Min, Anselm K., “The Middle East War: The Triumph of Propaganda and Tribalism,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991).
To be honest, these are days of misery and despair for most of us in the peace movement. The Gulf War has ended, in such a surprisingly short time, in less than one hundred hours of the ground battle, in exactly six weeks since the beginning of the air campaign. The “elite” Republican Guard has been decimated without, so it seems, putting up a single meaningful fight, some eighty thousand Iraqi soldiers have been captured, while the U.S. has suffered less than one hundred casualties. The much talked-about wrath of the Arab world against the United States and the pro-Western Arab regimes, while noisy and visible in some countries, has not amounted to much. Saddam Hussein is finally humilated, and his power base pulverized.
The war has been short, clean, and technologically wondrous. The prayers of many Christians for “our” troops have been heard tenfold. No wonder “patriotic” Americans are gloating all over, the establishment experts enjoying the satisfaction of “I told you so.” The Vietnam syndrome has been kicked once and for all. America has just proven that it is good at something. It can walk tall like America from now on. God bless America!
Amid such misery and despair it is comforting to know that at least the senseless massacre and destruction are not continuing. Even if the war should have been averted in the first place, and even if the war may have sown seeds of greater disasters to come, still it is better that the shooting should stop now than that it should continue to add to the story of suffering whose dimensions are as yet untold.
Again, it hurts, but honesty demands that we congratulate George Bush for his brilliant management of the war and the U.S. public opinion. As a loyal opponent I can only say, “simply brilliant!”.
All this, of course, is not to deny what has happened during the war or what is likely to happen after it is formally ended. A deep anger lingers on at the brilliance with which the war-hungry have successfully manipulated public opinion, the complacency with which the media simply capitulated to the generals, the utter self-righteousness with which both “leaders” and “experts” turned the enemy into an apocalyptic evil, the gullibility with which the public bought the words of the Pentagon and the media, lock, stock, and barrel, the absolute scandal with which the followers of the “prince of peace” turned instant jingoistic nationalists, gloating over the paucity of “friendly” casualties while self-righteously silent over “enemy” casualties and the “collateral damage” done to enemy civilians.
The first casualty of war, as Senator Hiram Johnson said way back in 1917, is truth, but he should have added that the first winner of war is tribalism.
Emerging only now, in small prints, hidden among the massive foreign news dispatches in big prints with catchy titles, is the truth that the administration had known about the mobilization of the Iraqi troops long before their actual invasion of Kuwait in early August. In fact, when approached by the Hussein government about possible U.S. reactions, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Gilaspie, under instruction from the state department, explicitly told the Iraqis that the U.S. had no intention of getting involved in the intra-Arab quarrels between Iraq and Kuwait. It is no wonder that the state department has been trying to keep her quiet ever since. It is also reported that in the early months after the invasion the Arab League nations were close to a negotiated settlement but that the negotiations fell through under U.S. pressure. Even the appearance of the state department’s last minute attempt to talk to Hussein turned out to be not so much a negotiation in good faith as a blunt request of abject surrender. All the indications are that Uncle Sam has been dying and working all along for an opportunity and an excuse to get involved.
Equally hidden from the public all these months but emerging only now, after appropriate preparation of the public, is the Bush administration’s ultimate motive for going to war. At first, it said the defense of Saudi Arabia was the purpose of sending some 200,000 troops to the Persian Gulf, a move that was considered only defensive against Iraq’s sudden, unexpected aggression. Then, only a week after the Congressional election, lo and behold, the purpose was to “liberate” Kuwait and restore its sovereignty, for which an offensive force of another 300,000 was required. Since January 16, however, another purpose has been added: to eliminate Saddam Hussein and so to devastate Iraq that it could no longer threaten the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. A war, it is said, has its own dynamnics; new purposes, not heard of before, tend to emerge in the process.
At this point, after weeks of bombing, it became only “natural” for the public to ask, “then, what?” The administration’s answer sounded even more natural and harmless, a regional arrangement to secure “peace and stability.” But peace and stability for whom and from whose point of view? For the poor Arab masses? For the Palestinians? For third world nations? Not likely. But certainly for the United States, the European Community, and the ruling classes of the region, a chilly echo of the 1920s when Great Britain and France divided up and conquered the region under the League of Nations “mandate.” Strategically and economically, and therefore politically, the Gulf would be the right place at the right time for the sole superpower in the post-Cold-War era to be and to station its troops which it no longer has any rationale to keep in Western Europe.
After all, at stake here is the control of 70% of the world’s known oil reserves. “Our way of life” is indeed hanging in the balance. Who knows what new threats to our national interest will emerge in the region in this “dangerous” world? Another Hussein, angry Islamic fundamentalism, even a conflict of interest with Japan, the United States of Europe, or a resurgent Soviet Union: any one of these would do.
The ultimate imperialist intentions of the administration are slowly but finally coming to the fore in appropriate ideological garb. There is no more need to make the naive protest that we should not fight a war whose rationale is not clear. It has not been clear only to the gullible public; it has been clear enough to the occupants of the White House and the Pentagon and their friends in business and academe.
It is not only the timing of the announcement of the “apparent” and the “real” intention of the administration that has led the public to accept by now a “new order” in the region to be imposed by the United States as something as natural as the sun rising in the morning. The administration must share its propaganda victory with the media that have been so willing to cooperate with it like hungry dogs going after the bones thrown in their way. With all the commentators and experts, military analysts and retired generals, the media have lent color, intensity, passion, and drama to the administration’s version of the war, sending a whole nation on a frenzy of jingoistic nationalism.
The media and the administration have spared no tactics in this propaganda war. For the legitimacy of the war they made vociferous appears to the U.N. resolutions, although the U.S. has never hesitated to ignore them whenever convenient. For the universal justice of their action they did not mind invoking the name of the “multinational” forces, even though these were put together by manipulation. For divine vindication they pictured the war as a “just” war, a cosmic struggle between “good” and “evil,” a Manichean, apocalyptic struggle with a primal demon, Saddam Hussein, even though the U.S. armed and hailed him as an ally only a few short years ago. For the humanity of the war they evoked the frightful specter of chemical and nuclar bombs that must be destroyed for the sake of world peace, as though Iraq were the only country to have them and the only country without the right to produce them. For the harmlessness of the war they were eager to cover up the real magnitude of enemy casualties and the “collateral damage” to enemy civilians, picturing the war as a “clean” and “tidy” operation proceeding on schedule, with surprisingly low and therefore readily acceptable losses of our own troops.
For all its cynicism and nauseating self-righteousness the performance of the media was simply brilliant. In justifying every step taken by the administration as it was taken, preparing the public to accept it as natural and reasonable, and diverting national attention from the real issue of war, the imperialist intention of the lone superpower in the region, the media certainly deserve more medals of honor than do all the generals and navy pilots in the Gulf put together.
The logical fallacies committed by the media in this process are so numerous that future writers of logic textbooks may have to invent new labels to the despair of future logic students, in addition to the exiting ones: red herring, false dilemma, equivocation, undistributed middle terms, ad hominem, good intention, strawman, slippery slope, begging the question, questionable analogy, false generalization, etc., etc.
After this brilliant performance of the media it seems no wonder at all that the gullible public support George Bush with a 91% approval rating. The war has vindicated all the usual “ideals” of American ideology, freedom, sovereignty, law, justice, and humanity, and has done so by also making an unmistakable demonstration of an almighty America to boot, something no nation should ever forget in the future. America is always right, and it is also powerful, with an international responsibility assumed only reluctantly, only as a burden for the sake of world peace.
Thus Christians in America sang “God Bless America,” Sunday after Sunday, loudly and happily, from Vermont to Texas, praying for their own victory, thanking God for not being like the Iraqis, with petitions for the speedy and safe return of their own loved ones, sure that God was on their side, as though Iraqis were not human beings or children of the same God. The spectacle of Christian America was the picture of triumphant tribalism at its most cynical and pathetic.
An equally deep horror remains at the prospect of what is likely to happen in the months and years ahead. What will prevent America, now delirious in its military and technological victory, from being an international bully, terrorizing the rest of the world, especially the third world nations, now that its power seems challenged by no countervailing power as in the days of the cold war? What will prevent America, now that it has tasted the bliss of technological perfection in the art of destruction, from demanding more such weapons at the expense of basic human needs, or from inducing other wars when domestic issues become too pressing and diversion becomes necessary?
These are despairing, sobering thoughts. Those committed to justice and peace in the world have been chastened, compelled to shed their complacency and wishful thinking. In all realistic honesty we have to face up to the real dimensions of the obstacles we have to overcome. It is better to realize once and for all how useless and powerless all the schooling in grade schools and colleges is when it comes to unmasking the massive propaganda of a well organized, long-sustained media campaign. It is only honesty to recognize the impotence of established churches before the temptations of tribalism and imperialism. Innocent as we should try to be, it is also incumbent on us to try to be as wise as serpents. In the meantime let’s not lose our patience and hope. The war may be over, but our struggle is not.
Belmont Abbey College