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Gorilla Suit

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For all the noise and carnage of war — especially this unnecessary war, which seems to possess a life of its own as it barrels forward uninterrupted on two fronts — our language of condemnation remains remarkably polite.

Thus a new CBS news poll shows that Americans are “increasingly dissatisfied” with the Iraq operation, with 77 percent telling pollsters they think it’s “going very badly” — as though the public were turning thumbs down on a reality TV show. Our formerly bellicose media now seem to be doing their best to reduce the national mood to a whisper. Shhh! We don’t want to hurt the president’s feelings, do we?

Meanwhile, the headlines scream “Incoming!”

About the same time that a thundering yet strangely irrelevant majority of Americans were telling CBS they want this war to stop, the U.S. military and NATO were churning up evil publicity in both Iraq and Afghanistan — and in the process ensuring that the war on terror will not run out of enemies — simply by waging the war they have waged from the start.

That war, no matter what the Pentagon flaks say afterward, can be summed up thus: No civilian shall ever come in the way of America’s intention to kill its perceived enemies.

From Iraq, the Associated Press reported on Saturday, regarding two pre-dawn raids on Sadr City in which 26 Iraqis died: “But residents, police and hospital officials said eight civilians were killed in their homes and angrily accused U.S. forces of firing blindly on the innocent.” Later in the story, unnamed Iraqi officials were quoted as saying that “all the dead were civilians.”

And from Afghanistan, the UK Observer reported that a three-hour NATO air strike on a village in the southwest province of Helmand killed between 50 and 80 civilians, many of them, we are told in an almost ritualistic reminder of what that term means, women and children. The Observer continued: “. . . more than 200 (civilians) were killed by coalition troops in Afghanistan in June, far more than are believed to have been killed by Taliban militants.”

This is the war that has started to play badly to the couch potato public the media perceive us to be: A lumbering superpower in a gorilla suit somehow finds itself battling tiny, hate-filled fanatics in two exotic, incomprehensible Middle Eastern countries. The freaked-out superpower (bewildered by all the hate it has encountered) stomps heavily at the scurrying fanatics wherever it encounters them, thinking once all the bad people are dead these two societies will be nice places to live.

The hate-filled fanatics, meanwhile, are fighting essentially a public-relations war, baiting the superpower with their crude explosive devices into retaliatory tantrums that inevitably wipe out women and children, making the superpower more and more hated and more and more bewildered. The fanatics, of course, kill civilians too. Whichever side kills the fewest feels entitled to claim the survivors’ allegiance.

While it’s not clear who is actually winning the nice-guy war — who, objectively, is responsible for the fewest innocent casualties (with both sides holding the other responsible even when it’s their explosives that do the killing) — it’s becoming increasingly clear that the superpower-baiting fanatics are winning the public relations war.

In both countries, even the proxy governments want the superpower to stop killing their people. In Afghanistan, according to the Observer — where the new head of NATO operations, American Gen. Dan McNeill, is nicknamed “Bomber McNeill” — President Hamid Karzai has condemned the coalition’s careless use of extreme force and its attitude that Afghan lives are “cheap.” And a British officer, commenting on the carnage of the Helmand Province air strike, said, “Every civilian dead means five new Taliban.”

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the U.S. had no business raiding Sadr City and, as AP reported, declared: “The Iraqi government totally rejects U.S. military operations . . . conducted without a preapproval from the Iraqi military command. Anyone who breaches the military command orders will face investigation.”

And here we are, back at home with our poll numbers and our consciences. The political process is broken; the war and the undisclosed agenda — permanent U.S. occupation of a strategic region — have, if not complete political immunity, then at least what seems like indefinite opportunity to pursue a failed strategy. Maybe things will turn around!

On the same day that coalition bombers were pummeling the Afghan village for three hours, children in nearby Zabul Province added another dimension to the drama. Three were killed and a fourth was injured when an old rocket they were playing with exploded. Their deaths reminded some of us, perhaps, that wars never end and that the reality TV show that’s “going very badly” for us is going a lot worse on location.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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