We know this because the Pentagon admitted it to the Washington Post. And we know what Human Rights Watch said about this -- it was a violation of the laws of war -- because they say so in their online study "Needless Deaths in the Gulf War." We know that they knew the destruction of water treatment plants would cause epidemics, because anyone with a triple digit IQ would know this, and because it is stated in declassified Pentagon documents.
So the NYT stresses the Pentagon's attempt to avoid the obvious sort of civilian casualty, and omits mention of its confessed attempt to cause them in a more subtle way. Similarly, earlier this week the NYT gives its readers a history of Turkey's relationship with its Kurds and yet you neglect to mention the fact that the US gave Turkey advanced weaponry knowing how it would be used. (See Human Rights Watch for more details, but of course you know them.)
Coupled with all the other stories that have appeared elsewhere in the mainstream press, which I will list below, it is clear that the NYT has made a choice not to publish facts about US policy, past or present, which would show it in an extremely bad light. The most charitable assumption I can make is that you think this is a patriotic duty. But whatever the motive, you are lying by omission.
Other stories which I've missed in the NYT (though maybe they were there, since I don't claim to read every single line) --
- The Washington Post reports that the US sends prisoners to other countries to be tortured. (Dec 26,2002)
- A US government statistician was nearly fired for calculating the number of civilians who died as a result of health effects in the first Gulf War. (I think her name is Daponte and the total was in the neighborhood of 100,000, much larger than the 3000 blown up as collateral damage that you mention in the Dao piece. The story has appeared in numerous places, including Business Week ). This shows the government tried very hard to conceal information it found embarrassing. The NYT is a partner in that endeavor.
- The Washington Post (Dec 30, 2002) goes into detail about US support for Iraq and its weapons programs during the 80's. It seems there was more to it than just two currently defunct US companies, as reported in the NYT.
Notice that none of this is meant to argue for or against an invasion of Iraq. Presumably the US has some incentive to avoid civilian casualties, direct and indirect, for the reasons mentioned in the Dao piece. It also has an incentive to blame Saddam for any that ensue. But that is no reason for your whitewash of current and past American actions and it indicates that no one should trust the NYT to report the truth about the upcoming war if there is something our government would like to cover up.
In a follow-up, Donald notes that in the past, the NYT seemed more willing to report honestly about American actions abroad, and particularly praised Ray Bonner's reporting from El Salvador in the early '80s. (Although it should also be noted that the Times pulled Bonner out of Central America and reassigned him to the paper's Business section after he wrote a story on a massacre by the Salvadoran army, which had been trained in anti-guerrilla warfare by the U.S. Military -- a story which embarrassed the Reagan administration and led to a right-wing campaign to smear the reporter.) Donald also notes that they've had good coverage of "US crimes that no longer have any political resonance," including condemnation of US support for Jonas Savimbi and revelation of lies about US involvement in Angola; a series of articles on US complicity in the Guatemalan military's acts of genocide; and a recent article mentioning US support in the mid '60s for the Indonesian military's killing of somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million people. But, as Donald points out, that's old and not immediately relevant history. The Times has a record of being far too reluctant to report current crimes, or past ones that have a direct connection to current events, even when other papers have reported the information.
When it comes to foreign affairs, the New York Times probably has the best resources of any paper in the country. Anyone who wants to know what is going on outside the United States is dependent, to some extent, on the NYT. But anyone reading the Times ought to be aware that they seem to have a history of leaving certain kinds of information out of their stories. Caveat emptor.