____________________Packaging and selling war (AP)
Battlefields may change but propaganda remains constant
ASK THIS | February 26, 2010
On the one hand, in wartime the news media serve the government by passing along its message; on the other hand, the media need to tell people what’s really going on and what wars are about. Author Susan Brewer focuses on that dual role, and offers a line of questioning to help cut through the packaging.
By Susan A. Brewer
Truth, as Senator Hiram Johnson famously remarked, is the first casualty of war. Because wars are confusing and uncertain, American leaders who need popular support must endow their policies with clarity and purpose. They deploy propaganda, a compelling blend of fact and fiction, to package and sell war. Traditionally, their messages have appealed to what Americans like to believe about themselves. These ennobling portrayals disguise the realities of conflict, so much so that there are two wars – the war as sold and the war as fought. “It seems to me that the folks at home are fighting one war and we’re fighting another one,” said an American GI during World War II. “I wish they’d get in the same war we’re in.”
Journalists serve on the front lines in both wars. Wartime propagandists, whether they are based in temporary government agencies such as the World War I-era Committee on Public Information or behind-the-scenes organizations at the White House such as the Vietnam Information Group
, rely on the media to disseminate their messages. And the media, for the most part, have cooperated voluntarily. Expanding on news management techniques used in the past, the George W. Bush administration launched an offensive to dominate the news cycle during the Iraq War. It distributed talking points to TV military experts who served as “message-force multipliers,” staged official briefings that daily delivered the message of progress, and determined the vocabulary of regime change, weapons of mass destruction, death squads, and rape rooms.
Journalists also are expected to dissect the official version of events, unwrap the packaging of propaganda, and be eyewitnesses of the actual war. “Are you correspondents telling the people back home the truth?” demanded a desperate army lieutenant in Korea in 1950. “Are you telling them we have nothing to fight with, and this is an utterly useless war?”
One way to make sure that civilians and soldiers are “in the same war” is to investigate both the war as sold and the war as fought. In carrying out this essential task, the fundamental questions, it seems to me, are still the most important ones. And they must be asked over and over of civilian and military leaders, politicians, experts, critics, citizens, and the troops. It can’t be stressed too strongly: sorting reality from propaganda is the vital, basic role of the press:
Q. What are we fighting for?
Over the past century, Americans have been told that they go to war to make the world a better place by spreading democracy, economic prosperity, and security. Propaganda slogans celebrate the “Four Freedoms” and “American way of life.” Officials prefer not to provide details, especially regarding just how military means will achieve political ends. Officials also have implied that complicated foreign policies are too difficult for ordinary citizens to understand and therefore should be entrusted to those in charge to sort out on their behalf. At times, the “fog of war” serves as a smokescreen. “We may not know how to fight the war in Vietnam,” admitted a National Security Council staffer in 1965, “but the correspondents don’t know how to report it either.”
Q. Who is the enemy and why is he fighting?
Traditionally war propaganda seeks to dehumanize the enemy. One typical method is to portray the enemy as savages, barbarians, communists, or terrorists – as beasts or fanatics who cannot be reasoned with and must be stopped by force. In addition, a common practice since World War II has been to proclaim the enemy “another Hitler.” Both methods serve to justify military action and deflect close evaluation of the actual enemy. During the Iraq War, reporting eventually exposed the confusion within the Bush Administration regarding the identity and purpose of the “insurgents.” It’s difficult to figure out how to defeat an enemy when, as an American soldier in Baghdad admitted, “I don’t know who I’m fighting most of the time.”
Q. Who are our allies and what do they want?
Propaganda presents allies as sharing U.S. principles and interests by portraying conflicts as clashes between “civilization and barbarism,” “democracy and dictatorship,” “freedom and communism,” or “civilization and terrorism.” Such oversimplification has extended to Britain and France during World War I, to China and the Soviet Union during World War II, and to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. In Afghanistan, U.S. allies, including NATO members, the government of President Hamid Karzai, various warlords, and Pakistan, all have their own agendas. Even less clear is the level of support of the Afghani people. The portrayal of the world as divided into “for us or against us” does not contribute to a realistic understanding of international relations.
Q. How is this war going to help us?
“Americans are thinking more this time about ‘How is this going to help us’ than they were when we were saving the world for democracy,” wrote a U.S. citizen during World War II. Wartime propaganda highlights idealistic reasons for war such as liberating the oppressed or rescuing women and children. But American citizens have displayed a practical side as well, which leaders have responded to by talking about securing trade routes, access to natural resources, and the threat of communists taking away our cars and TVs. Most of the time, however, leaders prefer to downplay self-interest. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, for example, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared that the war had nothing to do with oil even though the top secret national security directive signed by the president in 2002 listed “minimize disruption in international oil markets” as one of the U.S. objectives in Iraq. Propaganda encourages Americans to defend their “way of life” without defining what it is and what it costs.
Q. Is this war worth Josh’s life?
Here you may insert the name of any man or woman you care about who might serve in the U.S. military. Official propaganda, partnered with censorship, has in recent years presented U.S. wars as clean, high-tech engagements in which the enemy dies, but civilians and Americans seldom do. The media’s own standards of taste and decency have contributed to “sugar-coated” versions of war. Moreover, the news media, especially television, have tended to treat the troops as human interest stories rather than analyze their role as instruments of U.S. foreign policy. Put the troops and the civilians in whose name they fight in the same war. Ask why Americans must kill and be killed. Is the reason worth the sacrifice?