Must We Always Learn Too Late?

by Stephen Gowans

May 20, 2002


Something didn't sound right...What they were telling us was either much too simple or much too complicated.

Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, once called Washington the media's foreign affairs assignment editor. The White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, have considerable power to set the foreign policy agenda: to decide which countries the media focuses on, when, and which they ignore. The result is that countries and foreign leaders flit across the stage of public attention, some staying longer than others, some elevated to monsters, some baleful foes we are told we must do something about, all making their exit in time for the stage manager to usher another villain from the wings. Countries Americans are only vaguely aware of, if at all, suddenly loom menacingly -- up pops Grenada, then Venezuela, now Afghanistan, then Yugoslavia, suddenly Macedonia.

These days you can read about how the US administration is looking for a pretext to ratchet up its aggression against Iraq. A casus belli is being sought, we're told. It's all upfront, laid out plainly, as if a curtain is being pulled back to let us see the magician before the show begins. But once the show starts, the curtain is drawn back again and the illusion accepted, as if we had watched one of those "Making of..." shows that sometimes precede the showing of a movie, where you go behind the scenes to learn about how all the special effects are done, only to forget the deception once the main feature begins.

The plots, if you don't surrender to the illusion, can readily be seen to be full of holes. Take the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia -- a 78-day "humanitarian" campaign of bombing schools, hospitals, bridges, factories, broadcast buildings, petrochemical plants, fertilizer factories, and of course, people. What's humanitarian about killing thousands of civilians, permanently injuring many times more, and laying waste a country? And weren't more killed by NATO bombs than by the civil war that the bombing was said to be necessary to stop? And weren't Germany and the United States at work behind the scenes throwing kindling on the fire of the civil wars?

Horrible crimes and massacres, we were told, were being perpetrated by the Serbs, under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, but when NATO arranged for the The Hague Tribunal to deliver its initial indictment against Milosevic, all the charges but one concerned events that took place after the bombing. It didn't add up.

The one pre-bombing event, the Racak Massacre, is now believed to have been faked to provide a pretext for the bombing. It wasn't civilians who were killed by Serb police, but KLA fighters, or so evidence provided by the EU forensic pathologists who investigated the incident suggests. And the number of KLA fighters killed? Fewer than the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces at the Jenin refugee camp. What's more, Israeli forces were in the camp illegally. The Serb police were operating within their own jurisdiction. Yet, Milosevic is on trial for war crimes, and Sharon isn't. That doesn't add up, either.

Does any of it? The Bush Administration has rejected the International Criminal Court, a permanent body that would replace the ad hoc tribunals that prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Washington says ICC prosecutions -- which could be directed at US military personnel and politicians -- could be mischievous and political. So why aren't the ad hoc tribunals, condemned on the same grounds? It's not mischievous and political prosecutions that are the issue, for a cogent case can be made that the ad hoc tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda are political through and through. The problem is the ICC would hold the United States to the same standards to which everyone else in the world is held.

The war against Afghanistan is said to be necessary to, what? Stop terrorism? To avenge an attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon? But what has the war produced? More Afghan civilians dead from US bombs than deaths from the 9/11 attacks. The victims of the 9/11 attacks are sanctified; the unseen Afghan victims of US bombs are callously dismissed. "Pshaw! Civilians are always killed in war. What's new?"

Nothing's new. But it's not so much war per se that produces mountains of civilian casualties, but American wars, and their hallmark: carpet bombing and use of weapons of mass destruction. Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Yugoslavia. The number of civilians killed reaches into the millions. To say large scale civilian casualties are inevitable because we've always produced large scale civilian causalities is simply to utter the words songwriter Phil Ochs used to parody his own country's penchant for carpet bombing the world's poor: Why all the shock, since we've done it before? You'd think carpet bombing was Washington's up-to-date version of a Malthusian program of population control, if it weren't for the fact that a world teeming with poor peasants desperate to take any job, no matter how low, degrading, and ill-paid is good for so many Americans' stock options. But then, it's often poor peasants with a vision of a better future than being indentured to American capital who get bombed, so maybe American wars are largely Malthusian after all. We kill the poor who won't submit. Domestically, the poor are thrown in jail.

Importantly, from the perspective of Washington geopolitical aims, 9/11 has provided cover to firmly ensconce the American military throughout the oil-rich Caspian region, and to install a pliant puppet regime in Afghanistan, soon-to-be home to a vital pipeline to carry Central Asian gas. Dominating the world's energy supply counts as a vital strategic interest. "The Americans want to rule the world," a very prim and proper woman I know told me a few days ago. "The Americans do rule the world," her equally apolitical companion snorted derisively. Anyone who doubts it need only look at a map of US military bases around the world ("on any given day before September 11, according to the Defense Department, more than 60,000 military personnel were conducting temporary operations and exercises in about 100 countries" *) or listen to Secretary of State Colin Powell. "The United States is a European power," says Powell, followed by "the United States is a Pacific power." Doubtlessly, Powell considers the United States an Asian, an African, a South American, an Antarctic, and indeed, now, a space power, too. That, combined with the oft heard "the United States has vital strategic interests in the region (take your pick of any)" belies the massive fraud the US government perpetrates in calling the Department of Defense, a department of defense. It should be called what it is: Department of Military Conquest.

If Washington said what everyone knows, or at least very strongly suspects -- that the US intends to rule the world and anyone who resists better find a bomb shelter to hide in -- we wouldn't have to deal with the laughable fairy tales that flow from Washington to justify America's illimitable imperial ambitions. Snobs with a college degree lament the stupidity of Joe Six-Pack and his interest in tabloid newspapers. But from where I sit, Joe Six-Pack isn't as much of a problem as Tad "I follow the rules and keep my nose clean and fly the flag" Johnson. These are the vectors of nonsense that Washington plays to -- the comfortable, university-educated simpletons who gave up the embryonic critical thought their schooling ensured would never flower when they discovered it was a bad "career move" and have since taken to mouthing the absurdities, lies and distortions concocted by Washington that the serious media uncritically and patriotically passes along. When you can utter such meaningless drivel as "We must protect our vital interests in the region," without having the faintest idea what it means, you have arrived. When you can't see through the flagrant self-serving double standard of Washington's position on the ICC, you've reached the pinnacle of success.

Accordingly, Venezuela's oligarchs can engineer a coup to topple the elected populist president Hugo Chávez, and the White House can welcome the development as a step forward for democracy, while the educated classes, imbibing the nonsense, opine, "democracy has been saved from a would-be dictator." What exactly is a "would-be" dictator? These kinds of hollow phrases are a favorite with the educated classes. "Vital interests," "democracy," "patriotism." Go to a party and ask the first gas-bag who says something about "vital interests" what he means, and you'll never be invited back.

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon orders an attack on the Jenin refugee camp, killing dozens, and George Bush Jr. calls him a "man of peace." Bush, then, becomes the perfect president for the vectors of nonsense: stupid, ill informed, immensely ambitious, brimming with hubris and unable to get the hang of what comedian George Carlin calls, "that thinking thing." For the rest of us who somehow managed to avoid having "that thinking thing" ground out of us (and have the scars, both mental and physical to show for it), the question remains: What the hell is going on?

Immerse yourself in dissident analysis, and you'll find few answers. The hypocrisy and double standards of US foreign policy will be held up for inspection, but not much more. And maybe because it's all one can do to keep up with sorting through the cataract of absurd stories that endlessly flow from a Munchausen Washington. Everywhere you turn there's another puddle of lies waiting to trip you up.

So, what to do? Michel Collon, editor of the Belgian weekly Solidaire, warns, "You will be manipulated if you jump superficially from one country to another and if you follow the order of the day imposed by corporate media. Or by governments."

Collon thinks we should step back and examine a single case in detail. This he's done in "Liar's Poker," an examination of the civil wars that ravaged Yugoslavia. "As we sweep away the accumulation of media lies, as we uncover what is really at stake, we will give ourselves the tools to understand coming conflicts," he writes: "Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Central Asia, Africa, Middle East, China perhaps."

Liar's Poker examines the way the media distorted the conflicts in Yugoslavia, looks at who was behind the conflicts, and why. The object is to enter the world of realpolitik, examining motivations and goals, forging an understanding of why things never seem to add up, and offering a view of how they do add up.

"Wars do not start with bombs, but with lies," Collon writes.

"We learn the truth years later. That, for example, the United States had completely invented the attack by Vietnamese gunboats in the Tonkin Gulf, which served as a pretext for starting the Vietnam War. That the horrifying theft of incubators from Kuwait City by the Iraqi Army was itself a complete fabrication, invented by a US public relations firm in 1990."

The list is endless. And after every war, as sure as George Bush's tongue will betray him, someone sententiously utters the same aphorism uttered after every war, but never learned: The first casualty of war is the truth.

"Must we always learn too late?" Collon asks. Not if you read Liar's Poker.

Collon's book is available from Left Books.

*  U.S. Military Bases and Empire. Monthly Review, March, 2002  (back)

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Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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Published May 20, 2002
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