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Marines versus Fedayeen: Interpretive Naming and Constructing the 'Other'

Throughout history the enemy, figured as the ultimate 'other', have been named in derogatory terms, especially in narratives of propaganda. However, contemporary discourses of history and news reporting have positioned themselves as neutral and impartial, transparent lenses through which events and the enemy can be viewed objectively without distortion.

Claire Norton

Issue #63, April 2003

"We have intelligence information saying that the Fedayeen Saddam people — I'm not going to call them troops, because they're travelling in civilian clothes and they're essentially terrorists..."
— US Defence Secretary D. Rumsfeld
(The Washington Times, 26 March 2003)

Throughout history the enemy, figured as the ultimate 'other', have been named in derogatory terms, especially in narratives of propaganda. However, contemporary discourses of history and news reporting have positioned themselves as neutral and impartial, transparent lenses through which events and the enemy can be viewed objectively without distortion. Does this mean therefore that there is nothing to be said about the naming of the enemy in the present conflict? Does this policy of disinterested and unbiased reporting fully explain why it is now offensive for news reports and politicians to describe a crusade against the vile infidel but it is acceptable to invade and destroy the murderous militia? Are the forces hostile to the American and British led invasion of Iraq really described as they are, in neutral and transparent language, by the American and British mass media? Or are they named in more subtle ways so as to position them for the role they are to play in the American and British administrations' narrative of events?

Interpretive Naming

The naming of the enemy in the 2003 Gulf War is not isomorphic with reality, but rather provides an instance of interpretative naming. In other words, the nouns used to signify the enemy represent more than is initially obvious and include an element of covert interpretation. By labelling and thus characterizing the recipient, texts are framed and narratives constructed. Naming also conditions the expectations of audiences and guides their subsequent interpretation. An analysis of naming practices can therefore help to foreground the interpretative frameworks, viewpoints and moral judgments implicit in particular narrations. Consequently, I will explore in more detail the American and British media naming of the Iraqi combatants and in particular will focus on the role these naming practices have in constructing narratives which ultimately try to explain and legitimize the American and British invasion of Iraq.

Soldiers in gas masksAmerican and British combatants are named and described in the media as soldiers and more specifically, as marines, artillery, infantry and special forces. Such a naming positions them in a narrative where they are viewed as members or representatives of a legitimate state institution; the army. Thus their violence is authorized and legitimized, they are not armed thugs, criminals or terrorists, but soldiers licensed to carry out limited acts of aggression in the interests of the state. In sharp contrast, Iraqi combatants are rarely described by the American and British media as soldiers but are rather, irregulars, paramilitary, militias, terrorists, armed members of the Ba'ath party, criminals and tribesmen loyal to Saddam Hussein. Even when a journalist or newspaper attempts to temper the "critical vocabulary" used to describe and name Iraqi combatants by American and British generals they are ultimately framed within a discourse of de-legitimization; not terrorist death squads but still paramilitaries, as in the Guardian Unlimited article (02/02/03) by Rory McCarthy, "The officer also appeared to distance himself from the increasingly critical vocabulary used by generals giving the daily briefings at Central Command, who have begun to label Iraqi paramilitaries as "terrorist death squads".

What is the explanation for this naming practice - are the Iraqi combatants really not soldiers in an army but instead only exclusively composed of irregulars and armed members of the Ba'athist party? These naming strategies do not transparently reflect the actual status of the Iraqi combatants. On the contrary, their purpose is designed in effect to de-legitimize them together with the Iraqi state and military apparatus. By characterizing them in the language of non-state armed groups such as militias, terrorists, irregulars and paramilitaries it removes the moral and political authority traditionally bestowed upon nation-state armed institutions. The combatants are no longer soldiers fighting battles or engaging in armed resistance according to the norms and conventions of modern warfare rather they are irregulars employing terrorist and guerrilla tactics.

It is this de-legitimization that is the key to clarifying both the naming practices of this war and the narratives behind them. The naming of Iraqi combatants is a key feature of the American and British administrations' attempt to construct and disseminate legitimizing narratives of the invasion. However, these narratives themselves are constrained and determined to some extent by our contemporary cartographies or strategies for mapping and interpreting our experience of the world. These interpretative frameworks imagine geo-political space in terms of discrete territorial units under the control of a sovereign state; a nation-state dominated cartography. This contrasts with alternative supra-local imagined communities predicated upon religion and empire or constructed on the basis of shared kinship, language, or culture.

Coexistent with the nation-state geo-political mapping are moral and juridico-political imaginaries that assert the legitimacy of the state to hold dominion over a delimited and universally recognized territory. In other words, such a mapping implies an accompanying moral cartography that emphasizes the inviolable integrity of the sovereign nation state. In turn this affects the legitimate praxis of violence; unauthorized military crossing of boundaries are deemed illegitimate and are considered as providing a globally recognized causus belli for war. The defensive is thus foregrounded. This moral framework that guarantees the territorial integrity of the nation state and prohibits the use of force against other nation states is recognized universally and acts as a foundational principle of international law with only two exceptions: in cases of self-defence and when authorized by the Security Council acting under chapter VII of the UN Charter. In fact, this shift in juridico-political cartographies is so pervasive that it affects not only contemporary political decisions and narratives but also historical narratives and memories. The exaltation of previous victories by national 'ancestors' outside the boundaries of the current nation-state is generally viewed as being problematic and avoided in favor of the celebration of the capture of territory which is within contemporary national borders. Thus, the invasions of axis nation states in the Second World War were and are framed within the greater narrative of the defence of Europe and Asia against Nazi and Japanese invasions. Similarly, the first Gulf War is interpreted defensively as a counter-measure to Iraq's violation of the territorial sovereignty of Kuwait. Moreover, this war itself stopped short of an incursion into Iraqi sovereign territory. Military penetrations of other nation-states therefore, especially those that are not defensive or are not sanctioned by the UN, require specific authorizing and legitimizing discourses. The recent Anglo-American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq provide excellent examples of such narratives.

Both of these invasions have been framed as instances of pre-emptive defence; if we don't stop them now they will sooner or later attack us and penetrate our national territory. However, it is the positioning of these attacks within the greater narrative of the war on terror combined with the narrative of liberation that is most pertinent when considering the naming of Iraqi combatants. A war on terror, is ostensibly not a war against another sovereign nation state but a war on terrorists. The American legitimizing narrative for the invasion of Afghanistan argued that it was not the state that was being attacked but rather terrorist, al-Qaida, elements within it. Similarly, the narrative of liberation argued that the American invasion was designed to free the people and the rightful guarantors of the state from those who had illegitimately taken control of the state apparatus, the Taliban. Therefore, the territorial and political integrity of the nation state was not violated but was in fact being defended. Key to the success of such narratives is the existence of a disenfranchised population who want to be liberated and can be re-imagined as legitimate wielders of state power. In Afghanistan the administrative and military organizations within the Northern Alliance were easily re-imagined in the authorizing narrative as the legitimate state army and government. In contrast the Taliban were framed not as bureaucrats and soldiers in a state army but were ultimately conflated with al-Qaida and depicted as terrorists. A consequence of this re-framing is that Taliban combatants are now held in Guantanamo Bay as unlawful combatants and not as prisoners of war.

Similarly, the Anglo-American administrations' legitimizing narrative of the invasion of Iraq is predicated on the illegitimacy of the current Iraqi government and its lack of authority to govern. To name the Iraqi combatants as soldiers implies that they constitute the legitimate armed forces of a nation-state and this consequently implies that the American and British are engaged in an act of invasion and war against a nation state and its army. However, to name them as irregulars and militias reinforces a narrative that foregrounds the illegitimacy of the Iraqi government. If Iraqi combatants are not the legitimate soldiers of a nation-state army, then like terrorists and criminals they are not authorized to engage in acts of violence or aggression. This framing of Iraqi combatants permits a narrative in which the Anglo-American combatants can be positioned as the police. A view reinforced by the frequent figuring of America as the policeman of the world. The description of Anglo-American combatants as policemen removing criminals and restoring order reframes the invasion narrative as one concerned with removing and replacing a brutal criminal regime with a legitimate government.

It is to reinforce this sense of illegitimacy that Iraqi combatants are frequently associated not to the army of the Iraqi state but to Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party through their description as "his private army," "Ba'athist militias" and "those loyal to Saddam Hussein". By linking them in this manner a narrative is constructed whereby the Iraqi combatants are presented not as soldiers in the legitimate Iraqi state army but rather as the armed thugs of a particular political party and individual. While the American and British have legitimate governments commanding armies the military administrative structures in Iraq are delegitimized through their portrayal as the personal regime of Saddam Hussein and his private militia.

Regulars and Irregulars

The employment of the vocabulary of de-legitimization in the naming of Iraqi combatants also has an ontological role in that it is through such stark encounters with an oppositional 'other' that the construction of self occurs. If they are the illegitimate 'other' then we must be the legitimate self. By contrasting our soldiers with their militias a distinction between the illegitimacy of Saddam Hussein and his irregulars and the legitimacy of the Anglo-American soldiers is implied.

covered upSome Iraqi combatants, however, are named as soldiers. Although those that offer armed resistance to the British and Americans are named as irregulars and militias, those who surrender, flee, are coerced into fighting by Ba'athist militias or who potentially rebel, are described as soldiers. What significance does this naming pattern have for the legitimizing narratives? By depicting the Iraqi combatants who offer no resistance as soldiers, the narrative implies that the legitimate army of Iraq is, if not allied with the American and British, then at least acquiescent with their goal of the liberation of Iraq. It thus creates a division between the compliant legitimate army of Iraq and the resisting irregulars and militia, the illegal combatants. The legitimate Iraqi state army composed of soldiers, has fled, surrendered or rebelled thereby again providing a contrast to the illegitimacy of Saddam Hussein and his personal militias. Moreover, potential public sympathy for the enemy is controlled and constrained through this naming practice. The poorly trained, half-starved, badly equipped, conscript soldiers elicit sympathy whereas the mad, fanatical, torturing, brutal terrorist militias do not. Thus our feelings of concern are limited to those who surrender and not to those who fight.

An example of this linguistic fluidity is apparent in the reporting of the incident surrounding the Iraqi 51st regular army division. According to General Myers the members of this division, named as soldiers, "ran away" from American and British combatants. Subsequently when their tanks and armoured vehicles were deployed in a battle with the British, General Myers argued that the soldiers of the 51st division had not re-grouped and returned to attack but rather the fedayeen or Republican Guard had appropriated their tanks and vehicles and themselves instigated the assault. Ordinary soldiers only ever surrender or run away, those who resist are part of Saddam Hussein's special killer militia.

Etymological Contests

The recent prevalence of the term fedayeen or fedayeen Saddam offers a paradigmatic example of interpretative naming and its role in the creation of narratives. The sudden emergence and widespread use of the term combined with journalists' keenness to translate and thus interpret it for their audience suggests that it signifies much more that the name of an Iraqi military unit. An analysis of the use of this term by the Anglo-American media will illustrate that it is far from transparent and furthermore that it plays a specific role in the Anglo-American legitimizing narrative of the war. The term was first used in the Iraqi context in the mid-1990s to describe a military unit created by Saddam Hussein. In the few references to the fedayeen Saddam in the years before 2003 it was described variously as, special forces, an all-volunteer unit, a commando unit and as a paramilitary force. Even in the few months before the Anglo-American invasion there were very few, if any, references to it in the many detailed media discussions and analyses of Saddam Hussein's potential military capability. However, on 22 March 2003 there occurred an explosion of references to the fedayeen or fedayeen Saddam which escalated exponentially on 26 March 2003.

Although many of these references were accompanied by a translation none of these originated from the definitions given for fedayeen and fida'i in English and Arabic dictionaries respectively. While the Collins English dictionary provides the definition, "a commando, esp. one fighting against Israel" and the dictionary of Modern Written Arabic "one who sacrifices himself for his country, soldiers prepared to sacrifice their lives, commandos, shock troops," the media preferred "those ready to sacrifice themselves for Saddam — literally" and "Saddam's men of sacrifice." In recent days particularly since the suicide bomb attack on American forces, the definition has changed in many media reports to "martyr". While the Arabic tri-literal root does literally contain the concept of sacrifice, the Arabic definition does not necessarily connote suicide troops but may instead describe brave heroic troops prepared to do their bit and make the ultimate sacrifice, as many allied troops did in the Second World War.

In fact, the actual use of the word fedayeen in the previous four centuries suggests that the element of martyrdom and suicide was not at all predominant. It is possible to determine three separate definitions for this word from usage — commando, non-state affiliated military forces, and suicide bomber/attacker. The first use is clear from English and Arabic dictionary definitions and is also that commonly employed in Arabic or Ottoman accounts of military engagements. For example, Ottoman manuscripts describing military encounters from between the seventeenth and nineteenth century use the term to describe experienced, SAS-type commandos who undertook dangerous military missions for additional remuneration and who almost always returned alive.

The second use originated in the 1948-9 Israeli-Arab war where the fedayeen emerged as an Arab Palestinian military unit engaged in the hostilities and the term continued to be used by combatants in the Palestinian resistance movement throughout the 1950s. Fedayeen were also operative in Jordan in the late 1960s and early 1970 where they constituted a non-state organization and military force engaged, in effect, in a civil war against King Hussein. After trying to organize a general strike and at times controlling a number of strategic places they signed a cease fire agreement with the Jordanian government in Cairo in 1970. The term has also been adopted by many groups in Iran in a similar manner. The secular Marxist, Organization of Iranian People's Fedayeen Guerrillas were founded in 1968 in opposition to the Shah's dictatorship but following his overthrow split into two groups, the People's Fedaiyan and the Organization of Fedaian, both of which seek to promote a secular, socialist democratic society in Iran.

It is in more recent re-definitions that the emphasis has shifted to the concept of sacrifice inherent in the Arabic root. In modern Israeli discourse the Palestinian fedayeen of the 1950s have been re-described as suicide fighters. The emphasis of the media's translation of fedayeen Saddam on sacrifice and martyrdom, despite the other potential meanings available, suggest that these particular definitions have been selected not because this is what the phrase means but rather because it is this interpretation which accords with the dominant narrative of the war. By naming these combatants as martyrs or those ready to sacrifice themselves a link is made to the terrorist tactics of suicide bombers in Israel and Palestine and ultimately to the attacks on the Twin Towers. Through these intertextual references audiences are encouraged to place these combatants within a frame of Islamic fundamentalism, to provide legitimization for this campaign as part of the greater war on terror and more particularly to implicitly associate Saddam Hussein with the 11 September 2001 attacks.

tank in desert

Furthermore, references to the fedayeen are frequently accompanied by a re-description of their status. They are no longer depicted as special forces or commando units, but are instead killer militia, guerrilla factions, paramilitary extremists, "the worst of the worst" and "essentially terrorists". According to Donald Rumsfeld they and the Special Republican Guard are emphatically not to be viewed in the same category as the military because "they are more fanatical." The de-legitimization of resisting Iraqi combatants is continued in accompanying descriptions of the activities of the fedayeen and other militias. Unlike the American and British who abide by the Geneva Convention and act appropriately for soldiers, the Iraqi combatants "commit acts of treachery," "represent a terrorist-type threat" and engage in sabotage and deception. While their black-hooded criminal militia thugs masquerade as civilians, employ hit-and-run attacks on troops and supply convoys, use and endanger the lives of civilians, destroy oil wells and mine ports, our special forces undertake special ops and covert actions. In particular, although Iraqi combatants in civilian clothes are named as militias and, it is claimed, will be tried for war crimes or held as unlawful combatants, American combatants in civilian clothes retain their status as soldiers and will be protected from such prosecution. This is illustrated by the incident in early March when UN peacekeepers in the demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait encountered a group of armed men in civilian dress illegally cutting through the border fence. In media reports of this incident, these men were universally described as marines and not as irregulars or militias.

The popularity of the term, the definitions accorded to it by American and British journalists, and the associative phrases and descriptions all suggest that it is not a neutral description but is rather a key component in the dominant legitimizing narrative of the war. The Iraqi fedayeen, defined in the language of terrorism and fundamentalism, are in effect interpretatively named and positioned as Islamic terrorists and consequently not viewed as representing the legitimate government of Iraq.

The naming of the enemy in journalistic narratives of the invasion of Iraq is thus far from neutral and transparent. Instead, through its interpretative naming of Iraqi combatants, it not only attempts to position them as the 'other' by employing oppositional rhetorics and the vocabulary of vilification and fundamentalism, but it also simultaneously situates them in a narrative constructed ultimately in order to legitimize the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Claire Norton is a doctoral candidate at Birmingham University completing a dissertation in 17th-18th century Ottoman history.

Copyright © 2004 by Claire Norton. All rights reserved.