“We are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves… an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.” (Winston Churchill)
Introduction – Blood And Hate
In May 1997, the British electorate voted to replace the sleazy, arrogant Tories with someone they believed was full of promise and hope – the ever-smiling Tony Blair.
These same voters are clearly now aghast at the key role being played by Blair in dragging the world to the brink of an abyss. Just beyond the brink lies a future century much like the last – full of horror, violence and suffering, of endless revenge in response to retaliation in response to revenge. Jackbooted power will once again seek to crush pain and humiliation and misery so violently under its heel that the victims dare not strike back. Once more, the jackboot will fail. In the abyss, the world will once again be harangued by the fundamentalists on every side to sneer at reason, justice, generosity, compassion and kindness as answers to conflict and hate – not because human feeling is powerless but because it defies the entrenched interests that have grown fat and strong on blood and hate – the unjust legacy of every ‘just’ war.
MOAB And ‘The Macbeth Option’
In his latest report, chief nuclear inspector, Mohammed El Baradai, dismissed US/UK claims that Iraq attempted to secure uranium from Niger as fraudulent and based on deliberately fabricated evidence. El Baradai also rejected US/UK claims that Iraq attempted to acquire aluminium tubes and magnets for use in building nuclear weapons: “There is no indication of resumed nuclear activities,” El Baradai said.
Chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, similarly said there was no evidence that Iraq has mobile laboratories producing chemical and biological weapons, or that it is hiding weapons in underground bunkers. Blix talked of accelerating, active “and even proactive” Iraqi disarmament.
Inspectors have been free to go wherever they please in Iraq for three months. In the most monitored, spied-upon and X-rayed country on earth, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. No one is talking about locating production facilities, just remnants of earlier, defunct production. The media has maintained near-total silence on the question of how long these remnants would have been able to retain their lethality – the answers make a mockery of the US/UK case for war. Likewise, Bush and Blair are able to endlessly repeat the lie that only the threat of war has prompted Iraqi cooperation now because the media has studiously ignored the results of the 1991-98 Unscom inspections, when the lifting of sanctions, not avoidance of war, was the incentive. We spend our time well when we reflect on the significance and meaning of these two omissions from the vast acres of newsprint and endless hours of TV coverage on Iraq.
Clinging to the excuse of a lack of “immediate” disarmament, Blair, Bush, Powell, Straw, and the media – having quietly added their earlier obsession with the word “proactive” to the pile of failed strategies – have given Iraq ten days to disarm or face war. Of course the ten-day deadline has nothing to do with the timetable laid out for the 250,000 warriors poised as mere ‘pressure’ on Iraq’s borders – March 17 is a genuine last ‘last chance’ for Saddam to comply peacefully, not the time when war simply must begin.
The media lie – that ‘the one man who can resolve this crisis is Saddam’ – is utterly exposed. For the US, the UN has always been, quite obviously, a PR agency intended to legitimise war. The idea has always been for the UN to conveniently lose patience with Iraq just as the US was ready to strike.
The hopeful cling to the idea that this will be a “quick and clean” war, forgetting the West’s proven preference for placing brown-skinned civilians, rather than its own soldiers, in the way of danger. The first US combat casualty in Afghanistan, Nathan Chapman, very quickly received more media coverage than all of the 5,000 Afghan civilian victims of bombing combined. The people arming and programming the cruise missiles know this only too well.
In the background, just behind the bright, shining lie that is Tony Blair, sits the ten-ton Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB) bomb. MOAB is a Fuel Air Explosive device which acts as a giant aerosol dispensing a cloud of flammable material which is then ignited. Using a new and improved slurry of ammonium nitrate and powdered aluminium, MOAB is able to guarantee the largest non-nuclear explosion obtainable. Strategyworld.com tells us that MOAB “is a highly destructive and terrifying weapon. If used in Iraq, it would demoralize any Iraqi troops in the vicinity who survived the explosion. The force of a MOAB explosion is sufficient to knock over tanks and kill any people within several hundred meters of the detonation”. Dynetics, the Alabama company that makes MOAB, is “built on a foundation of deeply-held beliefs”, central to which is the maintenance of “the highest ethical standards in all business relationships”.
12-year-old Charlotte Aldebron fills in some more relevant background information:
“When people think about bombing Iraq, they see a picture in their heads of Saddam Hussein in a military uniform, or maybe soldiers with big black mustaches carrying guns, or the mosaic of George Bush Senior on the lobby floor of the Al-Rashid Hotel with the word ‘criminal’. But guess what? More than half of Iraq’s 24 million people are children under the age of 15. That’s 12 million kids. Kids like me. Well, I’m almost 13, so some are a little older, and some a lot younger, some boys instead of girls, some with brown hair, not red. But kids who are pretty much like me just the same. So take a look at me – a good long look. Because I am what you should see in your head when you think about bombing Iraq. I am what you are going to destroy.” (Charlotte Aldebron, ‘What About The Iraqi Children?’, WireTap, March 3, 2003)
If MOAB is dropped on youthful Iraq, it will be a war crime for the simple reason that the entire war will be a criminal act. A group of senior experts on international law have given their verdict on the actions of the Bush/Blair cabal:
“On the basis of the information publicly available, there is no justification under international law for the use of military force against Iraq. The UN charter outlaws the use of force with only two exceptions: individual or collective self-defence in response to an armed attack and action authorised by the security council as a collective response to a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. There are currently no grounds for a claim to use such force in self-defence. The doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence against an attack that might arise at some hypothetical future time has no basis in international law. Neither security council resolution 1441 nor any prior resolution authorises the proposed use of force in the present circumstances…
“A decision to undertake military action in Iraq without proper security council authorisation will seriously undermine the international rule of law. Of course, even with that authorisation, serious questions would remain. A lawful war is not necessarily a just, prudent or humanitarian war.” (‘War would be illegal’, The Guardian, March 7, 2003)
Perhaps the war crime will be over quickly. Or perhaps the divisions of the Republican Guard gathering now around Baghdad, remembering Stalingrad and Berlin, and with little to lose, will withdraw into the city. Perhaps remembering Vietnam, Saddam will try to save his life by sacrificing the lives of his young people to murderous street fighting in the hope that the immense global peace protests that would follow might force the West to relent. In which case, we can be sure, the US war machine would be under pressure to deliver rapid results by all means necessary, no matter the cost.
Nothing is predictable about war except that when the gates of hell are opened it is always because everyone involved is in too deep to do anything else. The media, you can be sure, will be on-side. During the bombing of Serbia, Andew Marr, now the BBC’s political editor, wrote in the Observer:
“I want to put the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further. If we really believe Milosevic is this bad, dangerous and destabilising figure we must ratchet this up much further. We should now be saying that we intend to put in ground troops.” (Marr, ‘Do we give war a chance?’, The Observer, April 18, 1999)
The Moral Crusade And Beyond
The wider role of the media in all this will be to continue legitimising government actions by suppressing awareness of Western atrocities and by continuing to declare our leaders’ benevolent intent.
An idea of how much we will hear about Iraqi casualties was given by the BBC and ITN last week. Both highlighted the suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis on a bus in Haifa. When Israeli armed forces then killed 11 Palestinians in Gaza it was described as “retaliation” for Haifa. There was no mention that the day before Haifa, 8 Palestinians, including a pregnant woman, had been killed, with muted coverage in the media. More importantly, there was no mention that Haifa had been the first suicide attack since January 5, and that not one Israeli civilian had been killed within Israel since January 12. In the same period, Israel had killed over 154 Palestinians. There was also no mention that some 75% of Palestinians now live below the poverty line and over 30% of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Much of the media has, of course, already declared the proposed criminal action against Iraq a ‘war of liberation’ – this is deemed the one good thing that will come out of any conflict. Julie Burchill writes in the Guardian:
“It was surreal to see the best part of a million people marching in support of denying other people the very freedom they were smugly celebrating.” (‘Silly show-offs against Saddam!’, Julie Burchill, The Guardian, March 1, 2003)
Likewise, the Observer’s Nick Cohen is happy to refer to:
“The satisfaction of an anti-war movement which persuaded one million people to tell Iraqis they must continue to live under a tyranny…” (Cohen, ‘The Left’s unholy alliance with religious bigotry’, The Observer, February 23, 2003)
Johann Hari writes in The Independent:
“I passionately believe in the justice of freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam, and it is heartening that Mr Blair now uses this as one of the main justifications for the war.” (‘If this war with Iraq is to be a moral war, it must be fought in a moral way’, Johann Hari, The Independent, March 7, 2003)
Just as our ‘democratic’ politics is characterised by a cross-party consensus supporting the establishment’s “necessary illusions”, so the reflexive view that the ‘good guys’ are preparing to liberate Iraq is found right across the media spectrum. The Sun, for example, agrees:
“But a moral crusade to liberate a brutalised nation is impossible to argue against.” (‘Moral Victory’, Sun editorial, March 3, 2003)
The Sunday Telegraph likewise declares:
“Thus, it is the neighbourly duty of the West to liberate the Iraqis from their captivity at the hands of Saddam: the war would be just because of the suffering it would end.” (‘The Pope’s disapproval worries Blair more than a million marchers’, Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d’Ancona, February 23, 2003)
These journalists are writing about US/UK ‘liberators’ with a track record. The leading academic scholar on human rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, found, for example, that US aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens… to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights”. (Schoultz, Comparative Politics, January 1981)
Why? Because the hemisphere’s “relatively egregious violators” rely on force to keep impoverished domestic populations in line while Western corporations reap maximised profits.
Historian Mark Curtis describes the broader picture, and the media’s reaction to it:
“That Britain’s (and the USA’s) ‘economic interests’ in the Third World in the postwar period have been synonymous with the systematic exploitation and impoverishment of local populations is effectively unmentionable in respectable circles.” (The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.36)
Anyone who knows anything about the politics and history of the Gulf understands that the greatest fear of Western planners is the ‘loss’ of Iraq to Iranian-style independent nationalism – the kind of independence journalists believe the West is willing to grant post-invasion Iraq. It was the fear of independent nationalism that hung heavy in the air at the end of the last Gulf War, and was the reason why the US allowed rebels to be slaughtered rather than risk the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. The US did not merely fail to assist the rebels, they actively sought to protect Saddam, as Milan Rai explains:
“President Bush deliberately held back from destroying the key military formations of the regime [the Republican Guard]. President Bush permitted the use of helicopter gunships and transport helicopters against the rebels. President Bush ordered that rebels be blocked from gaining access to Iraqi arms – and that weapons should be destroyed or removed from Iraq. President Bush rebuffed the Iraqi opposition before, during and after the war.” (Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq, Verso, 2002, p.81)
In the event of war, Iraq will not be liberated from tyranny. It will, however, be liberated from the West’s genocidal sanctions and constant bombing raids. Ultimately, Blair’s “moral case for war” amounts to arguing that the US/UK must launch a massive assault against the people of Iraq to save them from US/UK policies.
A ‘Triumph’ For Democracy – Demonstration Elections
This of course does not mean that Iraq will not appear to be liberated – the media is not a window on the world, it is an artist’s impression of a window on the world (the artist being a corporate employee). We will never see a ‘liberated’ Iraq, we will see the media’s version of a ‘liberated’ Iraq. This version will lean heavily on the tried and tested propaganda strategy of ‘demonstration elections’. The experience of El Salvador in the 1980s gives an idea of what the media will have in store for us in the case of Iraq.
In March 1982 international observers from the United States and Great Britain (delegates from 40 other countries, including all of Western Europe, had refused to be involved) reported that they saw no evidence of government coercion on election day in El Salvador. They also reported a large turnout of people determined to vote, which, they assumed, indicated great public enthusiasm for the elections. The media reinforced this impression, with top US TV commentator Dan Rather exclaiming: “A triumph! A million people to the polls.” Republican Bob Livingstone called the elections the “most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen”; while Senator Nancy Kassebaum called them an “exceptionally fair election”. Around the United States, observers and media reported free and fair elections; a triumph for democracy. This was inspiring and uplifting stuff – exactly the kind of ‘good news’ we can expect to hear from a ‘liberated’ Iraq.
In their book, Demonstration Elections – US-Staged Elections In The Dominican Republic, Vietnam, And El Salvador, Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead fill in a few of the missing details about that election day in March 1982.
In the eighteen-month period leading up the elections, twenty-six journalists were murdered in El Salvador. The only two Salvadoran newspapers critical of the government, La Cronica and El Independiente, were closed in July 1980 and January 1981 respectively. In December 1981 the Salvadoran Communal Union reported that eighty-three of its members had been murdered by government security forces and death squads. The entire six-person top leadership of the main opposition party, the FDR, was seized by government security forces in 1980, tortured, murdered and mutilated. More generally, any left-wing political leader or organiser who gained any kind of prominence in El Salvador in the years 1980-83 was liable to be murdered. Between October 1979 and March 1982, killings of ordinary citizens occurred at the average rate of over 800 per month, on conservative estimates.
To put this level of violence in perspective, Herman and Brodhead converted the figures to a country with the population size of the United States. Doing so, they report, “allows us to imagine an election in the United States preceded by the murder of a thousand-odd officials of the Democratic Party; 5,000 labour leaders; 1,200 journalists; and a million ordinary citizens. Internal and external refugee numbers in El Salvador would correspond to a US equivalent of over 30 million refugees”. (Herman and Brodhead, p.124)
In reality the “triumph” was a grotesque fraud; one that took place in the context of a campaign of violence and intimidation on a scale barely imaginable to us in the West – violence which made the election utterly meaningless, quite regardless of what was seen to happen on the day itself.
The point is not to suggest that Iraq will necessarily be subjected to this level of violence and terror in the aftermath of ‘liberation’ – although such a fate did befall Iran following the US/UK ‘liberation’ in 1953 – but to suggest that if even this level of horror can be passed off as a “triumph” for democracy, then we can certainly expect the same to be possible in Iraq.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to the heads of BBC news and ITN expressing your views:
Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news. Email: [email protected]
Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering. Email: [email protected]
Write to the editors of The Guardian and The Observer: Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor Email: [email protected]
Roger Alton, Observer editor Email: [email protected]
Simon Kelner, Independent editor Email: [email protected]
Leonard Doyle, Independent foreign editor Email: [email protected]
Feel free to respond to Media Lens alerts: [email protected]
Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.medialens.org