Robert Fisk: Semantics can't mask Bush's chicanery

This goes beyond hollow laughter. Since when did armies go around 're-liberating'

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After his latest shenanigans, I've come to the conclusion that George Bush is the first US president to march backwards. First we had weapons of mass destruction. Then, when they proved to be a myth, Bush told us we had stopped Saddam's "programmes" for weapons of mass destruction (which happened to be another lie).

Now he's gone a stage further. After announcing victory in Iraq in 2003 and "mission accomplished" and telling us how this enormous achievement would lead the 21st century into a "shining age of human liberty", George Bush told us this week that "thanks to the surge, we've renewed and revived the prospect of success".

Now let's take a look at this piece of chicanery and subject it to a little linguistic analysis. Five years ago, it was victory – ie success – but this has now been transmogrified into a mere "prospect" of success. And not a "prospect", mark you, that has even been glimpsed. No, we have "renewed" and "revived" this prospect. "Revived", as in "brought back from the dead". Am I the only one to be sickened by this obscene semantics? How on earth can you "renew" a "prospect", let alone a prospect that continues to be bathed in Iraqi blood, a subject Bush wisely chose to avoid?

Note, too, the constant use of words that begin with "re -". Renew. Revive. And – incredibly – Bush also told us that "we actually re-liberated certain communities". This, folks, goes beyond hollow laughter. Since when did armies go around "re-liberating" anything? And what does that credibility-sapping "actually" mean? I suspect it was an attempt by the White House speech writer to suggest – by sleight of hand, of course – that Bush was really – really – telling the truth this time. But by putting "actually" in front of "re-liberate" – as opposed to just "liberate" – the whole grammatical construction falls apart. Rather like Iraq.

For by my reckoning, we have now "re-liberated" Fallujah twice. We have "re-liberated" Mosul three times and "re-liberated" Ramadi four times. The scorecard goes on. My files show that Sadr City may have been "re-liberated" five times, while Baghdad is "re-liberated" on an almost daily basis. General David Petraeus, in his pitiful appearance before the US Senate armed services committee, was bound to admit his disappointment at the military failure of the equally pitiful Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Basra. He had not followed Petraeus' advice; which was presumably to "re-liberate" the city (for the fourth time, by my calculation but with a bit more planning).

Indeed, Petraeus told senators that after his beloved "surge" goes home, the US will need a period of "consolidation and evaluation" – which is suspiciously close to saying that the US military will be, as the old adage goes, "redeployed to prepared positions". Ye gods! Where will this tomfoolery end?

In statistics, perhaps. By chance, as Bush was speaking this week, my mail bag flopped open to reveal a letter from my old American military analyst friend, George W Appenzeller. He gently (and rightly) corrects some recent comparative figures I used on US casualties in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. "In previous wars," he writes, "the US army has not reported to the public the number of wounded who are treated and immediately released back to duty. They have reported these casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars".

So here are a few Appenzeller factoids (glossed by Fisk, so the responsibility is mine!). The correct ratios for wounded in action vs killed in action for Iraq and Afghanistan is 8.13 to 1; for Korea, it's 7.38 to 1 and for Vietnam it's 6.43 to 1.

The true number of US wounded in Iraq until 18 March this year was 13,170, of whom 8,904 were so badly wounded that they required air evacuation to hospitals outside Iraq. The number of killed in action in Iraq is 3,251. (The other 750 died in accidents or of sickness.) But this does not include the kind of figure that the Pentagon and Bush always keep secret: an astonishing 1,000 or more Western-hired mercenaries, killed in Iraq while fighting or killing for "our" side.

But now I'll let George Appenzeller speak in his own words. "There are widely ranging estimates, but roughly 450,000 individuals ... fought on the ground in Vietnam ... At the height of the Vietnam war there were 67,000 ground combat troops there. That is roughly the number of ground combat troops the US presently has deployed in Iraq. Interestingly enough, that is also about the number of ground combat troops the US had fighting at any one time in the Korean war.

"The US army now has a much leaner and meaner organisation than in the past with a higher proportion of combat troops to total troops. All those American civilian truck drivers and Bangladeshi cooks have freed up troop slots that have gone to the combat arms."

No, Iraq has not yet reached Korea and Vietnam proportions. The three-year Korean war resulted in 33,686 US battle deaths and about 250,000 US wounds, an average of 94,562 casualties per year. The American phase of the Vietnam war lasted 14 years and resulted in 47,378 US battle deaths and 304,704 US wounds, an average of 25,149 casualties per year and an average of 66,792 during the four years of 1966-1969, the height of American fighting.

The Iraq war has lasted five years and has resulted in 3,251 battle deaths and 29,395 wounds, an average of 6,529 casualties per year. "Thus, the average number of killed and wounded during the Korean war was three times the total number of killed and wounded in the five years of the Iraq war. The average number of killed and wounded during each of the most difficult years of the Vietnam war was twice the total for the five years of the Iraq war."

Now for much more blood, the civilian variety. According to George, "About 1,600,000 were killed in the Korean war, 365,000 (according to American authorities) and four million (according to the Vietnamese government) during the American phase of the Vietnam war, and who knows how many in Iraq. No fewer than 250,000, certainly."

Not that long ago, Bush claimed that civilian fatalities in Iraq were "30,000 more or less" – again, note the "more or less" – but I can see why these statistics matter even less for him. It's not just that we don't care a damn about Iraqi lives. We are going to care even less about Iraqi civilian casualties when we walk backwards, when we are renewing and reviving and re-liberating all over again.

Robert Fisk's new book, 'The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings', is published by Fourth Estate

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