February 17, 2003
The U.S. leadership and public never seem embarrassed at beating
up very tiny countries, some about the size of Columbus, Ohio
(Grenada), or using high tech weaponry against defenseless people.
This is odd, as the image of a bully is not a positive one in the
culture and the ideas of fair play and a level playing field are
also frequently encountered. Furthermore, the slaughter of
civilians and helpless soldiers is not something one would have
thought would sit well with people brought up in Western religious
and enlightenment traditions.
A good part of the explanation lies in eye aversion. Photos of victims of the ever-improving cluster bombs are almost never shown in the Free Press; the famous and exceptional photo of the young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack didn't show burning flesh, only an uninjured person exhibiting intense fear. Norman Solomon quotes Patrick Sloyan's study of U.S. and media treatment of the Persian Gulf War, where "the Bush administration produced not a single picture or video of anyone being killed...[which] left the world presuming Desert Storm was a war without death." Marc Herold reports that pictures of the end results of the Afghan bombing of at least 283 separate villages in which civilians were killed are almost completely absent from the news reports in U.S. mainstream media. This was another "clean" war -- by propaganda service combined with Pentagon censorship.
There is also a rapidly developing language of "surgical" and "precision" bombing and "collateral damage" and "tragic errors" designed to sanitize U.S. warfare in the public mind. The media have adapted well to this new linguistics of apologetics.
Another part of the explanation is the demonization process, which makes it urgent that the evil force be exterminated and quickly. Civilian casualties are more acceptable when striking people who are said to support or fail to remove the demon, so we need not trouble ourselves over their pain, especially when we are protected from seeing it. We may be sure, also, that the government and media find civilians to be "willing executioners" only in target states, and there even when their leaders are allegedly "dictators," but not, for example, in Israel or the United States.
Demonization is also often combined with threat inflation, so that the demon's capabilities are frequently exaggerated, and thus the inequality of power is scanted and the urgency of terminating the demon's power to do damage tends to overwhelm any thought of unfairness and lack of proportionality.
Given that this country is by definition fighting an "Operation Just Cause" against the forces of evil, any notion of injustice in force imbalance or application of advanced technology against peasants disappears. The evil force must give way to the cause of justice. The enemy must surrender or be exterminated. Thus, any deaths we inflict are really the fault of enemy leaders who fail to take advantage of the option of surrender, and those civilians who fail to remove them.
We should recall also that this country is the self-appointed policeman of the world, whose leaders have generously taken upon themselves the responsibility for straightening things out wherever their services are needed (although they are prepared to farm out this function to people like Pinochet, Suharto, Saddam Hussein [in the 1980s] and Sharon, and local proxy forces such as the Nicaraguan contras, Savimbi's Unita, and Al Qaeda [in the Afghan War in the 1980s]). We don't need a level playing field as between the police and criminals.
Wars and one-sided massacres are also seen by the Bush leadership, and are portrayed in the Free Press as games, with soldiers, aircraft carriers and missiles being positioned, and bombs and missiles exploded like fire-crackers over Belgrade, Kabul and Baghdad. Dan Ellsberg notes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have never fought in wars or seen mangled bodies: "That may be related...to the fact that they are all enthusiastic about this video game that they feel is about to be played, on the model of the way they see the Gulf War, or Afghanistan, or Kosovo, where nearly all the people who die are adversaries, and not Americans." In games, we root for our side to win and the enemy to be crushed. The idea of a level playing field is easily suppressed when we are urging on our team in a game.
The media are occasionally upset at the imbalance of forces and unleveled playing field. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 they were aghast at the brutal use of force by a Great Power against puny victims. Even more interesting was their concern over the unleveled playing field in the election held by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in 1984, where the government's edge in access to the media and election resources was harshly criticized. The media were not at all bothered by the even greater edge of the murderous regime in El Salvador in 1982 and 1984, or Yeltsin's greater edge in the Russian election of 1996. This double standard reflecting the state's political agenda and following official signals is internalized and institutionalized. The reporters are probably not even aware that it exists.
A country as powerful and aggressive as the United States can even get the "international community" and its institutions to serve the imperial agenda. The United States was able to kill millions of Indochinese and use chemical weapons of mass destruction on a large scale, with no noticeable opposition from the UN or international community. As regards its client state Indonesia, even during the years in which Indonesia invaded, occupied, and committed virtual genocide in East Timor, in violation of UN rulings (weakened, however, by U.S. bargaining on behalf of the genocidist), not only was nothing done to punish Indonesia, it continued to receive a steady flow of gifts from a World Bank-organized lending group. U.S. transnationals and officials -- including Bill Clinton -- were pleased with Suharto's rule, which was friendly to foreign corporate interests and subservient to U.S. political guidance, even if ruthless with the Indonesian, East Timorese and West Papuan citizenry. So Suharto was free to exploit and massacre.
As regards Saddam Hussein and Iraq, it is notorious, although hardly mentioned in the Free Press, that the United States not only helped Saddam acquire chemical weapons and means of their delivery in the 1980s, it actively worked to prevent any international criticisms of his use of those weapons. (And by inference, this country would have furiously opposed "disarming" Saddam, who was at that time killing the right people.) U.S. power, therefore, had to reverse itself after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, moving from protecting Saddam and his use of "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) to pretending that his possession of those weapons was a fearsome threat. It even succeeded in manipulating the UN into uniquely intensive sanctions and inspections programs to deal with the alleged threat.
The Media's Outstanding War Propaganda Service
This reversal was successful because the U.S. mainstream media did another superb job of war-supportive propaganda service, and because U.S. power permitted a further abusive manipulation of the UN. As regards the media performance, which paralleled that during the Persian Gulf war, some of the main elements have been the following:
1. Virtual suppression of the history of active U.S. support of Saddam's acquisition and use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, when he was far more powerful than he is now. This helps avoid having to confront the question: How can he be a threat now, in his much weaker state, when he was perceived as an asset deserving of aid and protection earlier when he served U.S. purposes?
2. Virtual suppression of the fact that the bombing during the 1991 war, the sanctions regime, and inspections and associated destruction of weapons have made Iraq very poor and militarily only a shadow of its power during the years of U.S. support.
3. Virtual suppression of the fact that high UNSCOM officials have declared that at least 90-95 percent of Iraq's chemical weapons have been destroyed.
4. Virtual suppression of the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly said that Iraq has no nuclear weapons or ongoing nuclear weapons program.
5. Virtual suppression of the fact that the sanctions regime imposed by the United States and Britain has been responsible for the death of over a million Iraqis, including over 500,000 children, and constitutes a major war crime.
6. Virtual suppression of the fact that the United States is responsible for at least three major violations of Security Council Resolution 687 under which inspections have been carried out: (a) it has openly proclaimed that sanctions will continue until there is a regime change, which was never part of 687; (b) it has imposed "no-fly zones" and engaged in numerous related bombing attacks on Iraq, although these are nowhere sanctioned by 687; (c) they have used inspections as a means of spying to obtain information unrelated to the purpose of 687 but useful in military attacks on Iraq.
7. Virtual suppression of the fact that while 687 calls for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction throughout the Middle East, the United States has made no effort to enforce this on Israel.
8. Virtual suppression of the fact that Israel is in violation of many more Security Council resolutions than Iraq, and that these are unenforceable because the United States is in a close alliance with Israel. So Israel can acquire nuclear weapons for "self defense," but Iraq cannot do the same, by virtue of U.S. selective choice.
9. Virtual suppression of the fact that Iraq only used chemical weapons when under U.S. protection, while failing to use them in 1991 when in conflict with the United States. Suppressing this is important as it points up the fact that Iraq couldn't use WMD offensively even if it had them, because both the United States and Israel have far greater capability and Iraq's use would be suicidal.
10. Virtual suppression of the fact that the UN and aid agencies predict that the U.S. high tech war will cause a humanitarian crisis among the already highly vulnerable Iraqi civilian population. This follows a long pattern of the U.S. mainstream media averting eyes from the human costs of U.S. wars on target country populations.
11. Virtual suppression of the fact that an unprovoked attack and invasion of a country is "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole," as described by Robert Jackson, U.S. representative at the Nuremberg trials. It is also the very action that the UN and UN Charter were designed to prevent, and it would be in straightforward violation of that Charter.
12. Instead of facts and context along the lines of the above, the mainstream media have provided a steady stream of administration claims and opinions, many highly repetitive, unenlightening and serially shown to misrepresent facts, along with voluminous data on military plans and dispositions. This has been a display of "press release journalism" that represents a public sphere virtually destroyed by propaganda service to a war-dedicated government.
The "UN Process"
Although the Bush-Cheney regime openly announced its intention to remove Saddam Hussein by force, it allowed itself to be persuaded to bring the UN into the picture. The point of this deviation from straightforward unilateralism was quite explicitly to give the attack -- which would constitute flagrant aggression and a violation of the most essential principle in the UN Charter -- an aura of legality and a sense that it was not a purely unilateral or Anglo-Saxon action. As Thomas Friedman put it, "The Bush team discovered that the best way to legitimize its overwhelming might -- in a war of choice -- was not by simply imposing it, but by channeling it through the UN"
It was thought that by intensifying the inspections process, making it outlandishly intrusive and virtually forcing Saddam to prove a negative, a war could be expedited with Security Council approval -- that Saddam would either turn down the new inspections system, or that he would soon be found delinquent in one of a hundred ways that could be interpreted as "material breach." Meanwhile, by intensive propaganda and "diplomacy" (i.e., bribery and bullying) it should be possible to get Security Council consent for war, or at least mobilize a respectable "coalition" cover to support the attack.
This system has its humorous aspects. One is that the U.S. leaders and pundit supporters have been very up front about the fact that they are damned well going to bomb and massacre no matter what, so that the resort to the UN is purely a facade and cover. For the Bush officials the "UN process" is one of getting UN backing for the planned war, by hook or by crook. It has nothing to do with consultations or substantive multilateralism, or with any decision role for anybody but the Bush warriors. When an administration official says, noting French and German constraints, that "We haven't given up on the UN process," all he means is that he hasn't given up on the effort to get approval for the U.S. war -- the "process" is USING the UN to obtain a legal-moral cover, nothing more.
The "UN process" has worked well so far, although not to absolute bully perfection. It has worked wonderfully well if we consider that the UN SHOULD have mobilized to actively oppose the announced U.S. aggression. Instead, it has supinely taken the road of accommodating but slowing down the aggressor. Although the sanctions-inspections regime was the aggressor's own concoction, under U.S. pressure the UN members have continued to pretend that it reflects the world's view that Saddam is a ferocious threat to world peace who needs this special treatment. They have, therefore, cooperated with the aggressor in creating the more intensive, intrusive and "prove a negative" system of inspections, thereby implicitly justifying the aggressor's claim that this was terribly important and that everybody agreed to this; and they have established demands and conditions that would help the aggressor prove that his aggression was needed. THIS WAS THE GREATEST ACT OF APPEASEMENT SINCE THE ACCOMMODATION TO HITLER AT MUNICH.
The imperfection came about because Saddam groveled and allowed the inspectors to come in even under the intrusive terms of Security Council Resolution 1441, and because, under the pressure of mass global disapproval of the forthcoming invasion and its uncertain but almost sure negative impact on the global community, France, Germany, Russia and China have dragged their feet in giving a go ahead to a U.S.-British attack. But the bully is stepping up the pressure, and France and Germany, while still resisting, are showing signs of weakening. This suggests the likelihood of a "compromise" second resolution that the bully will interpret as a go-ahead for massacre.
For the bully, the stakes are too high, the cruise missiles and other forces are in place, an election looms ahead, Sharon and his friends are eager for massacre, and the game must be played. The bully may soon start bombing even without a successful "UN process." The only thing really in his way is the growing upheaval from below, which needs to reach a still higher critical mass, and actions to strengthen political backbones and constitute a serious brake on the planned aggression.
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Iraq on Swans
Ed Herman on Swans (with bio).
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