REVIEW | San Francisco Bay Guardian| May 25, 2005
Lie down with lions
A media critic examines the media-military love affair
By Tom Gallagher
America's freedoms remain the envy of many. Our press is largely free to disseminate the truth. It is not, however, required to do so. Our citizens are free to speak the truth, but our government officials are also free to distort it. Eventually the truth will out, though; as Norman Solomon's new book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, makes all too clear, the deceptions used to justify wars from Vietnam to Iraq are now matters of public record. "But war happens in the interim," Solomon, a media critic and Bay Guardian contributor, reminds us.
:We Americans are the ultimate innocents," journalist Sydney Schanberg once wrote. "We are forever desperate to believe that this time the government is telling us the truth." War Made Easy recounts the deceptions, lies, half-truths, shoddy reporting, and news media boosterism that have passed for the truth and facilitated the past 40 years of American military interventions.
Although the Village Voice exposed the first "Bush administration's role in building up Saddam Hussein's financial and military power" a month before the Gulf War, Solomon notes, few noticed because the major media outlets ignored it until Nightline ran the story a year too late. In between, the equation of Hussein to Adolf Hitler that would be used to justify two wars became a political and media commonplace – and war happened. Panama's Manuel Noriega had already made a similar transition. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger explained that the Florida drug-trafficking indictment of America's once-useful ally and puppet demonstrated Noriega's "aggression as surely as Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland 50 years ago was aggression." And presto – our invading army soon reported the discovery of Noriega's personal cocaine stash, although the press would also report (32 days later and with considerably less vigor) that "the supposed cocaine was actually tamales wrapped in banana leaves."
Commentator Cokie Roberts once described her relationship to the military as follows: "I am, I will just confess to you, a total sucker for the guys who stand up with all the ribbons on and stuff.... when they say stuff, I tend to believe it." Roberts, a regular on National Public Radio, an outlet commonly mistaken for left-wing, is not the only journalist whose brain waves have flatlined in wartime. "On a day that two thousand bombing runs occurred over Baghdad," Solomon writes, "anchor Ted Koppel reported: 'Aside from the Scud missile that landed in Tel Aviv earlier, it's been a quiet night in the Middle East.' "
Some are blinded by the beauty of our weapons. A CNN Gulf War correspondent "remarked on the 'sweet beautiful sight' of bombers leaving runways in Saudi Arabia"; CBS reported 'two days of almost picture-perfect assaults.' Others mock innocent victims – Time magazine defined "collateral damage" as "a term meaning dead or wounded civilians who should have picked a safer neighborhood."
Some distinguish themselves for their moral obtuseness even amid this stiff competition. There is, for example, Thomas Friedman, who extols capitalism thrice weekly in his New York Times column and reminds us that "the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist," which "is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps." Do the Geneva Conventions prohibit civilian targets? So what? NATO's bombing targets in Yugoslavia should include "every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road," Friedman wrote. "It should be lights out in Belgrade." The fact that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield is "just a little bit crazy" made Friedman conclude, "That's my guy," which only makes sense for a columnist who has recycled his line "Give war a chance" in print and on TV, from Kosovo to Afghanistan. That the "hidden fist" he loves is likely to dominate world politics for some time is fortunate for Friedman, because were there ever to be criminal proceedings concerning the civilian targeting and other types of military craziness that he encourages, some might conclude that the main difference between his work and that of Nazi-era German propagandist Leni Riefenstahl is that she had talent.
Solomon's political critique encompasses both sides of the last presidential election, from George W. Bush's nearly nonexistent relationship with the truth to the disappointment of John Kerry, a man who, after carefully building a career on the foundation of his prominent opposition to the Vietnam War, managed to squander more political capital than anyone else in recent memory by voting for the Iraq war and citing the official line that "according to intelligence, Iraq has chemical and biological weapons." Bay Area readers, meanwhile, will want to note that it was Rep. Tom Lantos who, during the lead-up to the Gulf War, staged the event at which a 15-year-old girl spun the now-discredited story of Iraqi soldiers tossing newborn babies out of incubators. He knew the girl was actually the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States but did not tell.
As War Made Easy illustrates, we have wars for every sensibility. Wars prosecuted by Democratic administrations include Kosovo, when we bombed Yugoslavia for two months before the Washington Post would report the poison pill the Clinton administration inserted into the proposed Rambouillet peace agreement to ensure that the Serbs would refuse to sign it and that, therefore, there would be war; the clause would have "allowed the [exclusively NATO] peacekeepers to go wherever they wanted and do whatever they wanted throughout Yugoslavia, not just in Kosovo." And there've been Republican wars like the covertly and illegally American-funded Contra war in Nicaragua, a country that reminded Secretary of State George Schultz of – you guessed it – "Nazi Germany." There are so many flavors of war, in fact, as to make you feel like there's something wrong with you if you don't like at least a few.
No book can improve the past, of course. Solomon aims to make the next war – Iran, perhaps – just a little bit harder to pull off. And there is even a more immediate goal. While it's unlikely that many of this book's readers will be among the 44 percent of Americans one poll found still believing Saddam Hussein to be "personally involved in 9/11" two months after the official 9/11 commission reported "no credible evidence" of such a charge, some – even some who opposed the war at the outset – may have been seduced by what Solomon describes as the notion that Òthe occupation that resulted from an entirely illegitimate invasion should be seen as entirely legitimate." If the words that come to mind when you close this book are "Out now!" Solomon has succeeded.
Tom Gallagher is a writer who lives in San Francisco and a frequent contributor to Lit.
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