November 12, 2001
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Washington pulls out the stops in its own propaganda war
One of the surest ways of knowing you're being blanketed by propaganda is to be told that whatever makes Washington look bad is propaganda.
That's been happening a lot lately.
As the devastation in Afghanistan becomes clearer, as stories of broken bodies and blood and flattened Red Cross depots and orphaned children and weeping mothers trickle out of the war-torn and drought-stricken country, the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon fire back: Don't believe it. It's propaganda.
If it looks like the war that was supposed to capture Osama bin Laden dead or alive has become a war on Afghans, well, that's just because the Taliban, backward, medieval, unworldly, are masters of deception. Through guile they've lured us all into believing innocents are being blasted away, displaced, and threatened with starvation.
But isn't it always that way? The other side, no matter how small, no matter how poor, no matter how devastated by war, crippled by sanctions, weakened by IMF reforms, is always cunningly able to manipulate perceptions, twist the truth, exaggerate, tell tall tales, while Washington, with its ready access to the media, to PR firms, to spin-doctors, to overnight polling, struggles to get its message -- and the truth -- out.
The 1.5 million Iraqis the UN says have died from sanctions-related causes? Iraqi propaganda.
The thousands of Yugoslav civilians who died during NATO's 78-day air war against Yugoslavia in 1999? Propaganda.
The war crimes the US committed against the Serbs and Iraqis, against Afghans and Sudanese? Propaganda.
When NATO missiles destroyed the Serb Radio-TV building, killing civilians inside, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the attack was necessary to shut down Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's "propaganda machine." But Serb Radio-TV was relaying pictures of the extent of devastation NATO bombs were wreaking on civilian infrastructure, and people. Not soldiers, and police, but old ladies, and children, and, well, people who looked like you and me. It made people in the West wonder whether bombing was the answer. It made them ask questions and squirm in discomfort and wonder about the war's morality.
And one thing you can't have is the public going soft on you. No sir! You don't want a repeat of what happened to former president Lyndon Johnson. When he looked out his window in 1968 to see hundreds of thousands of protesters, he knew, then and there, the Vietnam war was lost.
Astonishingly, the attack on the Serb broadcasting building, a blatant war crime, has never been the object of a war crimes indictment, but then hundreds of war crimes committed by the United States in other wars have been sheltered from prosecution, too. It helps when you have a veto over the Security Council. It helps when you refuse to approve an International Criminal Court that could impartially prosecute war crimes, demanding blanket immunity from prosecution as the price of your approval.
Instead, the Hague Tribunal, a creation of the UN Security Council, and therefore under the control of the principal members of NATO, threatened to indict Milosevic for the attack. Milosevic knew of the attack in advance, the Tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte charged, and failed to warn the civilians inside, a cynical ploy to use their deaths for propaganda purposes.
See the pattern?
Commit outrages, trample international law, ignore international protocols banning attacks on civilians, and then, when the other side complains, and the public gets restive, dismiss it all as propaganda.
But it must be propaganda, right? We're civilized. We would never kill countless numbers of civilians.
Yeah, so maybe we used weapons of mass destruction against Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and lied about the targets being military bases selected to minimize civilian casualties.) Maybe we firebombed Tokyo during WW II. Maybe we carpet bombed North Korea until there were no targets left to bomb, killing millions. Maybe we stood by and watched with a check list as Indonesian dictator Suharto rounded up and murdered up to a million communists. Maybe we carpet bombed North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, wiping out three million. Maybe we killed 200,000 in the Gulf War. Maybe we killed 2,000 Panamanian civilians to arrest Manuel Noriega, a former CIA operative. Maybe we bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days, killing thousands.
But that was all in the past. This time it's different, right?
So why has the Pentagon bought the exclusive rights to photos taken of Afghanistan by a commercial satellite, photos it's not letting anyone else see? It's not as if the Pentagon needs the photos. It has its own satellites that provide far better photos. It's more like the Pentagon doesn't care to have you see what's really going on.
So why did Washington prevail on television networks and newspapers not to broadcast and publish the statements of Osama bin Laden, at least not without a fair amount of judicious editing? Why doesn't Washington want its free press to allow you to hear what bin Laden has to say? Is it because the Saudi millionaire isn't taking credit for the Sept. 11 attacks (a reminder, perhaps, that Washington has yet to produce any concrete evidence that bin Laden, Al Qaeda or the Taliban had anything to do with the attacks of the Pentagon and the WTC)?
So why did CNN chairman Walter Isaacson order CNN reporters "to make sure people understand that when they see civilian suffering there, it's in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States," (as if the suffering of innocent people in one part of the world justifies the suffering of innocent people in another part of the world)?
And why did Rick Davis, CNN's head of standards and practices, tell anchors to put scenes of Afghans suffering "into context?" He recommended anchors say: "The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban regime continues to harbor terrorists who are connected to the Sept. 11 attacks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the US. We must keep in mind...that these US military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the US."
When US warplanes attacked the remote Afghan farming village of Chowkar-Karez, dozens of civilians were killed. A Pentagon official said, "the people there are dead because we wanted them dead." Their crime? They sympathized with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. So, if the Pentagon is deliberately attacking civilians, why is CNN continuing to point to the Pentagon's less than honest assurances that it's minimizing civilian casualties? Far from minimizing noncombatant deaths, the US military is deliberately attacking civilians. To say otherwise is propaganda, isn't it?
So why did representatives of Hollywood studios, including the actor Sally Field, agree that Hollywood would produce films that keep the public on side the war on terrorism? Isn't that propaganda? Is there some reason the public may no longer want to be on side? Is there a risk the public could go soft?
And what of New York-based Human Rights Watch? Is it part of Washington's propaganda machine, part of its plan to prevent the public from rethinking its support for the war?
You wouldn't think so, at first. Didn't Human Rights Watch document the deaths of 500 Yugoslav civilians, and chastise NATO for not taking sufficient care in its bombing of Yugoslavia? And didn't the group establish that there were between 25 and maybe as many as 35 civilians killed by US warplanes at Chowkar-Karez?
Yes, it did. But its estimate of the number of civilians killed in Yugoslavia (500) was on the low side of other estimates, even less than NATO's own initial estimate. And Human Rights Watch never accused NATO of war crimes, not even for the bombing of Serb Radio-TV.
The group's finding that between 25 and 35 civilians were killed at Chowkar-Karez is consistent with its estimates of casualties in the 1999 NATO air war against Yugoslavia -- both contradict the other side's estimates and therefore corroborate the Washington line that the number of civilian casualties is being exaggerated.
The Pentagon never denies that civilian casualties have occurred. Instead, it argues that the true number is inflated (although how it could know since it doesn't have soldiers on the ground is a question the media steers clear of), making the case that the enemy has an interest in inflating the numbers, which, of course, it does (just as the Pentagon has an interest in minimizing them.)
Human Rights Watch, presenting itself as an impartial observer, corroborates the charge by producing lower estimates than the enemy government does, and thereby underscores Washington's claim that the enemy is exaggerating for propaganda purposes. The result is that attention is deflected from more pertinent matters: there are civilian casualties; the reasons for inflicting harm on civilians are entirely bogus; the civilian casualties may not be unintended at all.
So it is that Human Rights Watch will grant that there were civilian casualties at Chowkar-Karez, making the point that there are fewer casualties than the Taliban says, without addressing the issue of whether US warplanes committed a war crime by deliberately attacking the civilians? Absurdly, the question becomes, were there 35 killed or 100? as if 35 is all right.
Who is Human Rights Watch, anyway? Take a look at the organization's web site and it becomes immediately clear that this isn't a group of financially struggling human rights advocates, camped out in a low-rent office in some crummy part of town, proudly maintaining its independence from government and corporate elites. On the contrary, it's well-funded, and it's well-connected. Its links snake through the foreign policy establishment of the United States, through the State Department, and through the government's propaganda arm, Radio Free Europe.
How immensely bold then to claim that the Taliban are propaganda specialists. Please. With its PR firms, its polling, its PsyOps, it press offices, with CNN and the press yielding to the White House request not to disclose Osama bin Laden's remarks unedited, with Hollywood pledging to join the fight against terrorism, the real propaganda specialists are to be found in Washington, and New York, and L.A., not Kabul. Yes, the Taliban have an interest in inflating the number of civilian casualties. But, by the same token, Washington has an interest in minimizing, in obscuring, and in denying the true extent of the human misery it's responsible for creating. And it has infinitely more resources to do so.
Decades ago, the old Nazi, Hermann Goering, leaned in to his microphone at the Nuremberg trials and held forth on war and propaganda. The Nazis, with their Reichstag fire, their humanitarian intervention into the Sudentenland, their stories of Germany under attack from within and without, were masters of propaganda.
"Why of course the people don't want war," began Goering. "That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along."
The Nazi leader paused, then continued. "All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."
Now, ask yourself this: Why is there so much Washington doesn't want you to know?
And who are the real master propagandists?
Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2001. All rights reserved.
This Week's Internal Links
Propaganda: Then and Now - by Gilles d'Aymery
Mind Control in the New Kind of War - by Jan Baughman
Our Religious Monsters - by Stephen Gowans
Our Terrorists - by Stephen Gowans
Getting the Pipeline Map and Politics Right - by Stephen Gowans
Unlikely Suspect - by Philip Greenspan
A Real Energy Challenge - by Gilles d'Aymery
Stormy Skies - by Milo Clark
Staring at the Stars - by Milo Clark
The War and the Intellectuals - by Randolph Bourne
War Is the Health of the State - by Randolph Bourne
Dance of Flowers at Cherokee - by Sandy Lulay
Stephen Gowans on Swans
Essays published in 2001