War Made Easy: An interview with Norman Solomon
Norman Solomon is a syndicated
columnist on media and politics, as well as founder and executive
director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a national consortium
of policy researchers and analysts. His new book, War Made Easy:
How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, has been
described by the Los Angeles Times as “a must-read for
those who would like greater context with their bitter morning coffee
or to arm themselves for the debates about Iraq that are still to
come.” I recently interviewed Solomon about the book, which
was published in July.
ADRIAN ZUPP: What prompted you to write the book?
NORMAN SOLOMON: We keep getting scammed by one president after another.
It really hit me during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. I
was bothered not only by the effectiveness of time-worn, manipulative,
propaganda coming out of the Administration and implemented, often
seamlessly, by the mass media, but also by a kind of mythology that
built up in 2002 and 2003, from the likes of [presidential candidate]
Howard Dean, that the George W. Bush administration’s egregious
lies were somehow aberrations. I quote a statement that came from
the Dean campaign to the effect that this has never happened before,
that the U.S. has always tried to find peaceful resolutions before
going to war and that this record was shattered by the invasion
of Iraq. I think it’s important that those myths be challenged
because when we have the delusion of a baseline of humanistic foreign
policy, then the same old tried and true—or one might say tried
and mendacious—techniques will be trotted out again and people
will be conned into going along in the new incarnation. One of the
disturbing things that I’ve seen is that the slate gets wiped
clean. It’s as if there’s no history that matters. The
tacit message is, “That was then, but this is now”—as
though the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, and
the media are reborn and the old sins are washed away by the passage
of time or a new set of configurations of a particular situation.
Having just been to Iran, I’m very worried about the likelihood
of a U.S. attack. Some similar denials are echoing: “Well gee,
they wouldn’t be that stupid”—“they” being
the Bush administration officials—“to go ahead with the
war.” “It’s a bluff.” Well, I don’t pretend
to know what’s going to happen, but I do feel that the likelihood
of a missile strike on Iran is quite high in the next year or so.
Did you have a conscious goal in writing this book?
I hope it will help people to see through the lies that drag the
country into war. I don’t think it’s that complicated,
really, but in a sense the codes need to be broken. I mean “codes”
in at least two senses: the code of reported ethics that rationalizes
the next war, but also the buzzword codes that use basically standard
techniques of word manipulation and illogic to make people feel
comfortable with the scenario of the next war. We see permutations
of basically the same con game going on continually and we really
are now in a war, I believe, with no discernible end point. I don’t
just mean the war in Iraq.
When I started drawing on some research I’d already done, I
wasn’t particularly looking for parallels between Vietnam and
Iraq, but those similarities hit me as I was writing this book.
It’s reflected, particularly in the last chapter, about how
“We can’t leave now because our credibility’s at
stake.” My goals included confronting that because we have
this media ethos that compartmentalizes and sees Vietnam as a distant,
manipulable mirror. The basic propaganda mechanisms are eerily similar
between 1965 and 2005.
faces change, but the game has stayed the same. How does that happen?
There is a largely accepted, culturally reinforced madness that
greases the wheels of the war machine. Some of the dynamics are
certainly different. During the Vietnam War, the Joint Chiefs of
Staff and the career military brass were pressuring for expansion
of the war for many years. It’s the reverse now where the Bush
White House was pushing an often reluctant Joint Chiefs of Staff
into the invasion of Iraq. Yet, from a media contagion standpoint,
it’s very recognizable. If Rip Van Winkle rubbed his eyes and
here he is, despite all the technological and cultural differences
between the Vietnam War era and today, a lot of these similar attitudes
would be readily recognizable. Some of them are summarized in the
table of contents of the book: “Our Leaders Will Do Everything
They Can to Avoid War,” “Our Leaders Would Never Tell
Us Outright Lies,” “This Guy Is a Modern-Day Hitler,”
“This is About Human Rights,” “This Is Not at All
about Oil or Corporate Profits,” “They Are the Aggressors,
Not Us,” “If This War Is Wrong, Congress Will Stop It,”
“If This War Is Wrong, the Media Will Tell Us.” These
notions are part of a socialized psychological set of mechanisms
so that we lie to ourselves about what’s being done with our
tax dollars and our names.
Is this unique to the U.S.?
I think there’s a commonality of militarism that many societies
have experienced, but it’s especially—and sickeningly—seductive
when a country holds such a huge amount of military power. If you
drop a lot of bombs, you’re not only writing the history as
victor, you’re also silencing those who are the most victimized
by your lies and militarism. I think it’s a blend between generic
militarism and a kind of U.S. zeal to dominate even while denying
that this is an empire- building exercise.
What is the lesson for peace workers and alternative media advocates?
I think naming the propaganda techniques and confronting them is
very important. Activism against war in this country could do a
lot better job of challenging the propaganda mechanisms that make
these wars possible. Just from the standpoint of debunking the prevalent
arguments in the news media for war, those of us engaged in activism—and
I certainly include myself—have nothing to be comfortable about.
We’re losing the propaganda wars. It’s small comfort that
we can point to poll numbers that indicate disquiet or opposition
to a war. It’s a reticence to confront the essence of the war
that is inflicting death on people on behalf of a totally illegitimate
agenda. The propaganda machine has these standard techniques that
are used to restrain opposition to war so that no matter how you
feel about how we got into it, now that we’re there all these
terrible things would happen if we stop killing people. So if you
want to be considered reasonable, you’d better not insist on
an end to U.S. fueling of the flames of that war. I talk about it
in the book: “You’re undermining our troops” and
“Now that we’re there, we have to stay there”—as
if we have a responsibility to the people we’re killing to
keep killing them.
A peace activist put this to me, and I’m paraphrasing: “When
people like us are for peace issues and so forth, are we really
having a significant impact?” It sounds to me that with regard
to the long term you’re saying no. Is that correct?
I’m not critiquing action, I’m critiquing inaction. I
think that there are huge effects that we sometimes have and don’t
even know it—that the activity of keeping the flame going and
trying to nurture and build flames is an essential process. Nothing
that I’m saying is intended to discourage people. I think if
people were not active then the wars would be bigger, they’d
be more frequent, and they’d last longer. Through our work
in the streets, in communities, in electoral arenas and lobbying,
we become part of the political calculus that the war-makers need
to take into account. I think our problems involve how we restrain
ourselves and are persuaded to be unduly restrained by our caution.
How do we move from this level of knowledge to getting it to
a critical mass of people and then getting people to do what needs
to be done?
I think the twin hazards to try and avoid are self-marginalization
and undue self-restraint. I believe we should be less rhetorical
and more radical in our analysis and what we have to say. Sometimes
we mistake rhetoric for radicalism or we mistake in-house language
with really presenting a strong critique in a way that can make
a difference politically. This is an ongoing challenge—to find
ways to speak to the broad population. There’s a tremendous
amount of really good work that’s been done and certainly much
earlier in the first couple of years in this war than during the
Vietnam War. The role of soldiers and family members of troops has
been much clearer earlier on in terms of Military Families Speak
Out and other wonderful groups and individuals who’ve prevented—
more than we were able to early in the Vietnam War—this stereotype
that anti-war people do not relate to the humanity of U.S. soldiers.
Speaking as a foreigner, I am amazed by the extent to which Americans
have bought into this whole belief system and these media falsehoods
and misconceptions that make up the chapters of War Made Easy.
Why is it that the U.S. in the age of the Internet can still be
so resistant to outside messages?
The reasons why so many Americans have a willingness to accept such
outrageous militaristic policies out of Washington are multi-factoral.
It’s in the culture, it’s in the mass media environment,
it’s constant messages from politicians and news outlets, and
part of the political economy that reinforces it. I received an
email a couple of years ago from a TV columnist of a major U.S.
newspaper. He’d read a column I wrote questioning the extreme
double standards of how the media use the word “terrorism.”
I had suggested a single standard for terrorism. He said, “If
my newspaper adopted such a standard there would be an uproar from
advertisers and many subscribers and it would quickly become a financial
disaster.” This is where the economics of the corporate system
intersect with what we often think of as something quite distinct,
which is war propaganda. So when Colin Powell says, as he did on
the day of 9/11, we condemn people who are willing to blow up buildings
for political ends—well if Osama Bin Laden is a terrorist,
then George W. Bush is a terrorist. That would be a logical conclusion
if one takes what Powell said at his word. But that kind of assessment
can’t be allowed psychologically.
Is the U.S. ever going to be ready to see presidents for what
they are and not be so forgiving or fall for the hokey one-liners
of a Reagan and so on?
The United States has such a diverse population and the cliché
is we’re divided into red states and blue states. But if you
were going to look at the percentages, you have pretty marked regional
differences. For the most part, the South is extremely militaristic
and the militarism is coded with religion. There are enclaves of
the country where a large proportion of people already see the president
as a war criminal. But I think for most people, the president
as a war criminal is an oxymoron. It’s just not a concept that
seems plausible. But the proportion of people who are open to considering
the evidence, those proportions may shift. Part of the task for
people who are doing progressive work is to find better ways to
explore publicly the essence of what’s at stake. What’s
the human cost? What are the logical fallacies and deceptions involved
in setting an agenda for war and then trying to justify a war’s
perpetuation. I think this is ongoing work that needs to be done.
talk in your book about war as reality TV. How do you see things
like the Internet as perhaps being tools to combat media monopolies?
The embedding of reporters for the Iraq invasion was a brilliant
propaganda mechanism. The Pentagon flipped over what happened during
the Gulf War a dozen years earlier. I remember some nauseating interviews
with U.S. troops on television, including on “The NewsHour
with Jim Lehrer”—then called the “McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.”
So it’s not new that you would have this kind of human interest
sandwich that is served up with reporting on the carnage, as limited
as that reporting is. There were appreciable media complaints—not
very vigorous—but still appreciable media complaints about
the limits set on the Gulf War coverage. So the embedding process
implemented by the Pentagon was a way to make grand use of cable
television, in particular and turn the war into a more multi-dimensional
What will it take for the truth to get through?
I think that any effective anti-war movement needs to combine the
emotional with the intellectual. People respond in a wide variety
of ways. One person may be changed by a totally intellectual argument,
with the marshaling of facts and historical evidence. Another person
may be moved by the story of a mother who lost her child. I’m
really in favor of trying to combine all of that because I think
it’s part of the picture. Television and visual images, in
and of themselves, may reinforce militarism as much as undermine
it. I’m pretty convinced by an argument that Susan Sontag made
about the imagery of war depending on the mindset of those who see
and the political environment—how it may be interpreted as
the need to continue with this heroic struggle. I think there has
been an assumption that if only we can convey the suffering from
war, that people will be repelled by it enough to oppose the war.
What do you think about this notion that Michael Moore and others
have propounded that Americans are afraid? Is fear a powerful tool
that helps prop up this propaganda status quo as well?
I think fear is definitely powerful. The antidote to fear has been
pedaled as the military fist that Uncle Sam can keep swinging to
keep adversaries at bay. Many people around the world have much
more reason to be fearful than Americans in terms of their own physical
well-being. Yet our national narcissism is cranked up to such an
extent that, with a straight face, media outlets could say that
9/11 changed everything everywhere. We are the world. Our pain dwarfs
the pain of anybody else. So our fear must trump anybody else’s
fears, which are often unrecognized in media. One can go into a
kind of psychological mode and say that fear drives so much of what
goes on in American life, including the fascination with wealth
and the kind of delusional, tacit belief that if we can gain enough
wealth and own enough expensive things, that we’re going to
be protected. Well, we’re all going to die and these are very
ephemeral comforts at best. At a kind of very overt level, the Pentagon
is the agency that is supposed to make sure that if anybody dies,
it isn’t Americans. This is a very human and very pernicious
dynamic. You hear it sometimes in its raw form—I think often
it’s more subtle—which is, “Who cares if those people
are incinerated? Who cares if they’re tortured? They’re
not going to do it to us, that’s for damn sure.” That’s
the point of the entire enterprise of what’s called “national
defense.” I personally refuse to call the military budget the
defense budget. It’s interesting that so many anti-war activists
and peace advocates will refer to this as a “defense budget.”
It’s wrong. I’m not against a defense budget, but if it
was a real defense budget it would be much smaller.
In reading your book I felt it was necessarily bleak, but if
I might read the closing paragraph of the Afterword: “Conscience
is not on the military’s radar screen and it’s not on
our television screen but government officials and media messages
do not define the limits and possibilities of conscience. We do.”
That’s rather empowering. Are you optimistic?
I like to quote something I heard Eduardo Galeano say at the World
Social Forum in early 2001. He recalled walking down a street of
a Latin American city and written in big letters on the wall was,
“Let’s save pessimism for better times.” I think
that’s relevant to where we are. There’s the statement
written by Antonio Gramsci when he was in prison under Mussolini
that translates something like: “Pessimism of the intellect,
optimism of the will.” Those are, so to speak, the two legs
that I feel we need to be walking on.
Zupp is a freelance journalist. He won a 2004 award from the New England
Press Association for his feature on the Dalai Lama for the Boston