US commanders say the war in Iraq is "historic," because never before has a military bombardment been so fierce yet so precise. But could the war be historic in another sense - by being the first politically correct invasion?
Behind the "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad and the bloody clashes in the south, some in the American and British camps seem keen to ensure that the Iraqi offensive doesn't cause offense. They talk of their deep respect for the Iraqi people and encourage troops to honor Iraq's "cultural heritage."
In his address to the nation, President Bush said American forces were entering Iraq with "respect for its citizens, for their great civilization, and for the religious faiths they practice." British Lt. Col. Tim Collins told his troops on the Kuwaiti border: "Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden ... and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there...." Tread lightly? In army boots? While invading a nation and fighting a regime?
Commanders of Operation Iraqi Freedom have warned troops against flying American or British flags in Iraq. "We will not fly our flags in this country," said Colonel Collins. "The only flag which will be shown in that ancient land is [the Iraqis'] own."
US Marines, after a heavy battle Friday, removed an Iraqi flag from a port in Umm Qasr and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes - but were later told to take the American flag down, because it gave the wrong impression.
One US military official who'd heard about the American flag over Umm Qasr told The Times (London); "I thought, wait a minute, that's not what this is about." The Times reports that "American forces have been told not to fly the Stars and Stripes for fear of wrecking President Bush's carefully crafted message that America is fighting the Iraq war to liberate, not conquer." Troops have allegedly been told to avoid not only flag-waving antics, but also other such "displays of triumphalism."
And in keeping with the PC war, the US Navy is apparently keeping a close eye on the messages written on bombs before they are launched. During the Afghan campaign, sailors on the USS Enterprise wrote a homophobic message on a bomb destined for Afghanistan, leading to complaints from gay rights groups. Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli warned his men to more closely edit such "spontaneous acts of penmanship," and suggested that the Navy should "keep the messages positive."
But already, someone in the US Air Force has caused offense by writing a vulgar slur about the French on a bomb (aimed at Iraq, that is, not France). Senior American officers said the anti-French message "crossed the line" of acceptability, and promised to keep a check on soldiers' bomb scrawls.
No American flags, no American triumphalism, no offensive Americanisms on bombs - for all the global antiwar movement's claims that this war is America's attempt to "remake the world in its own image," it seems that some in the US camp want the war to look as non-American as possible.
Of course, there is a profound contradiction in these attempts to make the Iraqi offensive inoffensive. How can allied troops "tread lightly" when their task is to fight and kill? What is the point of having "positive messages" on bombs that are destined to destroy? And if Bush and his commanders respect Iraqi civilization and culture, why launch an invasion that, by its nature, threatens such institutions?
It seems that the PC elements of this war are driven less by a newfound respect for Iraq than by a sense of uncertainty on America's part. It is not a deep love for all things Iraqi that leads US officials and commanders to make PC statements, but rather a deep uncertainty about their own mission in the world. That could be one reason there is such emphasis on not giving the wrong message or creating the wrong image - the main concern seems to be with how the war will play around the world, rather than how it will necessarily affect Iraq and its civilization.
The declarations of respect for Iraq look like a cover for the US administration's own uncertainty - reflecting a desire not to be seen launching an American war in the name of American interests.
• Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of www.spiked-online.com.