March 09, 2003
Evan Thomas and John Barry

Newsweek has cranked up their propaganda machine to the next level of output. "Saddam's War," by Evan Thomas and John Barry, is apparently intended as journalism and not an op/ed polemic, and yet one of the primary objectives of the piece seems to convince the reader that any atrocities committed in a war on Iraq will be committed (by definition!) by the Saddam's evil minions.

Consider this bit:

Saddam has ordered thousands of uniforms identical, down to the last detail, to those worn by U.S. and British troopers. The plan: to have Saddam’s men, posing as Western invaders, slaughter Iraqi citizens while the cameras roll for Al-Jazeera and the credulous Arab press.

Ah! So it's the Arab press that's credulous. This claim, for which no source is given or even implied, is simply stated as fact. As if there couldn't be any other possible reason for Iraq troops to dress in similar garb to the invading force. And why would there need to be thousands of them to stage atrocities for a video camera? And wouldn't the fact that there aren't that many Arab-looking people in the American army pose a problem.

But there's yet another problem with the claim that is more significant than the rest: if the reports by the UN and various aid agencies are even remotely accurate, the truth would be far more effective than anything that could be conjured up by a propaganda ploy. One doesn't need to look farther than a few paragraphs down to find evidence of this:

The United States will try to rattle Saddam’s defenders into surrender with a "shock and awe" air campaign, 3,000 precision bombs in the first 48 hours. And Saddam will try to inspire his troops to be good martyrs by threatening to kill them himself.

Dropping 3,000 precision bombs on a city like Washington DC or New York would cause inconceivable damage, and take thousands of human lives--we can say this with some certainty; it doesn't matter how accurate the bombs are. But we are to believe, on some unstated yet widely assumed qualitative difference in the way cities in Iraq will react to bombs, that this is a morally and legally justified operation. Perhaps the assertion that Saddam will "threaten to kill" his troops himself was meant to distract the reader from this conclusion.

Indeed, even considering only the facts stated in the article, a war with Iraq would seem to be a potential, if not actual, disaster for everyone involved. Does this invoke a consideration of whether it would be wise to attack, in the same, sober (yet wildly imaginative) journalistic tone? No, it means it's time to firm up the connection between protesters, Saddam, evil, and lies, while affirming that the US forces are unquestionably good. Consider the following:

Saddam is hardly above gassing his own people and pretending that the Americans—the "Crusaders and Jews and infidels"—are to blame. Many Arabs watching Al-Jazeera would believe him. Anti-aircraft batteries and tanks and artillery have been placed beneath and beside mosques, hospitals and schools. Even the most accurate American bombs could produce atrocious TV images. To combat Saddam’s psychological warfare and refute disinformation, CENTCOM has created a "rapid-response team." CENTCOM will try to provide photographic proof to back up its claims, releasing footage from gun cameras and other weapons systems as well as before-and-after photographs from satellites.

Is it Saddam that's to blame for this "psychological warfare", or does the term refer to coverage of civilian casualties in general? The article continues:

Truth may not be an adequate defense. [...] Shocked by television images of human carnage, demonstrators will take to the streets at home and abroad. Politicians will call on Bush to get it over with, to declare victory and go home.

The credulous masses, in other words, will be swayed by images of death, and cleverly manipulated into believing that war is wrong. But the truth--the contents of which is left implied--may not convince them that... that what? That Iraq really will be better off after a drawn out ground war? That the terrorist threat will diminish, now that the already reviled American forces are occupying a Muslim country? That, despite the fact that the US is refusing to share information about plans to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the war, it will all work out in the end? That the possibility of a million kids starving to death is an "acceptable cost"? (100 kids starving to death is a tragedy. Anything over ten thousand is simply beyond the imaginative capability of any human being.)

All this adds up to a considerable need to dehumanize the enemy. Thus the fabricated story about Iraqi troops ripping babies out of incubators that was used to justify the first Gulf War, and the undoubtedly well meaning Private Gritz, who was quoted as saying, "there is a guy shooting over a pregnant lady's shoulder. The Iraqis strap kids to tanks. What can you do?"

"Saddam's War" contains many similar characterizations; many are listed above, but some are more subtle, like the bizarre reference to Saddam's men as "tribesmen", and the description of his tactics as "medieval". The rest takes bits of truth and generalizes it in a convenient but inaccurate way. Saddam did indeed gas the Kurds (not quite "his own people," but close enough) during a war, while Iranian soldiers were operating nearby. (How killing 5,000 Kurds is worse than killing a few hundred thousand Iranians is difficult to say--both happened with US support, in any case.) Does this mean that he will necessarily do it again, under completely different circumstances and for completely different reasons? Such a simplistic reading of motivations would imply that Bush Jr. plans to bomb food storage warehouses, water purification plants, electrical systems, all over again, as his father did in 1991? I certainly hope not. Then again, over 3,000,000 Vietnamese died in one of America's better known "humanitarian interventions".

There is, perhaps, nothing particularly remarkable about journalists toeing the line of official propaganda. Violent empires like that of the US would not be possible if the range of debate were not as narrow as it is now. What is striking, though, is that people like Evan Thomas and John Barry probably believe that they are being objective and balanced when they write this kind of stuff. That people can go to places like the Columbia School of Journalism, study the principles of objectivity and balance, and then churn out this kind of crap, is a truly impressive feat of institutional influence.

posted by dru in journalism
by John L

Great article. I didn't realise that the propaganda was quite so blatent.


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