April 1, 2003
This war is different. No, really. When President
Bush spoke of a new kind of war right after 9/11, he meant
that fighting stateless terrorists would call for new methods to counter a
new kind of enemy. But now he is merely continuing his fathers
conventional war against another state, Iraq.
But Bush has also announced an
ambitious new war aim: the creation of democracy
throughout the Middle East, bringing peace and stability to the region. Of
course this means pro-American democracies, agreeable to the United
States and Israel.
That goal was always highly
improbable. Western institutions cant simply be transplanted into
the Muslim world, as anyone in his right mind knows. And Bush has already
made it even harder than ever with his violent invasion of Iraq.
Democracy has been defined as
rule by publicity that is, by the mass media. If
youre going to win the hearts and minds of the people, you have to
do it with the news media.
As in the first Gulf War, the U.S.
Government has reasonably firm control of the American media. This is no
longer called censorship; the new term is message discipline.
American reporters are embedded in the military
expedition, trusted to support the official perspective.
Ostensibly the purpose of
censorship is to protect military secrets from the enemy, but the real
purpose is propagandistic, as message discipline implies. The
media are expected to put out the American message. Thats why we
are seeing so many pictures of U.S. Marines carrying little Iraqi children.
Awww. Youd think our troops had been sent on a child-care
mission, and that The Marines Hymn had been
replaced by Brahmss Lullaby.
But this war is different, because the U.S. Government controls
only the American media. This time the war is also being covered by
alternative media, notably Arab media like Al-Jazeera. The American
media monopoly is gone. Most of the world is watching the war through
What the world sees is not
Marines cuddling children and trying to avoid civilian casualties, but the
casualties themselves: dead and mangled Arab women and children. It sees
brave young Arab soldiers desperately fighting a mighty invader. It sees
Donald Rumsfeld holding a press briefing on a split screen, the other half
of which shows a wounded girl in a hospital bed. It doesnt see
Iraqis joyfully welcoming their American liberators,as
Bush led us to expect.
The Arab coverage also shames
the American media into showing the war more candidly. The April 7
Newsweek features a color photo of a small Iraqi girl with
blood flowing from what had been her right eye. How can the U.S.
Government neutralize a picture like that? There are no photos of little
American girls whose eyes have been shot out by Iraqis.
Horrors abound a
devastated marketplace, a van full of women and children shot dead for
running a checkpoint. Its no use trying to supply
context or perspective to soften these
images. Accidents or not, they are the natural results of the war of
choice the United States has chosen and chosen in the teeth
of worldwide opposition and warnings that such things were bound to
The Bush administration
continues to insist that the military war is going well, according to plan.
But nobody doubted American military superiority. What is surprising is
that the administration is already on the defensive. And no victory will
erase the memories of the innocent victims. Even if you expected and
predicted them, the actual images are still shocking.
Bushs goal of a postwar
Middle East happily reconciled to the United States depends on winning not
only the military war, but the propaganda war as well; and the propaganda
war has already been lost. It has been lost as lopsidedly, and as early, as
the military war was supposed to be won.
If the United States is going to
dominate the Middle East, it will have to do so by raw force, suppressing
huge hostile populations the way Israel suppresses the Palestinians. If the
West Bank has been a severe headache for Israel for decades, imagine
turning the whole region into a mega-West Bank!
Even if the American people
support the current war, will they have the stomach for an endless
aftermath of resistance and suppression?