|Number 538||October 2, 2013|
This Week: Stopping the War in Our Minds
I realize that this issue of Nygaard Notes comes out as the lunacy in Washington in regard to the federal budget and the "government shutdown" are dominating the headlines. So be it; I'm not going to talk about that lunacy. Instead, in this issue of the Notes I am talking about a different lunacy; the lunacy of war. There's always money in the budget for war, and there's always Propaganda that gets large numbers of people to think that this is not lunacy.
It's an odd coalition of forces that appears to have slowed, maybe stopped, the drive to U.S. military intervention in Syria. That's all to the good, but if we're not careful, we might find that we have succeeded in preventing military action against Syria, but at the cost of inadvertently reinforcing some deeply-held and dangerous ideas—which I call Deep Propaganda—that can and will be used to justify future wars in the service of Empire. And not only to justify war, but to condition our minds to see war as a way of life, as "normal." It is in this sense that Propaganda gets us to wage war in our minds, before we are ever asked to pay taxes or pick up a gun. And stopping the war in our minds is the first and necessary step to stopping whatever war we will be asked to wage next.
The British historian Deepak Tripathi wrote a great piece on September 18th, published by al Jazeera, called "The Illusion of American Exceptionalism." The piece begins, "In his struggle for Congressional approval to launch an attack on Syria, President Obama once again invoked American exceptionalism that puts America above the rest, and bequeaths to it the right, and the duty, to fix things." The U.S., he says, has reserved this right for itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tripathi notes that "in a devastated but exceedingly militarised world there was going to be only one hegemon in the end." And that hegemon, or Great Power, is the United States. It's a very thoughtful piece, but this paragraph stuck out as the "Quote" of the Week because of the way it tied together the idea of American Exceptionalism with an unorthodox conception of the often-cited "lessons of Vietnam." Tripathi said:
In the last Nygaard Notes I listed six "talking points" about U.S. intervention in Syria. This was basically a list of some of the major Overt Propaganda points that are in the air in this particular drive to war. This week I want to dig deeper to expose some of the Deep Propaganda that supports some of those points, keeping in mind that a successful anti-war, anti-imperialist movement will have to be successful at delegitimizing not only the hysterical in-the-moment cries for war, but also the widely-shared ideas that amplify and support those cries.
Overt Propaganda (OP) #1: There Is A Military Solution.
Deep Propaganda (DP) #1: Military aggression is legitimate if it "works." Even the White House press secretary has said that "there is no military solution available" in Syria. But the Deep Propaganda that lies beneath these words is that, if there were a military "solution," it would be legitimate for The World's Only Superpower to impose it. That's why we have to argue against military intervention in principle. Here is where proponents of non-violence can ally with anti-imperialists. The former will maintain that there is never a military "solution" to conflict. An anti-imperialist position would stress the difference between military force in service to domination versus moral force in service to liberation. And those who oppose intervention in Syria for reasons other than principle (because it won't "work," or simply because Obama wants it) can still work with the principled opposition, so the short-term coalition will remain strong.
OP #2: There are only two choices: Military force or nothing.
DP #2: We live in an "either/or," dualistic world. Principled opposition to U.S. war in Syria must take every opportunity to point out what may seem obvious, but is buried in the bellicose war-mongering language of the day: "Peaceful" is not the same as "Passive." To reject a military response is not to advocate for "nothing," but rather is to open the door to various and creative responses. (A good list of places to start can be found in a piece by activist Phyllis Bennis called "Striking Syria: Illegal, Immoral, and Dangerous" that appeared on the Al Jazeera website on September 2nd. Toward the end you'll see a heading: "What should the US do?")
OP #3: This will be a "limited" or "targeted" attack.
On September 9th Secretary of State John Kerry said, in regard to Syria, that "We're not going to war." Instead, he said, "what we're talking about doing [is an] unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."
DP #3: In order for this to make sense, one would have to believe that history doesn't matter, that Syria is not part of a region where the U.S. has a history of intervention, that there will not be repercussions felt in response to U.S. military action. Only if you believe such things could you believe that the United States could conduct any type of military attack in that region and have it be considered "unbelievably small."
OP #4: "The world now faces an acute moral question whether doing the right thing requires us to violate international law."
DP #4: The premise here is that "we" reserve the right to define the "moral question" and decide what it "requires us" to do. The principled counter to this is: If there is a perceived conflict between "law" and "morality," then we should demand that our government use moral arguments to change the law, not ignore the law because we have a monopoly on "morality."
OP #5: We need to "send a message to Assad" which will "make our own children safer over the long run," because that is "what makes America different." [All quotes are from Obama's September 10th address to the nation on Syria.]
DP #5: America is unique among nations because it acts based on morality. This deep idea—part of the "American Exceptionalism" myth—is so well-accepted that not a single U.S. newspaper bothered to report a frank comment that President Obama made when he spoke at the United Nations two weeks later, on September 24th. He decided in that speech to "outline what has been U.S. policy towards the Middle East and North Africa, and what will be my policy during the remainder of my presidency." Among other things, he said that "We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world" and, since this is one of our "core interests in the region," we are "prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force," in order to do so. Going to war for oil is something that any global superpower would do; it's not "what makes America different." But such a statement draws on a different narrative than the "American Exceptionalism" story, which probably explains why it wasn't reported: It didn't make sense to the reporters or editors who were charged with reporting the highlights of the speech. And it wouldn't make sense to a propagandized audience, most likely.
That's just a few points about five of the specific bits of Propaganda flying around since August 21st, when the reports of chemical weapons in Syria came to light. For the rest of this issue of the Notes, we'll have a look at the bigger picture within which this batch of Propaganda is occurring. In the process I hope to show how the groundwork for war is constantly being laid inside of our heads, and just how sneaky it is. None of us are immune.
On September 10th, in a televised address on the Syrian crisis, President Obama told the nation that he had heard from "a veteran" who had told him that "This nation is sick and tired of war." The following day, September 11th, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a press conference that "the American people are weary of war, and we all are."
Such comments imply that there was a time when the American people were not "weary of war." I don't think there ever was such a time, yet something is forcing these prominent leaders at this moment to acknowledge (however indirectly) the reality of declining public support for the repeated projection of U.S. military power.
The day before the President's address, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a very revealing statement when he addressed the press in London. He said:
It's worth considering what John Kerry meant when he reassured the nation that "We're not going to war. We will not have people at risk in that way." Since it is obvious that "people" will indeed be at risk in the case of military strikes, Kerry's words can make sense only if we understand that the word "people" refers only to USAmericans. And, if his words are in line with evolving military strategy in the U.S., that is precisely what he meant.
It's not only John Kerry who thinks (or, at least, speaks) this way. It was just about two years ago, on October 20, 2011, that Muammar el-Qaddafi was killed at the end of a seven-month siege of Libya by NATO forces. On that occasion, Vice President Joe Biden remarked that
Just about two months after Biden's remark, the New York Times ran a story with the headline, "In Strikes on Libya by NATO, an Unspoken Civilian Toll." Here's the lead paragraph: "NATO's seven-month air campaign in Libya, hailed by the alliance and many Libyans for blunting a lethal crackdown by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and helping to push him from power, came with an unrecognized toll: scores of civilian casualties the alliance has long refused to acknowledge or investigate."
What is going on when the Vice President says that "America... didn't lose a single life," when many lives were in fact lost? What does it mean when, arguing for U.S. military action in Syria that will cause unknown numbers of civilian deaths, the Secretary of State says that "We will not have people at risk"? How can it be that the "scores of civilian casualties" that result from a U.S.-led military assault remain "unrecognized" even while being on the front page? Why does "the alliance" refuse to "acknowledge or investigate" the human suffering resulting from its behavior?
Taken together, these comments about "no body bags" and being "tired of war" and "not losing a single life" can be seen as coded references to a warlike reality that I fear lurks in our future and calls for a strong, active, and principled opposition.
Lessons of Vietnam
Arguably the greatest domestic challenge to U.S. war-making in the past half-century was the widespread public opposition to the so-called Vietnam War. (I say "so-called" because that's not what people in Vietnam call it, obviously. There it is "The American War," or sometimes "Chien Tranh Chong My Curu Nuoc" or "The War against the Americans to Save the Nation.") And from that experience many people in the United States have drawn what are referred to as the "Lessons of Vietnam." Different people learned different lessons, but for U.S. planners the main lesson was well summarized by New Zealand-based scholar Paul Buchanan, writing in the Pacific Journalism Review a couple of years ago. Buchanan said, "The lesson learned from Vietnam was to restrict independent media access to battle zones, first by denying all access and withdrawing security guarantees to journalists operating in conflict theatres, and then by providing privileged but controlled access to front line units via the practice of facilitated news-gathering known as 'embedded journalism'."
And thus were journalists transformed into "facilitated news-gatherers."
The "lesson" that Buchanan cites was supposedly learned in Vietnam but it is, in fact, much older than that. U.S. social scientist Harold Lasswell laid it out in his book "Propaganda Technique in the World War," published in 1927 (when there was only one "World War"). Lasswell noted that "The justification of war can proceed more smoothly if the hideous aspects of the war business are screened from public gaze."
The leadership of an Imperial power—no less the U.S. than any Imperial power—thus has as a part of its job to "screen from public gaze" any images, events, plans, or thoughts that, were they to become known to the public, might make more difficult the "justification of war." Such screening involves, first and most obviously, the effort to literally prevent people from seeing what is going on. That's a fairly straightforward process of censorship, secrecy, and subterfuge. That work goes on uninterrupted.
But censorship, secrecy, and subterfuge are not what they used to be, which is part of the reason why leaders from the President on down are talking about the nation being "weary of war." In "the old days," images of war could be controlled to a large extent by controlling traditional journalists who, after all, were the only ones able to capture images of the carnage of war AND make them visible to the general public. Now, in the age of cell phones, blogs, and social media, images of war can reach the public far more easily and quickly. This poses the real danger of a shift from a nation whose population is "weary of war" to one whose population is actively resisting war. This threat has moved U.S. planners to develop what has been called "The New American Way of War." It's also made "the war business" even more dependent on Propaganda than it already was.
Since one of the major Lessons of Vietnam learned by U.S. planners is that domestic opposition to war grows in relation to the number of U.S. casualties, U.S. military planners and their civilian leaders have been working for some time now to develop what has been called "The New American Way of War."
I wrote about "The New American Way of War" back in January of 2010, in Nygaard Notes #501 ("Trumpeting The New American Way of War"). The "new way" is a strategy of deploying U.S. military power essentially by remote control. The strategy was indirectly referenced by John Kerry when he reassured listeners that "We will be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground."
Planning for remote-control war has been underway for some time, with the military increasingly relying on such long-distance weapons as cruise missiles, guided bombs ("smart bombs") and robotics. (About which I wrote in NN #493 "War of the Future: Robots"). Air strikes are acceptable as well, and useful in cases where the target country has no significant air defenses and thus the risk to U.S. pilots is low. Drone warfare is also an important part of the New American Way of War. When "boots on the ground" are unavoidable, the U.S. now tries to "contract out" as much of the high-risk work to other countries as it can, which is aimed at assuring that the human costs of maintaining the U.S.-centered world order will be borne by "others," further reducing the perceived cost of military operations, and thus reducing the opposition of the U.S. public.
The threat of force against the government of Syria offers an illustration of how constrained are the options for U.S. warmakers. Apparently the only option that U.S. military planners thought they could "sell" to the U.S. public in Syria was a war with no U.S. casualties, consistent with The New American Way of War. The Associated Press spelled it out on August 31 in an article, "How Possible US Strike Against Syria Could Unfold." The AP noted that "The details of how and when the U.S. military and allied forces might attack are under debate but would be based on complex plans developed and repeatedly reworked over time by the Pentagon." (They don't say it, but those complex plans to which they refer are plans for "The New American Way of War.") And those plans are understood to include only tactics that do not put any U.S. military personnel at risk. As the AP reported it:
So there we have it: Any military action must keep U.S. personnel "out of range" of any possible effort at self-defense. And any U.S. forces that cannot attack with complete impunity are "not expected to participate." In fact, the fear that an attack may set off a chain of events that would have put U.S. lives at risk was one of the factors that slowed the drive to war that seemed to be building steam in the two weeks following the August 21st chemical weapons attack in Syria. That, and the difficulty in forming a "coalition of the willing" to do the heavy lifting, seems to have been decisive in the lurch toward diplomacy.
I said earlier that the making of war is even more dependent on Propaganda than it has been in the past. I am speaking here partly of small-"p" propaganda as it is commonly understood, which is "the direct transmission of ideologically supportive messages from the State to target audiences." That's what I call Overt Propaganda. But Overt Propaganda never operates alone. It is always accompanied by what I call Deep Propaganda. Taken together, they become 21st-Century Propaganda, which is a process, or system, that operates in the interests, but not under the control, of powerful sectors in the society. That is, it is a set of processes that serve not only to produce and amplify the specific ideas being called into play—that's the Overt Propaganda—but also to create, maintain, and reinforce the foundational ideas and ways of thinking that support those specific ideas—that's the Deep Propaganda. (For a more complete explanation of how these two levels of Propaganda work, see NN #172, "Propaganda, Level I: Overt Propaganda" and "Propaganda, Level II: Deep Propaganda") Let's have a look at one of the major ways in which 21st-Century Propaganda has been playing out in regard to recent military activities in the Middle East.
The fundamental idea that underlies all wars is the idea that there are two groups of people who cannot reconcile their differences except by force. So the first rule of war propaganda is to create and/or maintain a clear distinction between one group, known as "us," and another group, readily identified as "them." This requires the homogenizing of the nation so that the concept of "us" takes in rich and poor, powerful and powerless, radicals and reactionaries. And the "enemy" must similarly be homogenized, so that entire groups can be said to be against "us."
More than 45 years ago, a huge uproar ensued when a very famous person publicly renounced his membership in the club of "us" while refusing to demonize "them." When the heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. armed forces after being drafted to fight in Vietnam, he said, "My conscience won't let me go and shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America." At another point, Ali famously said, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger." He was telling us that the U.S. is not a single "us," but a complex, divided society, like many others.
Once the "us" and "them" groups are identified, Propaganda has two tasks. The first one is to demonize "them" and sanctify "us." The second, related, task is to bring the public to define "hideous" in such a way that it highlights the suffering of "us" and excludes the suffering of "them." (Both of these are standard war propaganda, likely employed by every warring state in the history of the universe.) This type of Propaganda falls into the realm of Deep Propaganda, as it consists of ideas that are of a general nature and are adopted and held below the level of consciousness. For that reason, this part of the strategy is self-perpetuating, with prominent figures and media workers playing their roles as a matter of course, no direction needed. Someone who consciously rejects such deep ideas will not ascend to a position of prominence and, if he or she does, all efforts will be made to take them out of commission. See Muhammad Ali.
The standard propaganda of recent wars is fairly easy to see. It includes the "embedding" of reporters, the channeling of battlefront news through military PR offices, and the concocting of fake cases and the publicizing of real cases of brutality by "the enemy." All of these are examples of Overt Propaganda by commission. That is, these messages are directly transmitted to the public. There is also Overt Propaganda by omission, such as the 18-year military policy—implemented in the "first Gulf War" against Iraq in 1991—of banning publication of any photos of "the flag-draped coffins of America's war dead as their bodies are returned to the United States" (as the New York Times put it in 2009). Overt Propaganda thus consists both of messages that are transmitted, and of messages that are not transmitted.
All of these practices are aimed at "screening from public gaze" any news of U.S. casualties. That is, the "flag-draped coffins" and the "body bags" that so excite the U.S. public. The possibility that the other casualties caused by U.S. military adventures might possibly arouse opposition is taken care of by another process entirely, one that not only "screens it from public gaze," but actually works inside of our minds to place non-U.S. casualties into another category. The process could be seen in the recent build-up to (almost) war in Syria, and in the Euro/US attack on Libya before that.
It would be a major scandal (one hopes) if the Vice President or the Secretary of State were to say "The lives of people in other countries are not worth as much as the lives of U.S. citizens." Yet they recently said that "We didn't lose a single life" in Libya and "We will not have people at risk" should we attack Syria. And U.S. institutions "have long refused to acknowledge or investigate" any non-U.S. victims of U.S. attacks.
The only way such comments and behavior can make any sense is if we understand that some lives are worth more than others.
It's highly unlikely that either Kerry or Biden were specifically directed to use their statements to render the victims of U.S./NATO attacks less than human. And I'm certain that the various reporters and editors who reported these words don't think this, nor do they wish to propagate such an idea. But we're not talking here about the intentions of either reporters or the sources they quote. That's not how 21st-Century Propaganda works.
Here's how it does work: If either Biden or Kerry, or any other high-ranking official source (named or anonymous) had shown any evidence in their public careers of a tendency to speak in such a way as to delegitimize the Deep Propaganda of war, they would not have ascended to positions of power within the Propaganda System. And they would not be on our televisions now. But they haven't shown any such rebellious tendencies. Anyone who is allowed to speak to the public—either officially, as Biden or Kerry, or as one of the "anonymous" officials who serve as sources for the agenda-setting media—will have internalized certain ideas and will unthinkingly use them as the basis for their comments. This is what I meant when I said earlier that prominent figures and media workers will play their roles in the buildup to war as a matter of course, with no direction needed. And the failure of agenda-setting reporters to find sources who see the world differently is likely because it never occurs to them. If it did occur to them on a regular basis, they wouldn't work for agenda-setting media organizations.
When official statements are reported without context or comment, readers/viewers hoping to make sense of those statements will be forced to accept the deeper, unstated ideas that have been internalized by the speakers and reporters, and that form the foundations of the stated ideas. This is sometimes called "thinking inside the box." The "box" is ideology, and is mostly invisible to those thinking within it, whether it's newsmakers, journalists, or those who listen to them.
Here, in a nutshell, is why propaganda is more important to U.S. warmakers than it ever was:
These statements make sense when the only images of "the war business" that make it back to voters in the U.S. are images of "them." This may be regrettable but, if the Deep Propaganda is working, these images will not be perceived as "hideous." Instead, they will be "collateral damage," or "tragic mistakes," or some other unavoidable, but acceptable, cost of being the moral leader of "the international community." And the idea of the U.S. as a moral leader is, in turn, pressed into wide acceptance via ongoing Propaganda.
The ideas that must be challenged to break this cycle of war include:
1. American Exceptionalism, which includes the idea that the U.S. is unlike every other world power in history.
Such deeply-held beliefs form the foundation for the many specific lies and bits of Propaganda that make any specific war possible. Until we succeed in delegitimizing these deep, deep ideas, the lies will keep coming, too many people will find them believable, and we will remain in a state of endless war.