“War whore” is the name. They’re the ladies and gentlemen of the media who whoop, holler and thigh-slap the United States into war. Day in and day out, hour after hour, on the TV news channels in particular, they tingle with happy excitement as they strain to infect their viewers (and somewhat less often, their readers) with their enthusiasm for the looming death and disfigurement of others.
However much war may depress advertising and ruin the news budgets of the big media corporations, it gooses the ratings and makes stars of the on-air performers. And heroes, too: In December, HBO showed Live from Baghdad , a docudrama glorifying war whoredom. The same show is available around the clock on television as these journalistic war profiteers promote themselves and their careers. You can see the giddy emotional state of these men and women, clutching their microphones as their adrenaline-hyped voices report from Washington, Baghdad, London, Amman or-better yet-the deck of an aircraft carrier. British war correspondent Anthony Loyd wrote in his book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So : “I was delighted with most of what the war offered me: chicks, kicks, cash and chaos …. ” Regard the glistening eyes of the reporters, their happily agitated voices, their perturbed, gulping deliveries, the stagy bathos concealing their erotic delight in destruction and horror. When the histories of how this new war came to be are written, much of the blame-as in 1898, 1917 and 1964-will fall on the role the mass media have played.
The American mass media have been laying down prefatory propaganda barrages for warmonger politicians for the last 100 years, though a corporal’s guard of journalists and publications has refused to put propaganda before truth. As times and technologies change, new forms of presentation are invented to whip the yokels up into a patriotic pother. The war logos and the theme music on the news programs are already accepted as a fitting background for what, on some occasions, is little more than murder. On the 24/7 news channels, which have less news than time to fill, it has become a practice to pepper news programs with retired military officers whose actual or potential connections with the Pentagon are not discussed. Another type of media magpie commonly seen on the screen is the moldy scrapings from the bottoms of the think tanks, those soi disant experts whose real expertise is patriotic buncombe, self-promotion and red, white and blue humbug.
As we trot along toward our latest war, the government has come up with a new wrinkle for reporters gullible enough to buy into it. The reporters are being taken to “boot camps” where they are whipped into combat shape, after which they are “embedded” into different combat units to bond with the soldiers and become, more or less, soldiers themselves. These co-opted gulls are the detached observers who will be broadcasting and writing the dispatches that will pass for news back here at home.
Thus the one thing you may be sure of when the conflict breaks out is that you will have no way of knowing what’s going on. Information will be withheld or twisted or invented, all interwoven with pieces of accurate news so that it’s impossible to sort out the true stuff from the lies and misrepresentations, be they artful or crude. The people at home will not be told what’s happening when it’s happening. Nor for years after the event, when they may read the real story in history books.
Doubt everything. Trust nothing. Believe nothing. Governments and the media messengers are lying now and were lying then, as witness this small sampling of the lies by omission and commission told by the American government through the press over the last 65 years. These examples are drawn from The First Casualty by Phillip Knightley. Mr. Knightley’s book, the work of a quarter of a century, is regarded as the history of the manipulation of news by governments and their reporter friends, from the dawn of war correspondence in the Crimean War up through the mendacities of the Gulf War. For example:
· Although the Japanese knew the extent of American losses at Pearl Harbor, knowledge of it was concealed from the American public. Over half the battleships in the Pacific fleet-five out of nine-had been sunk. Politicians don’t like to get bad news and they don’t like to deliver it to their people. If something bad-really bad-happens to our people in this war, we won’t know about it.
· After the war had ended, reporters were barred from Hiroshima while, at home, Major General Leslie R. Groves, who ran the Manhattan Project, informed the public, “This talk about radioactivity is so much nonsense.”
· The accepted narrative of the famous Battle of the Bulge omits that, “while some American soldiers were fighting for their lives,” writes Mr. Knightley, “another 19,000 or so were absent without leave, wandering about in bands stealing petrol, hijacking food trucks and trains on the way to the front, and making fortunes on the black market.” At the time, no stories about this aspect of the battle found their way into the American mass media.
· Vietnam from start to finish was a carnival of official mendacity. The Congressional resolution which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to wage war there was obtained by fraud. The government claimed the American fleet had been attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. It simply never happened, but it was an appropriate way to begin the official part of a war during which the United States government lied about everything: casualties, enemy losses, corruption and atrocities.
· In December 1989, an American army invaded Panama in order to lay hands on the country’s dictator, General Manuel Noriega, who was also some kind of C.I.A. operative as well as a reputed drug smuggler. What George Bush I’s motives were for kidnapping this man are not known-and as for Mr. Noriega, he’s been kept incommunicado in a Florida prison for 14 years now. The government claimed the invasion was one of those surgical strikes during which nobody is injured; however, since reporters were not allowed to move around freely in Panama City, there are no American third-party accounts of what actually happened. Latin-American sources say that up to 2,000 civilians were killed and up to 70,000 were wounded. Less easy to cover up were the smoking ruins of the section of the city torched, accidentally or on purpose, by the Americans. The authors of those articles suggest that if people wonder why America is becoming a universal object of hatred, they might inquire among the Panamanians.
· Gulf War I: The conflict was precipitated by the invasion of Kuwait, a corrupt autocratic monarchy, by Iraq. For reasons having more to do with oil than justice, the United States sided with the monarchy. The number of Americans willing to die for Exxon being limited, the government needed something to get our blood boiling. Atrocities were needed. Hill & Knowlton, a public-relations outfit with a long history of painting corpses, was brought in. In short order, the war whores were filling air and print with stories of Iraqi soldiers dumping babies out of incubators onto Kuwaiti hospital floors. Cynics immediately recognized this one as an updated version of the World War I fables about German soldiers bayoneting Belgian babies. The whole business was a complete fiction, but then Gulf War I was rich in untruth. Even a public notorious for its short memory may recall the Patriot-missile hoax. The Patriot, it was claimed, shot down Scud missiles aimed at Israel and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Patriots shot down very little, but they’re back in the newspapers again, updated and ready for Gulf War II.
· Kosovo: Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian dictator, was depicted, of course, as another Hitler, as is Saddam Hussein. Here a Hitler, there a Hitler, everywhere a Hitler-don’t leave home for war without this chestnut. Again, atrocities were needed. Mr. Milosevic had committed his fair share of them (along with his enemies) previously in Bosnia and Croatia, but not in Kosovo, where he was accused of using the Serbian Army for ethnic cleansing of the province. Thousands were reported murdered and dumped into mass graves whose existence was authenticated by aerial photography. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Serbs had set up “rape camps” where unspeakable things were being done. A nonstop bombing campaign was begun by President Clinton to bring an end to these atrocities. After the war, it developed there were no mass graves and no rape camps, but there was the heavy bombing of civilian targets, ranging from attacking a passenger train full of people at Grdulice, to destroying the public utilities, electricity, water, etc., which the civilian population of Serbia depends on.
· Gulf War II: This conflict has posed an unusual set of propaganda problems. The usual Hitler stuff has been trotted out and made to fit Saddam as best it can, but the war crimes are old-very old. The most frequently made accusation of a Hitlerian type is: “He even used poison gas on his own people.” But that crime was committed almost 20 years ago and done with the tacit approval of the United States, since the victims were Kurds, who were allied with the Iranians. Since then, the Kurds have become good guys, but it’s hard to get some people to go to war in 2003 to right a wrong committed in 1981.
The government has been stymied in coming up with something bad that Saddam is doing now. They tried “linking” him to Al Qaeda, but-and this represents a rare example of propaganda backfiring-somehow or other, millions have found out that it’s a fairy tale.
Hence, Bush II is in a predicament. He has to persuade people that we must attack Iraq for crimes it has not yet committed but which Bush II knows it will. The chosen method has been to fill the air with dozens of accusations, clouds of midge-like lies too numerous and too short-lived to be refuted. By producing volcanic eruptions of fiction, supposition, half-truths and no truths, the world will come to imagine Saddam, mustache and all, is climbing in the bedroom window, oriental dagger in hand. Far-fetched? The war whores are on the streets, strutting. If anybody can make believers out of the market segments and the focus groups, it is they.
Mr. Knightley begins his book with a 1917 quote from Senator Hiram Johnson, the long-forgotten, Progressive-era California Republican giant: “The first casualty when war comes, is truth.”