War, Propaganda, Empire
By P Sainath
03 September, 2003
Presented at a public forum, ‘Media and the War on Iraq’ orgainsed by Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives, Hong Kong.
My topic really is war propaganda and empire. Before I get into the history of it, I would like to say something. Embedded journalism is a state of the mind. You don’t have to be travelling with an army to be an embedded journalist. Between 1965 and 1975, there were 5,000 American journalists in Saigon, and they still didn’t get the story right. Not one of these unembedded guys managed to tell the true story of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident for about a decade. So ‘embeddedness’ is a state of mind, you can sit right next to your PC in your office in Oklahoma or wherever and be an embedded journalist. I don’t know if the existing media networks or conglomerates would ever allow for instance Al Jazeera to be shown in their countries in the name of free flow. I’d like to see it happen, I ‘d like Al Jazeera to be available to all viewers on that continent. When the heck is it going to happen?
The word “embedded” in terms of embedded journalism, it’s a fascinating term, we’ll come back to it. But you have in this very country, in Hong Kong in 1975, a lecture made by Barry Zorthian who was the head of JUSPAO, the Joint US Public Affairs Office that ran the Vietnam war propaganda, and he complained that some of the “embedded” journalists of that time were so dumb that they could not take signals when something was going wrong. And Barry Zorthian was pretty disgusted, so he gave up his job at JUSPAO-- where he had an equal ranking with the CIA Station Chief and General Westmoreland in terms of hierarchy in propaganda-- and went back to his old job as Vice-President of Time Magazine.
Now my own presentation. 88 years ago, 8,500 Indian troops died in a single battle. In one single battle. That too was in Iraq, and that too took place in the name of regime change. Then too they had to be sacrificed because of the various problems the regime that wanted to do the changing was facing. The battle was the Battle of Kut, it was fought between the end of 1915 and the early part of 1916. The British Empire had taken a pasting in Gallipoli, and the War Office desperately needed some propaganda for back home to explain to mothers why their children had to die in so many millions. Chemical weapons and poison gas were being freely used by the civilized nations on the green fields of France. So the War Office sent an order to the 6th British Indian Army Division to take Baghdad. They were in no position to take Baghdad, they didn’t have a chance in hell of taking Baghdad, but they had to take Baghdad to reduce the propaganda pressure on the War Office at home because they had been defeated at Gallipoli, there was growing demoratization at home, a victory had to be produced. And it was thought that by changing the regime in Baghdad, at that time Mesopotamia… the British were actually fighting the Turks at the time, not the regime in Baghdad, but there was a small hackneyed gang holed up in Baghdad. The Indian army division tried doing what it could not do, it lost 8,000 people in a single battle at Kut. 88 years later, India and Pakistan are both being asked to send troops to support the regime change in Iraq that has taken place already so that we can lost a few thousand more soldiers there. This is the mindset of empire. As long as somebody else’s soldiers are dying, it doesn’t really matter.
You know, if you listen even to the presentations of the embeds… I don’t think the problem with the war was the logistics, or the costs, or that things were going wrong, or that things were not going the way the military said. The problem with the war was the war! That was the problem, the war itself was immoral, unjustified, had no basis in international law. So the sympathy that builds up looking at the problems of “ordinary folks”, “ordinary GI Joes” because he or she was battered at home or whatever, is not looking at the miseries and sufferings inflicted on the Iraqi people. Which was what the war was about. And that’s really one of the problems of embedded journalism, Iraqis are blacked out- even the sorrows and emotions and sadness that we experience are those of good old GI Joe and Jane. It’s too much of a problem for me.
But let’s get back to Gallipoli. The defeat in Gallipoli was later painted as a propaganda victory, like Dunkirk. The Indian army and other conscripts from colonies were sacrificed not in their hundreds but in their tens of thousands on the battlefields of Iraq for the next two years, The mind of empire does not end with one war, it does not end with war, it does not end with Iraq. Immediately after the war in 1919, and this is of interest to you considering the propaganda you have been exposed to in this war, Britain systematically, deliberately, explicitly used chemical weapons against the people of Iraq. And now they are looking for WMDs and chemical weapons in Iraq. They probably will find traces of their own stuff! They certainly will find the graves of tens of thousands of people who died from the poison gas they used in Iraq, with the following words from Winston Churchill: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes. The moral effects should be good, and it would spread a lively terror.”
The difference then as with now is that they were a little more honest about it, they were more open about it, and since the natives were anyway sub-humans, and we all know they are sub-humans, so how the hell does it matter if you use poison gas? Today you take an individual and demonize him so you can take over the rest of the people and show nothing, because your embedded journalists are not in interaction with those people. So nothing very different happens, according to me, in war propaganda, it just happens in different places. But it happens in different eras. When it happens in our era, it happens in an era when the media is more concentrated than ever before, in the hands of half a dozen conglomerates essentially. Therefore the capacity to deceive is far greater than your intent to deceive. I might have the intent to deceive, I might print in a newspaper ‘Little Green Men From Mars Landed Outside My Window Yesterday’, but it doesn’t matter if my newspaper has a circulation of 5 and a print order of 100. But if it happens to be Rupert Murdoch’s son you can cause panic in the streets with that kind of story, because your capacity to deceive is far greater when you’re presiding over an empire, in print alone, of 6 billion words daily, as he does. So what’s changed is that things are unfolding in a very different media environment, at a time of a collapse on restraint of global corporations, at a time of really, really ferocious neoliberal market fundamentalism where everything can be justified on a particular kind of terms.
Let’s get back to Iraq. I don’t know how many of you saw one of the first Rumsfeld press conferences, where all journalists sat there and… oh, by the way, I remember Tommy Franks’ press conference, I don’t know if any of you saw this, where the props were a US$250,000 set designed in Hollywood. So even the damn press conference props, from where these guys address the world, are designed in Hollywood, you can get the intent- you design a Hollywood set to have a press conference on the war, you can tell what the content is going to be. Anyway, here’s what Rumsfeld said at the other press conference, I have this verbatim: “It looks like the bombing of a city, but it isn’t.” The bombing has been so precise, he told the embeds and the empty-heads and everybody else, the altitude and angles of bombing, he suggested had been so well calculated as to minimize human damage, loss of human life. This at a time when 2,000 pound and 5,000 pound bombs were falling on people in Baghdad.
Now this, as I said, is in itself not a new thing. In 1945, Brigadier General Thomas Farrell-- Deputy Director of the Manhattan Project that had made those two bombs called Fat Man and Little Boy that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—addressing the first international media circus in Tokyo after the bombing of Hiroshima, this General Thomas Farrell said, and I quote verbatim: “The atomic bombs were exploded at a specifically calculated altitude to exclude any possibility of residual radioactivity.” They managed to control the altitude, you know, they just shoved a damn bomb out of a plane, but they managed to control the altitude at which it would burst. This was followed up with the great embedded loyalty of that wonderful newspaper the New York Times that reported a few days later in a banner headline: “No radioactivity in the ruins of Hiroshima.” A few days later, the United States government felt so emboldened by such embedded loyalty it declared the most fantastic thing of all which has now been hushed up and buried. They actually came out with a statement saying “radioactivity not harmful”. Official statement, radioactivity is not harmful.
You don’t even have to go so far back, in 1965 in the war against Vietnam that 5,000 journalists couldn’t get it right, Time Magazine August 5 1965 reports the use of gas against Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, poison gas, as “non-lethal gas warfare.” Now “warfare” and “non-lethal” are contradictory terms! By the way, it was the great Peter Arnett who first used those words, “non-lethal gas warfare.” He was then with the Associated Press. And Time Magazine gave its own take on the use of gas against “uncivilized tribes”, as Winston Churchill so honestly put it. Time Magazine said that compared to bombs like napalm-- it didn’t mention that napalm was also a US weapon, it wasn’t being used by the Vietnamese— compared to napalm, these “temporarily disabling gases are positively more humane than horrible.” That was Time reporting in 1965 on the use of gas on the “uncivilized tribes” of Vietnam.
From Churchill to George Bush, the attitude of empire towards the “uncivilized tribes” has remained essentially unchanged, but a lot of other things have changed. The politics in the world have changed, the structure of propaganda has changed, the ways in which things are done have changed. The language, the debasement of language right through by military structures and empire is fantastic. How easily all of us have accepted into our lexicons the use of words like WMDs, you know, Weapons of Mass Destruction. Little acronyms for various things. ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, ‘War on Terror’, every one of these is a totally questionable term…
Right through the 70s and the 80s, two of the fastest growing sectors of the global economy were information and armaments. And the growing integration between these two sectors, the rapid integration between the sectors of information and armaments, had and has very obvious implications for the content of information that we get, for the kind of media environment that we live in. These huge conglomerates, these little oligarchies, about 6 of them, whether you are taking Time-Warner or Disney… just take Time Warner. Its market value is equal to the combined GDP of say Mali, Mauritania, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and half a dozen other countries. The kind of clout it gives these guys is something enormous and astonishing. And this whole business about “giving the public what it wants” is essentially an attitude of enormous disrespect for the public. It’s not what the public wants, the idea that the public wants something and they are being given it is very misleading. It’s what I want to give the public, which my advertisers want to give the public, which my sponsors want to give the public, and the public, if it has very few choices, will take.
That’s why you have a situation, and one thing that the United States media proves comprehensively, is that it is possible to have the world’s largest media and the world’s least informed public. Where else in the world did 55% of the people believe that Saddam was tied to al Qaida, and 42% believe that he was behind the WTC attacks? Because they have no media alternatives. They have the same bunch of gangsters raining propaganda at them in a very, very, blanketing, saturating level, and not much can be done about it. So just as patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, blaming the public for what it wants is a bit of an escape, there are very real forces controlling the media that may not be able to do all that the public does not want, but will do a hell of a lot that the public never asked for. Sure, public attitudes and culture can also be shaped over a period of time, but a lot of public would like a lot of plain information which was not coloured the way it was.
In conclusion I think that what you have today is, one, empire plus neoliberalism plus concentration and more concentration of media equals disaster. That’s the first point I’d like to make.
Second, there’s something sad and yet worth learning. In war, the hypocrisy of media sometimes stands naked, so we are all ready to condemn and criticize. However, the same media does that and much worse during peace as well. It does so when it covers the WTO, when it covers the disputes over economics, when it covers markets and market fundamentalism and neoliberal ideologies, when it covers so-called “success stories”. You know, Mexico is a “success-story” then Mexico is down the drain, then Argentina is a “success story” then you have to look for it with a telescope down the tube. They cover all these the same way, but it doesn’t provoke our indignation in the same way. It’s the same package, it’s the same mindset, the same ideological package. And you’d better get accustomed to the idea, it’s not just that the stumbled on the issue of war. It’s an integrated package…
On the issue of alternative media, I was fascinated to hear the example [of Korea], there are two or three others that I am personally aware of. I think, by the way, nobody here or anywhere has a right to complain about the mainstream media if you are not subscribing to at least two alternative media experiments. If you don’t subscribe to those and you don’t put your money where your mouth is, don’t whine. I don’t want to hear it. So that’s one thing. The second thing is, however much I might support, and I hope all of you support, alternative media experiments, I am not willing to give up my space in the mainstream media. I think that has got to be liberated from the embedded hierarchies of neocolonialism. And to liberate the media from the embedded structures of the global conglomerates, we need public action. We need to assert that public space has to be respected in the private fora, we need to assert that public interest must prevail over private profit, I think we have to recover the public space that the conglomerates have taken over in the media. If you cannot stop the march of monopoly, you will find it very difficult to liberate yourself from embedded propaganda.
There’s one final thing which gives us a lot of hope. The fantastic thing is that the limit of this propaganda was also reached in the Iraq war. The most fantastic thing is that the media have never been more concentrated that they were in this war, they have never been more powerful than they were at this time. And yet, there was a divergence between what they said and what 85% of the world’s public believed and marched for. Governments and media were on one side, the public were on the other. The Indian government did its best to bootlick the Americans on sending troops to Iraq, but couldn’t do it because of the opposition of the Indian public, despite major newspapers like the Times of India writing editorials saying “get ready to go and take care of Baghdad.” They couldn’t do it because of public opposition despite the media’s position. In Spain, New Europe, the government supported the American war on Iraq, 85% of the Spanish people opposed it. So this divergence, I think it opens up a window, it allows us to explore what are the possibilities for breaking this monopoly over the mind. And I think that has come not from mindless herds that want something so Murdoch gives it to them. Have respect for the ordinary people of the world, they showed you that they are not willing to buy into this propaganda. That opens up a space, that opens up hope. You do not adjust to empire, you end it.
P Sainath is one of Asia’s leading development journalists, and the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought’. His writing focuses on the impact of neoliberal globalisation on the lives of people, poverty and food security in rural India, and other issues of contemporary concern.
[transcribed by Pranjal Tiwari]