There is a child's game all Americans know called Simon Says. Consecutive commands are shouted by a leader to a group with the legitimating prefix, "Simon Says." "Simon says raise your right hand; Simon says jump up and down; Simon says wave your arms; Simon says nod your head;--wave your arms!" If you wave your arms the second time, you are out. Monotony lulls the listener, and the aim of a clever leader is to jerk a mindless response from the listener who is attuned to the rhythm and not the prefix.
On April 16, the New York Times military reporter Michael Gordon waved his arms without a Simon Says. The strange contradictions of the Iraq war had finally worn him down; or maybe he had a story too good to miss. The headline read "Iraqi Unit Flees, Despite American's Pleas"; the story told of a desertion by Iraqi troops fighting with Americans in Sadr City. The turn away from Gordon's serviceable style cannot have pleased General Petraeus. It exposed the swindle of the assurance that Americans "will stand down as the Iraqis stand up"; and it undermined the claim that "the surge is working." Gordon did not claim that the desertion was symptomatic. He did not have to. The resentment of the American soldiers quoted on the scene plainly arose from more than a single incident.
That story of April 16 was an aberration, both for Gordon and for the Times, and many readers must have wondered: how it would be atoned for? The answer came on May 5, with a story by Gordon entitled "Hezbollah Trains Iraqi Militants in Iran, American Officials Say." This was perhaps the most opaque, elaborately qualified, antiseptically cleansed and institutionally begged-off story ever published by a major newspaper anywhere.
Since 2002, when, with Judith Miller, he helped to sell the war against Iraq with specious evidence that proved to be false, Michael Gordon has been the favorite war reporter of the War Party. His curricular virtues are easy to see.
He writes about war with a zest that other reporters bring to sports. And from a certain point of view, a missile that demolishes a terrorist and ten civilians is a good deal like a runner sliding under the tag at second base. The style of Gordon lets you experience the first action with the feelings required to handle the second. No pause, no lingering glimpse, but, for him, the swirl of dust, the flash of spikes and the instant report. The bunt dribbled foul, they went to the bullpen, turned the enemy's flank, and plunged ahead into the sand and darkness.As they huddled to keep warm, the men exchanged uneasy glances. Somewhere in the tent was the shared knowledge that they had won other games almost as close.
"Militants from the Lebanese group Hezbollah have been training Iraqi militia fighters at a camp near Tehran, according to American interrogation reports that the United States has supplied to the Iraqi government." That is Gordon's first sentence; it is also his first paragraph. He never tells us who put into his hands the reports submitted by American interrogators to the Iraqi government. It would seem to have been the Americans, if only because they are cited as "saying" many things for the rest of the article. In that case, it would seem the purpose of the Americans in giving the reports to the helpful Michael Gordon was to exert pressure on the Iraqi government to act against Hezbollah. A vague associative logic goes on to link Hezbollah with Iran, and Hezbollah trainers with Iranian camps in Iraq. Yet the grammar controlling the connections is so disjunctive and splayed as to deny any solid deduction from the intimations of Iranian complicity.
Meanwhile, with Iraqis quoted on the "positive" role Iran has played in their country, the story divagates oddly into a range of ascriptive statements ("it appears that"; "according to American officials"; "the Americans say"; "they say"; "according to American officials"; "the American officials said"; "an American official said"; "the official summed up")--all regarding the presence, intentions, and actions of Iranians in Iraq. In this article, Gordon appears to have checked, tracked down, and verified nothing for himself.
The article closes with a falling-off so delicate it might easily be missed.
"According to American officials," a change occurred following the capture of a Hezbollah commander in March 2007. "After his detention, Hezbollah militants appear to be less visible in Iraq, American officials say." A fine redundancy-- "appear to be less visible." But take note of the date: March 2007. It is the only date supplied in this story of May 5, 2008.
We are not meant to see quite what is happening here. Michael Gordon turned in a premature story about a possible occurrence. Instead of postponing and checking, the Times edited, recast, rewrote, re-edited, and again rewrote until they had on their hands a nearly self-canceling, degraded and degradable object.
Still, the story accomplishes concrete ends that have nothing to do with facts.
It serves the ambition of General Petraeus, by implicitly blaming Iran for the failure of his "surge": Petraeus has hinted that he wants a bigger war, a story like this supplies a plausible cover to his next escalation, and it was designed to lend itself to that use. Also, by invoking the name of Hezbollah--until now, an obscure Lebanese party to most Americans--Gordon and the Times pick an enemy of Israel to connect with an enemy of the U.S.
Something is in the air. Nobody is talking about Iran and everybody is talking about it, from Hillary Clinton in her run for president to Condoleezza Rice in her run for vice-president. When Senator Clinton said that for Israel's sake she would "obliterate" Iran, she was entering a new terrain of recklessness. In the past, in America, it has been mainly generals who talked this way.
Obliterate was a favorite word and idea with General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command and the prototype of General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. The only politician to talk freely of obliteration, before Hillary Clinton, was not John McCain but another retired pilot and senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater.
What are Bush and Petraeus looking for? Probably, at first, a small or medium- small war, with tactical bombing raids across the border to assist McCain in the fall and have him inherit in January. And yet, the administration is ready for worse. And if Iran makes a war possible by violent counteraction, the last days of the Bush administration will be euphoric and satisfied.
Who benefits from a war with Iran? George W. Bush, most of all, since another war will serve him as a drug to anesthetize the pains of Iraq and drown the half-knowledge of what he has done. The smaller calamity will be lost in the cloud and confusion of the greater. For Dick Cheney, a war with Iran would be the fulfillment of a dream. For the Republican Party a larger war presents the key to the lock-down on debate which the September 11 bombings offered a first tantalizing glimpse of. For Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a war against the U.S. would tighten his grip on arbitrary power, and if the war could be seen as provoked by the U.S., he might succeed in ruling without substantial challenge for years to come.
Whom would a war between Iran and the U.S. not benefit? The list is shorter. It would not benefit the people of the United States, and it would not benefit the people of Iran. But the men and women of the Bush administration are genuinely excited. The mainstream media are excited. Two of the presidential candidates are excited. The Congress and Senate are paralyzed. And that is where we are in May 2008--a mood not unlike that of August 2002.