Review of ’Weapons of Mass Deception‘ by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Robinson £6.99; ’The Iraq War Reader‘ by Micah L Sifry and Christopher Cerf,
Touchstone £12.99; ’Iraq‘ by Dilip Hiro, Granta £8.99; ’You Back the Attack! We‘ll Bomb Who We Want!‘ by Micah Ian Wright, Seven Stories Press £10.99
Few of us will forget the scenes of George Bush piloting a plane onto the flightdeck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, California, in May. Against a banner proclaiming ’Mission accomplished‘, he declared the Iraq war over: ’We have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world.‘ A dramatic moment and a great image for the president, who faces re-election next year. But it was one of the most expensive photo opportunities in history: an estimated $1 million. The ship made ’lazy circles‘ and took 20 hours to cover a distance which would normally have taken an hour.
Right from 11 September 2001, the US government and its friends in the media have gone out of their way to project a view of the war that suits their purposes. That‘s nothing new - atrocity stories abounded about Germans bayoneting babies during the First World War and during the first Gulf War Iraqi soldiers were accused of snatching babies from incubators in hospitals in Kuwait and leaving them to die. Both were false. A 15 year old girl, supposedly a volunteer at a Kuwaiti hospital, propagated the Kuwaiti story. Her story was used repeatedly in the run-up to war. Eventually it was revealed to be false and the girl to be a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, daughter of the ambassador to Washington.
Weapons of Mass Deception tells these and many other stories. It catalogues the efforts put into selling the US government‘s case and the lies and distortions which accompanied it. Charlotte Beers, who made her name as an advertising executive selling Uncle Ben‘s Rice and Head and Shoulders shampoo, was appointed to improve the US brand image in the Islamic world. The strategy was an abject failure. Despite spending millions of dollars, a Pew Research poll in December last year showed steep declines in the US image throughout the Muslim world. Beers resigned citing health reasons just before the war started. It seemed that real events, rather than TV adverts about shared values or posters of ’mosques of America‘ were what influenced most Muslims.
The book will repeatedly make you laugh at the lunacy, insensitivity and sheer arrogance of Bush and his team. But its real purpose is to demonstrate that our rulers are prepared to use the most sophisticated marketing techniques to sell war - spending our money to do so. They are also prepared to use people‘s emotions in the most despicable way. The massacre at Halabja in 1988 was barely mentioned during and in the run-up to the first Gulf War. Rampton and Stauber claim that this is because the event was too recent and the US too heavily implicated in supplying Saddam Hussein with weapons. It was mentioned in news stories in the US only 39 times between the invasion of Kuwait and the end of Operation Desert Storm. During the following decade it averaged only 16 mentions a year. Yet in February 2003 alone it was mentioned 57 times, rising to 145 times in March.
That millions of people did not believe the lies they were told about the war was at least in part due to the many writers, journalists and documentary makers who tried to put a different point of view. One of those is Dilip Hiro, whose recent book explains the modern history of Iraq, especially the period of the two Gulf Wars, and shows how the US was heavily implicated.
Hiro shows how Saddam was encouraged and armed by the US in his war with Iran, and how the US intervened directly towards the end of that war to ensure an Iraqi victory. During 1988, for example, while Iraq launched an offensive against Iran in the Fao Peninsula (involving use of chemical weapons), US warships blew up two Iranian oil rigs, destroyed an Iranian frigate and sank a missile boat. In July a US cruiser shot down an Iranian civilian plane, killing nearly 300 people and forcing Iran to sue for peace. No wonder Saddam Hussein felt confident to invade Kuwait only two years later. The policy of the west towards Iraq in the 1990s is especially well analysed with repeated evidence of how sanctions, weapons inspections, the no-fly zones and repeated bombing have been used not to help the Iraqis but to further US aims. The UN has had a sorry role in all this: its weapons inspectors were involved with US and Israeli intelligence, and its sanctions worsened the living standards of millions of Iraqis.
Journalism, official documents and speeches by Washington hawks are all in The Iraq War Reader. It includes the infamous letter written to Bill Clinton from the newly formed Project for the New American Century in 1998, calling for him to ‘Remove Saddam from Power’, the transcript of April Glaspie’s (US ambassador to Iraq) discussion with Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Kuwait, and Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council in February. A great reference book, but scary - not only for the right wing fanaticism which pervades so much of the writing, but also for the response of US liberals and some of the left to the ‘war on terror’.
Despite the propaganda and repression in the US, however, the anti-war movement has flourished. It has also created its own alternatives to government and media lies. You Back the Attack! We’ll Bomb Who We Want! is a great example of this. Old war posters are subverted with slogans such as ‘What the fuck am I doing here? I only joined up for the college money’, ‘Be a good American, don’t try to think’ and ‘Daddy, why don’t you or any of your friends from Enron have to go to war?’ Veteran leftist Howard Zinn writes in his introduction, ‘If these reworked posters were exaggerating what is going on today, that would be reasonable, given the historic role of art to extend our imaginations... but they strike me as not far removed from the daily headlines that tell us of more and more attacks on the Bill of Rights, a growing atmosphere of intimidation, threatening the historic role of dissent in a democracy.’