Reporting on a war that isn’t a war: USA vs. ISIL

“Our objective is clear. We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” – President Obama

Now that the USA and the coalition of the hesitant are stumbling toward the objective, NBC reporter Elizabeth Chuck had good reason to wonder “Why the Obama administration keeps saying ‘degrade and destroy’.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest finds the phrase “brimming with meaning.” Chuck did not.  The strategy of air strikes on the black-flagged beheaders of ISIL (or ISIS or just the Islamic State) seems to be “in tatters” according to the UK’s The Guardian. Has Chuck’s question received a good answer?

It was not a good sign that Chuck, in her search for one, felt compelled to enlist the help of UC Berkeley professor of linguistics George Lakoff.  Here’s what he came up with: “What they’re trying to do here is develop a way to frame the issue in such a way that it doesn’t mean you’re at war, it doesn’t mean you’re trying to save the country, etc. etc” Repetition of “de“(in “de-grade and de-stroy”) was intended to convince allies, public and enemy that “we’re really going to do it.” Verbal gymnastics from Washington did not frighten ISIS, convince skeptics or enlist greater support among allies. Is anyone outside the White House still be-guiled or be-witched by the “double-de” spin?

Reports from the front in Iraq and Syria depict ISIL moving relentlessly toward crushing Kurdish opposition and grabbing substantial swaths of land close to Baghdad. These reports confirm the cautious interpretation of the U.S./coalition strategy expressed by former White House aide Reid Cherlin: “You could just say ‘destroy’ to start with and leave out the ‘degrade,’ but probably most of what we will be doing is the degrading, and the ‘destroy’ is the hopeful part.”

Looking at the press reports about the achievements of ‘degrading,’ is there still hope for the second act of destroying? It doesn’t look like it. ABC News reported that U.S. airstrikes “destroyed a couple of armed ISIS vehicles.”  On October 10 WTKR revealed that “four air strikes south of Kobani (the town near the Syrian-Turkish border held by Kurds) destroyed two ISIS vehicles” while “one air strike northeast of Kobani destroyed an ISIS vehicle.” Our British partners are doing similar “degrading” of the ISIS fleet of pickup trucks: “Two Tornado fighters identified two vehicles, one of which was an armed pickup truck. Four Brimstone missiles were used to conduct a precision attack on the vehicles. Initial analysis indicates that the strikes were successful.”

The U.S. and coalition partners are using Tornado fighters ( at more than $20 million an aircraft and more than $ 30,000 an hour to operate it), or Apache helicopters to inflict the kind of damage on ISIS pickup trucks that ordinary American drivers  boast of on a foggy day on Los Angeles freeways for a fraction of the cost. It would have been even cheaper to get rid of those terrorist vehicles by waiting for recall notices from their manufacturers.  Especially since the “degrading” of the ISIS fleet isn’t stopping ISIS. And why is that?

Lt. General William Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Staff explained it to us all: “ISIS is a learning organization…and they will adapt to what we’ve done and seek to address their shortfalls and gaps in our air campaign in the coming weeks.” So we’re at war, kind of, with a “learning organization” that is winning the almost-war, and we’re not. TIME magazine told us what ISIS has done from what it has learned: “ISIS has frustrated air strikes by abandoning key outposts …easier to hit…and breaking into smaller units…and also moving into civilian areas the coalition won’t bomb…”

The White House, at least so far, has not shown itself to be a “learning organization.” And that led TIME to conclude: “For a President who wants to defeat ISIS without ground forces, the options are dwindling.”

So what is the press to do about reporting on this “operation” to stop ISIS? It can continue to chronicle the vehicular Blitzkrieg ISIS continues to wage with its degraded fleet of armed trucks and heavier weapons captured from Iraq’s forces. It can also reveal the spin our president and his spokespersons are putting on the results of the campaign. So far, we haven’t stopped ISIS and we’re not getting closer to the “destroy” part of the strategy. No boots on the ground ultimately will result in more bodies underground.

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