Arabian Naughts

The Pentagon's cartoonish denial of the obvious


At the height of the Vietnam War NBC's Banana Splits kids' show featured fifteen-minute cartoon episodes of the Arabian Knights. The premise was that after the evil sultan Bakaar forced his way into Baghdad and deposed Prince Turhan, Turhan took to the hills and caves outside the capital to fight the forces of Bakaar. To Turhan's acrobatic skills were added the strength of a giant, the spells of a wizard, a shapeshifter, the Princess Nida's gift for disguise, and a donkey that went absolutely ape-shit when you pulled on its tail. As yet, U.S. forces in Iraq have yet to confront any foes so imaginatively armed, but Pentagon descriptions of the fighting are proving almost as fanciful. Were it not for the very real death and pain involved in the subject matter, Pentagon briefings might even rate as entertaining.

The U.S. defense establishment is now in a rhetorical box of its own making. Because Iraq was defined as a country in need of liberation from a brutal dictator—let's pretend weapons of mass destruction were never mentioned— the populace was supposed to embrace U.S. forces as liberators once the dictator was out of the way. A tautology, true, but it actually played out that way for about 72 hours back in April. Today, it is a different story.

The pace, size, and sophistication of attacks on U.S. forces is increasing. Most ominous is the use of mortars by the attackers, which suggests a level of training and direction a step above your basic rabble. You don't point and shoot a mortar. With indirect fire weapons, some degree of range-finding is needed to hit a target. When mortar rounds come whistling out of nowhere and on target, the guys on the receiving end feel helpless, and each round makes quite the impression.

U.S. officials could say, yes, there appear to be elements in Iraq who have entered the field bent on driving us out. But that would contradict the liberator line. As the architects of Iraq campaign did not allow for any dissent from the mission, any dissent is illegitimate and to respond to dissent would only grant it legitimacy.

As a result, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brands elements of the Iraqi resistance "Saddam loyalists" despite evidence that would-be jihadists from other Arab countries were among the most dogged fighters the U.S. encountered in Iraq. In fact, the uniformed military has long recognized the potential for such fighters to throw up a guerilla conflict.

The specter of a guerilla war in a far off land which bleeds U.S. forces bit by bit remains too frightening for Rumsfeld and the Pentagon brass to confront. So they deny it and define it away.

"It's a different time. It's a different era. It's a different place," Rumsfeld is fond of saying when confronted with comparisons between the Iraq occupation and the war in Vietnam. All true and all irrelevant. History does add a wrinkle and repeat itself now and again.

To wit, if you have satellite dish you can catch Arabian Knights on Cartoon Network's Boomerang channel.