John Pilger: The charge of the media brigade

July 17, 2010
The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus (pictured centre), wrote that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

The TV anchorwoman was conducting a split screen interview with a journalist who had volunteered to be a witness at the execution of a man on death row in Utah for 25 years.

“He had a choice”, said the journalist, “lethal injection or firing squad”. “Wow!” said the anchorwoman.

Cue a blizzard of commercials for fast food, teeth whitener, stomach stapling, the new Cadillac. This was followed by the war in Afghanistan, presented by a correspondent sweating in a flak jacket.

“Hey, it’s hot”, he said on the split screen. “Take care”, said the anchorwoman. “Coming up” was a reality show in which the camera watched a man serving solitary confinement in a prison’s “hell hole”.

The next morning, I arrived at the Pentagon for an interview with one of President Barack Obama’s senior war-making officials.

There was a long walk along shiny corridors hung with pictures of generals and admirals festooned in ribbons.

The interview room was purpose-built. It was blue and arctic cold, and windowless and featureless except for a flag and two chairs: props to create the illusion of a place of authority.

The last time I was in a room like this in the Pentagon, a colonel called Hum stopped my interview with another war-making official when I asked why so many innocent civilians were being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then it was in the thousands; now it is more than a million.

“Stop tape!”, he ordered.

This time there was no Colonel Hum, merely a polite dismissal of soldiers’ testimony that it was a “common occurrence” that troops were ordered to “kill every mother fucker”.

The Pentagon, the Associated Press said on July 5, spends US$4.7 billion on public relations: that is, winning the hearts and minds not of recalcitrant Afghan tribespeople but of the US people.

This is known as “information dominance” and PR people are “information warriors”.

US imperial power flows through a media culture to which the word “imperial” is anathema. To broach it is heresy.

Colonial campaigns are really “wars of perception”, wrote the commander of US forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus, in which the media popularises the terms and conditions.

“Narrative” is the accredited word because it is “post-modern” and bereft of context and truth. The narrative of Iraq is that the war is won, and the narrative of Afghanistan is that it is a “good war”.

That neither is true is beside the point.

They promote a “grand narrative” of a constant threat and the need for permanent war. “We are living in a world of cascading and intertwined threats”, the celebrated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on June 11, “that have the potential to turn our country upside down at any moment”.

Friedman supports an attack on Iran, whose independence is intolerable. This is the psychopathic vanity of great power that Martin Luther King described as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”.

King was shot dead exactly one year later.

The psychopathic is applauded across popular, corporate culture, from the TV death watch of a man choosing a firing squad over lethal injection to the Oscar winning Hurt Locker and a new acclaimed war documentary Restrepo.

Directors of both films deny and dignify the violence of invasion as “apolitical”.

And yet behind the cartoon facade is serious purpose. The US is engaged militarily in 75 countries. There are about 900 US military bases across the world, many at the gateways to the sources of fossil fuels.

But there is a problem. Most US people are opposed to these wars and to the billions of dollars spent on them.

That their brainwashing so often fails is the US’s greatest virtue. This is frequently due to courageous mavericks, especially those who emerge from the centrifuge of power.

In 1971, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which put the lie to almost everything two presidents had claimed about Vietnam.

Many of these insiders are not even renegades. I have a section in my address book filled with the names of former officers of the CIA who have spoken out.

They have no equivalent in Britain.

In 1993, C. Philip Liechty, the CIA operations officer in Jakarta at the time of Indonesia’s murderous invasion of East Timor in 1975, described to me how then US president Gerald Ford and secretary of state Henry Kissinger had given Indonesian dictator Suharto “a green light” and secretly supplied the arms and logistics he needed.

As the first reports of massacres arrived at his desk, he began to turn. “It was wrong”, he said. “I felt badly.”

Melvin Goodman is now a scholar at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He was in the CIA more than 40 years and rose to be a senior Soviet analyst.

When we met the other day, he described the conduct of the Cold War as a series of gross exaggerations of Soviet “aggressiveness” that wilfully ignored the intelligence that the Soviets were committed to avoid nuclear war at all costs.

Declassified official files on both sides of the Atlantic support this view.

“What mattered to the hardliners in Washington”, he said, “was how a perceived threat could be exploited”.

The present secretary of defence, Robert Gates, as deputy director of the CIA in the 1980s, had constantly hyped the “Soviet menace” . He is, says Goodman, doing the same today “on Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran”.

Little has changed. In the US in 1939, the poet W.H. Auden wrote:

As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives […]
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong

[Reprinted from]

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