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Shock and Awe 

Pro-war propaganda

Thursday, Feb 27 2003
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

MODERN WARFARE ISN'T ONLY ABOUT KILLING — it's about inspiring mass terror. That's why on the first day of Gulf War II: Die Harder, the Pentagon reportedly intends to launch 300 to 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq — more than during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. "[Y]ou have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes," says Harlan K. Ullman, who sounds far too comfortable with the historical analogy. Of course, the guy did co-author the 1996 book that defined the strategy that the U.S. military will be following. Euphemistically known as "Shock and Awe," the plan is designed to cow those Iraqis it doesn't blow up into immediate submission.

A similar strategy has been employed here at home. Even as government officials claim that war isn't inevitable, the Bush administration is busy flying 200,000 troops to the Middle East and slipping Turkey $15 billion in baksheesh for its help (now, don't slaughter the Kurds!). Seeking to unite the republic with fear, the government has cranked up the scare tactics — orange alerts, anti-aircraft missiles on the Mall, talk of Iraqi drone planes dropping biochemical weapons on American cities. Meanwhile, in an infuriatingly circular bit of reasoning, Vice President Dick Cheney has argued (and war criminal Kissinger concurred) that we must use our troops precisely because we've committed them — if not, we'll seem weak.

It's no surprise that our quasi-elected leaders should be working us over in this way. During World War I, the great radical Randolph Bourne famously wrote that "war is the health of the state." He was right: Just look at how the War on Terror has become an excuse for the state to shrink our individual liberties. But war is also the health of the fourth estate, which helps explain why our media have bowed down before Bush's Iraq war juggernaut. After all, war sells papers, boosts ratings, builds reputations (Murrow, Amanpour) and helps networks to establish their brand: CNN was made on the rooftops of Baghdad.

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Now, there are good reasons for eventually toppling Saddam, and I roll my eyes when I see placards comparing Bush to Hitler: Carry a poster like that in a real fascist state and you're dead, man. But posters are supposed to be simplistic. Magazines and news shows are not. This is why it's so unsettling when, faced with a policy that carries so many huge risks (mass casualties being just one), the media bombard us with pro-war propaganda.

Naturally, the vast, wired American landscape does boast some prominent dissenting voices, including Harper's, Salon, The American Conservative and the eloquent Grammy-night philosopher Fred Durst. But given that the vast majority of the world's people oppose the war, it's startling how few of their voices have a regular platform in major outlets, especially television, where Hardball's suddenly watchable Chris Matthews is the only talk-show host who consistently asks aggressive questions about invading Iraq. Traditional liberal redoubts such as the Washington Post and The New Republic have been riding gleeful shotgun for the joy ride to Baghdad — though TNR's editor is now getting cold feet. And even the supposedly leftish New York Times ran George Packer's seminal article on "liberal hawks," which began by scoffing at peace marchers for being dopes and ended with an Iraqi émigré silencing a peacenik with pleas for his country's liberation.

The other night, CNN's agonized liberal Aaron Brown grew defensive over claims that the network had been ignoring the peace movement. "For a variety of reasons, it seems to us, the anti-war movement has been slow to organize and slow to build. It hardly existed in the U.S. Congress." While this is certainly true of our spineless Democrats (Robert Byrd's jeremiads notwithstanding), it's flat-out wrong about popular resistance to the war, which is years ahead of the Vietnam timetable. Despite September 11, millions of ordinary Americans are shocked and awed by the president's brazenness in passing Saddam off as worthy of a war.

While Brown means well (his epitaph, I'm afraid), not everyone else does. Last Sunday on Meet the Press, in a battle of ghastly hair, Tim Russert hosted the anti-war Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich and the defense establishment's éminence grise, Richard Perle. Russert is the bullying embodiment of the East Coast consensus, and while he gave the saturnine Perle an easy ride, he positively grilled Kucinich. There was no mistaking his edge when he asked, "Do you believe the president of the United States would risk the lives of American men and women for oil?" — as if no decent person could believe such a thing. Kucinich, alas, lacked the mother wit to remind Russert that, before the last Gulf War, that quintessential Republican Bob Dole told the Senate, "We are in the Mideast for three letters, oil, O-I-L."

IN A FINE NEW ARTICLE IN THAT SUBVERSIVE RAG Vanity Fair, James Wolcott argues that the pro-war movement has sought to crush its opponents by turning them into caricatures. It targets anti-war celebs like Sean Penn ("slimed" as "Baghdad Sean"), smears anti-war academics for being "Profs Who Hate America" (as the egregious Daniel Pipes calls them), and vilifies skeptical non-Americans, especially surrender-monkey Europeans and uppity South Koreans who aren't grateful enough for all we've done for them. "As befits a pre-emptive war," Wolcott observes, "the hawks and their media pigeons launched a pre-emptive strike on the anti-war camp . . . Opposition has been discounted in advance with a knowing sneer."

And sometimes worse. An editorial in the right-wing New York Sun recently suggested that peace marchers could be considered guilty of treason. When some readers quite reasonably termed such a statement un-American, frothing James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal's online "OpinionJournal" — who spends his life calling people "appeasers" and "pro-Saddam" — suggested that the editorial's critics didn't grasp that its talk of "traitors" was a joke. Not as sidesplitting, perhaps, as Uday Hussein chopping his family's enemies to pieces, but uproarious nonetheless.

While the anti-war forces are derided, the media have turned pro-war intellectuals into stars. Each time you look up, you find another interview with Kenneth Pollack, the ex­CIA analyst whose book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq is the bible of war supporters. And there's no escaping the praise for Robert ("Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus") Kagan, whose new book, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, is a 21st-century imperial manifesto. He insists that it's in the whole world's interest that America live by a double standard: "It must refuse to abide by certain international conventions that may constrain its ability to fight effectively . . . It must support arms control, but not always for itself." Talk about your Martians. Kagan seems not to care that imperialists always think they're the good guys.

Of course, there are profound moral questions that good guys should ask — for instance, how many foreign civilians are we willing to kill in order to feel safe from potential danger? But Americans traditionally care more about technique than philosophy, and as war approaches, coverage has grown increasingly obsessed with how we'll fight it — the spiffy tanks and brainy missiles, the proposed electronic attacks on power grids and anti-Saddam pamphlets being dropped from the sky. The other day on NPR, I heard a report about the army's use of "ruggedized" Phrasalators, talking hand-held devices that U.S. soldiers can use to give commands in Arabic — "Get down on the ground."

Evidently someone has already used them on our reporters, for judging from their willingness to be "embedded" with soldiers by the Pentagon rather than acting as free agents, they are primed for a replay of Desert Storm, when, as war correspondent Chris Hedges says in his compelling new book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, "The press was as eager to be of service to the state during the war as most everyone else. Such docility on the part of the press made it easier to do what governments do during wartime, indeed what governments do much of the time, and that is lie."

The Bush White House is a Wal-Mart of secrets and lies. It suppresses information (reported in the current Newsweek) that Iraq may have already destroyed its WMDs, fobs off plagiarized student essays as top-secret info on Iraq, talks of giving hard evidence of Iraqi weapons to U.N. inspectors (who call the info "garbage after garbage after garbage"), and insists the war has the support of "new" Europe when it only has the support of its governments (the vast majority of Eastern Europeans oppose it).

This last fact should remind us that, even in countries that think themselves democracies, leaders seldom care what their citizens have to say. What makes Bush special is that he doesn't give a damn if we know it. No one was surprised that he didn't care what millions of peace marchers thought. As he told Bob Woodward, "I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

That debate with Saddam could be a real humdinger.

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