The AP speaks Newspeak1

Reporting on Afghanistan and the 1,000
civilians killed in 2007 parrots the Pentagon

by Marc W. Herold
Departments of Economics
Whittemore School of Business & Economics
University of New Hampshire

Thought and language, which reflect reality in a way different from that of perception, are the key to the nature of human consciousness. Words play a central part not only in the development of thought but in the historical growth of human consciousness as a whole. A word is a microcosm of human consciousness
-- Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934)
The ‘plain' English of modern news media has a worrying capacity for keeping us in the dark; which is reminiscent of Orwell's 1984. For Orwell, the natural partner of Newspeak was Doublethink.2

POSTED DECEMBER 12, 2007 --

In the dead of night, U.S. war planes obliterated a tent alongside a road in remote Nuristan Province, killing fourteen Afghan road laborers and engineers in their sleep. According to an Associated Press (A.P.) wire service report on November 28, 2007,

"NATO warplanes hunting Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan mistakenly bombed an Afghan road construction crew sleeping in tents....If confirmed that NATO hit the wrong target, the incident in mountainous Nuristan province late Monday [November 26, 2007] would be the first major blunder in months..."
"Afghanistan's president has pleaded repeatedly with NATO and coalition troops to cooperate closely with their Afghan counterparts to prevent civilian deaths, and the number of such incidents has dropped significantly in the past few months."3

The wire service story written by the A.P's Amir Shah was predictably picked up by the Washington Post, Fox News, Forbes, Guardian, Hearst's Times-Union, Houston Chronicle, etc.

As I have documented elsewhere, the Associated Press reporting upon Afghanistan has well served the Pentagon and the Bush Administration.4 It would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that the Associated Press has acted as stenographer of the Pentagon's version of reality and more generally speaks for the powerful.5 Such was marvelously displayed in the early counting of the Afghan civilian dead by Associated Press special correspondent Laura King in Afghanistan in early 2002, whose effort was likely inspired to counter my own research which had documented some 3,500 innocent Afghan civilians having perished under U.S. bombs during October 7, 2001 -- December 10, 2001.6

Such "bias" by the Associated Press (and naturally other media, e.g. talk radio, FOX News, etc.) has important implications for democracy as pointed out by Phillips et. al.,

(The) AP is a massive institutionalized bureaucracy that feeds new stories to nearly every newspaper and radio/TV station in the United States and the world. They are so large that top-down control of single news stories is literally impossible. However, our evidence clearly indicates a built-in bias favoring the powerful. ACLU evidence on torture is ignored by the corporate press and AP never mentions it again. The State Department's position on Haiti becomes established history. Cynthia McKinney is bashed and marginalized. Coverage of the Israel-Palestine situation has a clear pro-Israel bias, and the national impeachment movement is totally ignored. The American people absorb these biases and make political decisions on skewed understandings. Without media systems that provide balanced, fair and accurate reporting democracy is faced with a dismal future.7

On November 12, 2007, U.S. occupation forces on patrol in the Garmser district of Helmand Province, came under fire. They fired a grenade into a building causing it to collapse, killing all those inside. The headlines by the different agencies are revealing with the Associated Press as usual burying the story of U.S. troops killing civilians (unlike the BBC, Alalam, DPA and Xinhua):

Associated Press: "US-led troops kill 18 in Afghanistan"
Agence France Presse: "22 Killed in new Afghan Clashes"
Deutsche Press Agentur: "Coalition Forces Kill 3 Afghan Civilians, 15 Taliban in Clash"
Xinhua News: "15 Militants, 3 civilians killed in S. Afghanistan"
BBC: "Afghan civilians die in US raid"
Iran's Alalam news agency: "U.S. Troops Kill More Afghan Civilians"

Unlike the other reports which merely reported on the facts, the A.P. news wire report included the usual U.S. propaganda refrain (about Taliban hiding amongst civilians, U.S. forces taking extreme measures to protect civilians, etc.). The BBC even noted that the Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said 3 militants were killed and the 15 other victims were civilians.

I shall examine A.P. reporting here of the mid-night bombing strike in the Nurgaram district of Nuristan Province located in the mountainous region of northeast Afghanistan. In its story, the A.P. employs key "trigger" words/phrases -- like mistakenly bombed, wrong, incident, blunder (or error), coalition, prevent civilian casualties, and the number of such incidents has dropped significantly in the past few months. These words and phrases get repeated ad nauseum, thereby displacing others which might elicit questioning or critical thinking. Such trigger words/phrases form part of a deliberately constructed narrative akin to Orwell's Newspeak, serving the Pentagon and the Bush Administration.8 One of the intents of Newspeak was to remove any words or phrases which might elicit rebellion, criticism, questioning, opposition, etc.

The A.P. newswire story begins with the well-honed argument that NATO warplanes (actually U.S. Warplanes)...mistakenly bombed....killing 14 workers sleeping in their tents. The phrase mistakenly bombed is crucially important to the Pentagon and dominant narrative insofar as it connects with collateral damage (which is alleged to be un-intentional) and the desired message that if innocent deaths occurred this was solely a result of a regrettable mistake, thereby exonerating in the public mind all U.S./NATO responsibility. This narrative gets further reinforced by the use of such trigger words as wrong, blunder, error, etc.

An alternative narrative and language would dwell instead upon how the complex tribal politics of the region interface with a U.S. occupation presence akin to an isolated island possessing minimal "ground intelligence" will inevitably lead to many such "mistakes." If a pattern of such "mistakes" gets established, can anyone seriously claim lack of responsibility? An alternative narrative might be that U.S/NATO forces care little about the lives of Afghan civilians because the rewards of bombing and possibly killing a "suspected Taliban" far outweigh the efforts and costs of determining whether a target is truly a legitimate military one. But all such questioning gets displaced in the A.P. story which privileges the concept of mistakenly bombed.

Another word repeated ad nauseam is coalition. We are endlessly reminded that a coalition is fighting against the Taliban, Hekmatyar and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. During the first two years of the Afghan war, the U.S. fought largely alone.9 But in 2003 when the U.S. Iraq war began, George Bush was successful in getting NATO to enter the Afghan fray. This was very important as it served to share the costs of the Afghan war and occupation; the two most important costs being financial and killed/injured soldiers. The troop casualties could be spread over a larger number of countries thereby defusing negative political fall-out in any one country. At about that time, as I have documented, the Taliban and associates began staging their "second coming."10

During the next four years, the involvement of NATO forces has deepened, though with significant disputes. While some NATO members are unwilling to directly commit forces to do the fighting, another group has though with increasing reservations as a military stalemate/quagmire settles in, reconstruction aid fails to make a difference as civilian deaths fuel the resistance.11 The former include Great Britain, Holland, Denmark, Canada and Australia and some countries of "New Europe," whereas the latter include nations of "Old Europe" (Germany, France, Italy and Spain). In effect, the coalition is fractured and increasingly so. It is comprised less of the willing and increasingly of the bribed. The United States and NATO desperately seek more fighting troops but pathetically succeed in recent months only in recruiting 200 Georgians, 35 Slovakians, 24 Azerbaijanis, and possibly an Estonian Scout Battalion. Other nations have withdrawn, including South Korea and Switzerland. The paucity of combat ground forces has in turn meant ever greater reliance upon air power in Afghanistan with effects such as that which happened on November 26/27 in Nuristan. But all such discomforting realities get flattened and displaced by the continuous mantra of a united coalition fighting those dastardly Taliban misogynists (but, we righteously care so much about those Afghan girls, no?).

We then get to one of the most flagrant canards of the whole Afghan imbroglio: the U.S/NATO takes only actions with great care for civilians. The initial sales pitch to see this idea to the Euro-American publics involved hyping so-called precision weapons alleged to have been developed at great cost to spare innocent lives (and reduce "collateral damage"). But upon closer inspection as I have written about in numerous publications, precision weapons were developed in order to reduce the costs of bombing (the need for fewer bombs and bombing runs) and to save lives of pilots (fewer bombing runs).12 Moreover, a comparison of civilian deaths in U.S. wars in which aerial bombing figured prominently from the Rolling Thunder campaign in Vietnam (1964-67) up through the first three months of the Afghan war (2001) shows that as the share of precision bombs in total tonnage dropped rose, the rate of civilian casualties increased.13

The U.S has pursued a least-cost strategy of carrying out its Afghan war - seeking to carry out the war "on the cheap" financially and in terms of U.S. military casualties -- getting bought warlords' militias to do the heavy lifting in 2001-2 and rely on heavy aerial bombing. This involved pushing costs onto NATO as of 2003. In 2004, U.S. military fatalities accounted for 97% of total occupation force deaths; in 2006, the ratio was only 51%.14 The non-US occupation soldiers in Afghanistan by later 2007 had a 37% greater chance of being killed than U.S. occupation soldiers. But, the aim of running the empty space at least cost is foundering upon a resurgent Taliban resistance15, which has developed their own very effective least cost insurgency weapons (e.g., improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings) and is putting them to good use.

But least-cost considerations by the US and NATO militaries directly translates into tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties. How? During the initial phases of the U.S. bombing campaign but still today, U.S. warplanes dropped powerful bombs in civilian-rich areas with little concern for Afghan civilians. The killing of civilians by the United States has long been excused away as "tragic errors." The U.S/NATO war managers dredge out the tired old "intent" argument. As Edward Herman noted,

...it is claimed by the war managers that these deaths and injuries are not deliberate, but are only "collateral" to another end, they are treated by the mainstream media, NGOs, new humanitarians, and others as a lesser evil than cases where civilians are openly targeted. But this differential treatment is a fraud, even if we accept the sometimes disputable claim of inadvertence (occasionally even acknowledged by officials to be false, as described below). Even if not the explicit target, if collateral civilian deaths are highly probable and statistically predictable they are clearly acceptable and intentional. If in 500 raids on Afghan villages alleged to harbor al Qaeda cadres it is likely that civilians will die in 450 of them, those deaths are an integral component of the plan and the clear responsibility of the planners and executioners. As law professor Michael Tonry has said, "In the criminal law, purpose and knowledge are equally culpable states of mind."16

But the A.P. ignores such analyses and instead ceaselessly quotes some U.S. major or lt.-colonel in Afghanistan who offers the scripted pabulum about how U.S/NATO militaries go to extreme lengths to protect Afghan civilians. The A.P. as stenographer of the Pentagon's Newspeak?

Besides trying to "prevent (incidents of) civilian deaths" in Afghanistan, we are informed by the A.P. on November 28, 2007 that the number of such incidents has dropped significantly in the past few months. Presumably, the more relevant data is the number of civilian deaths (rather than incidents). A.P. wire reports refer to alleged "counts" carried out by the A.P., but the raw data is never published, thereby violating one of the basic rules of research: verifiability and reproducibility. We are implicitly asked to believe and have faith.

The following Table 1 is reconstructed from my Afghan Victim Memorial Project data base available in the Internet.17 It counts Afghan civilians who have died directly (that is, at the point of impact) at U.S. and NATO hands during the past six months (June-November 2007). While it is true that during October and November, the number of civilians killed by U.S/NATO actions dropped below the previous month's averages (Table 1), the total figure for six months of 553-679 remains the highest for any half year since January 2002. During January 1 -- June 30, 2007, the totals were 427-619.18 The United Nations, on the other hand, put the civilian death toll of Afghans caused by U.S/NATO troops at only 314 for the first six months of 2007 (though did not provide disaggregated data and therefore the claim could not be independently assessed).19 Put in another way, during 2007, my data on the Afghan Victim Memorial Project indicates that over 1,000 innocent Afghan civilians have perished at the hands of the U.S/NATO militaries.

Table 1. Afghan Civilian Impact Deaths Caused by U.S/NATO Actions
Month during 2007 Low count High count # of incidents in which civilians were killed
June 167 234 12
July 125 158 10
August 83 89 8
September 103 109 10
October 41 41 12
November 34 48 6
Total for 6 months 553 679 58

Source: derived from disaggregated data at the Afghan Victim Memorial Project data base.

Not many hearts and minds were won in Afghanistan by these documented actions of the U.S. and NATO occupation armies.

By way of closing, a contrast of two photos taken in Afghanistan on November 26, 2007, the one by Reuters and the other by the Associated Press, reveal the very different intended messages.

Two photos were taken on November 26, 2007 in Afghanistan. The top photo published by Reuters (taken by Rafiq Shirzad) shows an ambulance in Jalalabad on Wednesday holding the bodies of Afghans killed by NATO in Nuristan. The bottom photo by the A.P depicts Afghan girls waiting to receive toys distributed by the U.S. 413th Civic Affairs Battalion in Paktika on November 26, 2007 (photo by Rafiq Maqbool).

Conclusion

An analysis of the language employed in the Associated Press news wire report of November 28, 2007 reveals a narrative compatible with the priorities of the Pentagon and powerful U.S. interests. The A.P. news writer Amir Shah employed terms/phrases found on the left side of Table 2 below, whereas an alternative more plausible version of reality (as I have argued herein) would emphasize the phrases and words on the right. The A.P. words/phrases are the Newspeak recommended ones which fit with the dominant master narrative.

Table 2. The A.P. Narrative and an Alternative Narrative
The A.P. narrative -- recommended official use of words/phrases An alternative narrative -- not recommended for official use
Mistakenly bombed, wrong, blunder, error Direct result from ignorance of local social complexities and reliance upon air war
Coalition A fragmenting, divided, diminishing grouping
Great care for civilians Careless killing of valueless civilians
Number of civilians killed now dropping Fact check: number has been rising

A re-write of the original Associated Press report would emphasize that the 14 Afghan road workers were killed in what amounts to an act of manslaughter by U.S. (not a unified "coalition's") pilots, that they died because their lives are worth next to nothing20 and that they are part of a growing number of Afghan civilians killed by U.S./NATO actions.

Three days after the deadly attack, the NATO-led force outright denied killing 14 Afghan workers.21 The phrase "NATO killing" had simply been banned in the Pentagon's Newspeak.

-- 30 --

Footnotes

1. Newspeak is a fictional language in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. See also R.M. Keils, "Pentagon English is a Sort of Newspeak," College Composition and Communication 24, 5 (December 1973): 386-391, and Timothy Lynch, "Doublespeak and the War on Terrorism," Cato Institute Briefing Papers No. 98 (September 6, 2006).

2. Roger Nunn, "The 'Unknown Unknowns' of Plain English," Asian EFL Journal 6, 10 (December 2004).

3. In Amir Shah, "Afghans: NATO Airstrikes Kill 14 Workers," Associated Press (November 28, 2007).

4. See my "Truth about Afghan Civilian Casualties Comes only through American Lenses for the U.S. Corporate Media (Our Modern-Day Didymus)," in Peter Phillips & Project Censored (ed), Censored 2003. The Top 25 Censored Stories 2002 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002): 265-294. Naturally, some individual journalists working for the A.P. exhibit the expected independent, critical thinking; Kathy Gannon comes to mind here. Gannon's book (2005) on Afghanistan, I is for Infidel, remains one of the very best analyses of the Taliban and the subsequent U.S. war in Afghanistan.

5. As argued in Peter Phillips, Sarah Randle, Brian Fuch, Zoe Hoffman, and Fabricio Romero, "A Study of Bias in the Associated Press," in Peter Phillips & Project Censored (eds), The Top 25 Censored Stories 2007 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007). The A.P. maintains a decidedly pro-Israel stance in the Palestinian conflict.

6. In her "Review: Afghan Civilian Deaths Lower," Associated Press (February 11, 2002). I have examined the issue in my essay, "Dead Afghan Civilians: Disrobing the Non-Counters," Cursor.org (August 20, 2002).

7. Phillips, Randle et. al. (2007), op. cit.

8. See also Gareth Porter, "Newspeak and the New War in Iran," the Huffington Post (October 25, 2007) and especially Tom Engelhardt, "Words to Die For: The Devil's Dictionary in Iraq," Tomdispatch.com (April 25, 2007).

9. Some minimal assistance was provided by Great Britain, Australia, and France.

10. In my "The Taliban’s Second Coming," Cursor.org (February 29, 2004).

11. Well argued in Conn Hallinan, "The Algebra of Occupation," Foreign Policy in Focus (November 27, 2007).

12. See my "'Collateral Damage'? Civilians and the U.S. Air War in Afghanistan," in Aftab Ahmad Malik (ed), Shattered Illusions. Analyzing the War on Terrorism (Bristol, England; Amal Press, 2002): 209-246.

13. See Table 17.2 in my "Urban Dimensions of the Punishment of Afghanistan by U.S. Bombs," in Stephen Graham (ed), Cities, War, and Terrorism. Towards an Urban Geopolitics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003): 316

14. Data from iCasualties.

15. In a propaganda coup, any armed opposition to a standing government is now labeled terrorist. By such criterion, of course, the American revolutionaries of the 1770s and the Vietnamese National Liberation Front soldiers of the 1960s were terrorists.

16. See Edward S. Herman, "'Tragic Errors' in U.S. Military Policy. Targeting the civilian population," Z Magazine 15, 8 (September 2002).

17. See here.

18. Derived from Afghan Victim Memorial Project.

19. The U.N. figure is mentioned in Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, "Losing Afghanistan, One Civilian at a Time," Washington Post (November 18, 2007).

20. See my essay, "The Value of a Dead Afghan: Revealed and Relative," Cursor.org (July 21, 2002).

21. "NATO force denies 14 Afghan workers killed in strike," Agence France Press (November 29, 2007), and Donna Miles, "Pentagon Official: Afghanistan Air Strike Hit Legitimate Targets," Family Security Matters.org (November 30, 2007).

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