Originally published in Counterpunch Volume 24 Number 3
The idea that the United States has a problem with war propaganda is typically scratched in a bad-apples manner with a story that the U.S. has set up a new propaganda agency, such as the Global Engagement Center, or hired a company, such as the Lincoln Group, to plant articles in foreign media. Or we’ll read a report that former generals are secretly picking up their talking points from the Pentagon and their income from weapons companies while appearing as objective commenters on television. Or occasionally we’ll hear the recognition that some particularly obvious or disproven set of lies (such as those regarding Iraq in 2003) were the result of a well-meaning slip-up.
But how do we explain the failure of any significant section of the population in the foreign country involved to start believing the planted articles? The U.S. public would have believed them. They were printed in the newspaper and looked completely official. How do we explain that the former generals quietly on the take are indistinguishable from any of the other “experts” discussing foreign affairs on CNN? If those bribed to promote war sound just like everyone else, is the bribery the primary problem? How do we come to terms with President George W. Bush’s pre-war proposal to Tony Blair that they paint a plane with UN colors and fly it low hoping to get it shot at, or his post-war remark that it really didn’t matter if any of the claims made about Saddam Hussein were true or not? If that’s a well-meaning slip-up, what does all-out malevolence look like?
When the Rendon Group manufactured the story of the heroic rescue of Jessica Lynch, it looked just like all the Hollywood movies made in collaboration with the Pentagon, and also just about like virtually all of the Hollywood movies made without any such input. When Donald Trump threatens to bomb some more people, the “journalists” who fall in love with him are falling for adherence to a familiar, expected, and accepted role.
Could it be that we need a 12-step program that begins with the recognition of a deeply entrenched problem, minus the 7 steps that amount to relying on a deity to clean up our mess?
I think so. I think belief in war lies is an addiction, and that those who get hooked do so not so much because of the quality of the lies as because of a predisposition to believe them. War lies have been around for millennia. I wrote a book categorizing them, called War Is A Lie. But why did Colin Powell’s package of war lies at the United Nations look like such obvious fakery to much of the world and appear so solemn and convincing to so many in the United States? War propaganda’s success is not primarily determined by the quality of the propaganda, any more than drug addiction rates are determined principally by the quality of the drugs available. Rather, as logic and scientific studies bear out, basic attitudes produced by fundamental educational practices predispose people to believe or not believe in war lies.
Let’s begin with the obvious. Belief in the justification of a war is quite openly irrational. Unlike other questions of belief, on which people urge us to consider facts, with war we are quite often urged to believe as a matter of duty, obedience, patriotism, and citizenship. Promoters of war lies shamelessly appeal to any existing tendency to believe on command. An insistence on reviewing the facts of the matter is often characterized as support for a designated enemy in the desired war. Asking for evidence that Syria used chemical weapons or Russia attacked Ukraine or Libya threatened a massacre is not met with a presentation of evidence so often as with an accusation of believing that the Syrian, Russian, or Libyan government is a saintly manifestation of heaven that should be assisted in its longstanding goal of slaughtering every U.S. citizen.
When someone accused the coffee corporation Starbucks of not supporting a war, the company went to great lengths to prove that it supported “the troops” and to conflate that with supporting the war, without ever mentioning the slightest justification for or benefit from the war. As thoughtless participation is expected of members of the military, thoughtless war support is the duty of any business not wishing to face the wrath of the warmongers. Asked why it had a coffee shop at the U.S. torture camp at Guantanamo, Starbucks replied that not to have one there would constitute a political statement.
Further evidence that belief in war lies is generally irrational is found in the total disregard by war makers and war supporters for consequences, the desire to blow things up for the sake of blowing them up. A humanitarian war, if such a thing existed, would consider the human costs of the war and calculate how they might be outweighed by some imagined human benefit of the war. Instead, even knowing the costs of a war is widely considered to constitute a demand to end the war and opposition to ever having started it. “We don’t do body counts!” explained General Tommy Franks.
A rational decision to drop a giant bomb on Afghanistan would be part of some sort of plan to accomplish something or other beyond purely dropping the bomb. When Hillary Clinton laughed about having killed Muamar Gadaffi, she wasn’t expressing some rational decision of necessary evil for the greater good, but an irrational urge — and the consequences for the people of Libya and the world be damned. When Madeleine Albright claimed killing a half-million children was “worth it” she clearly meant that anything at all was “worth it,” not that she’d figured out a way to save 500,001 or more kids by killing 500,000 of them. When Donald Trump proposes to kill more families, it is not because there exists any evidence of anything humanitarian or even profitable resulting from such action. The point is purely and simply to kill more families, or at least to start speaking more about all the families being killed.
War lies are not only accepted as a matter of duty, but identified with as a matter of pride in a conception of one’s self. Freedom isn’t free, these colors do not run, I support the troops, and this brain will not tolerate opposition to mass murder when that sacred crime is committed by the U.S. military. Remember that believers in Iraq WMDs were shown evidence to the contrary, and as a result strengthened rather than weakened their beliefs in the WMDs. Rationality was not at work here, rather identity — and faith.
A further hurdle for any claim that war justifications can be rationally argued for, or that they are accepted on their own merits, lies in the fact that the claims made regarding atrocities or weapons possession are typically completely irrelevant to any legal, moral, or practical case for the war advocated. If every lie about Iraq or Libya or Syria had been perfectly true, there would have been zero justification for those wars. The United States possesses WMDs, commits atrocities, and uses weapons most of the world has banned or shunned, none of which would justify anyone in bombing the United States. Nor would bombing the United States do any good for anyone living in the United States. (And yet war opponents go on focusing on doubts that the Syrian government really used chemical weapons, rather than opposing the supreme crime of launching war, a crime whose illegality and immorality remain untouched by anyone having used or not used chemical weapons.)
Then there is the problem of acceptance of carefully selected partial and ahistorical information. If your kid comes home from school, your wonderful noble and beloved child, and says “Michael jumped on me and hit me and called me names,” you are likely to ask, without yet drawing any conclusions: “What started that? Did you do anything to make him mad at you?” It’s a logical, almost inevitable question. It doesn’t rely on acceptance of Michael’s violence. It doesn’t assign blame or innocence. It just suggests that the universe is often comprehensible, that effects often have identifiable causes. But when North Korea builds a nuclear weapon or test fires a missile, it is almost a patriotic duty in the United States to banish from one’s mind any question of context.
Certainly we can blame the U.S. propaganda system for its careful omission of context and selection of news. That North Korea complied with an agreement to halt its nuclear weapons program until U.S. President George W. Bush tossed that agreement out and declared North Korea part of an axis of evil, and destroyed another member of that axis, might have been missed because you were shopping at the time or because U.S. media outlets were focused on the exciting destruction of Iraq. That North Korea has repeatedly proposed to halt its nuke program if the U.S. and South Korea will stop practicing to bomb the North hasn’t been widely reported. What the U.S. did to North Korea during the Korean War or that the war has never been officially ended or that the U.S. has been building up all kinds of weaponry in South Korea that North Korea and China see as threatening may be easy to miss. But not to even ask is inexcusable. The U.S. tests missiles all the time. Yet when North Korea tests a missile the U.S. media loses its collective mind. Why not ask for an explanation of the double standard? Why not ask what motivated, rightly or wrongly, North Korea to commit such an outrage? Not to ask is to want to not know.
This is a typical progression of information. The United States arms and props up a dictator, outsources torture to him, and buys his fossil fuels for years. But you’re watching football or busy working, so you miss most of that. Then the U.S. begins threatening an overthrow, and you’re in support of that but want to know a good reason in order to make the peaceniks see the light. The dictator makes all sorts of pleas for nonviolent resolution, the rule of law, a chance to stay in power and alive. But there’s a U.S. election on, so you can’t be expected to notice. Then the U.S. accuses the dictator of having killed his own people with an uncivilized weapon or of having repressed women’s rights or of having devised a doomsday machine. Instantly you’re a fully informed pundit on world affairs prepared to denounce any request for independent verification of the claims and to explain that, as former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese put it in a domestic context, if you’re accused of a crime then you’re not innocent.
While supporters of war can often be spotted waving flags and shouting in ecstasy, they will almost universally tell you that each war is a last resort. This is true even among the vast majority of them in the United States who cannot list for you each of the current U.S. wars. In fact, it’s proven quite easy for Youtube to fill up with videos of good Americans solemnly informing us that bombing some fictional nation they’ve been asked about is absolutely necessary and unavoidable. Spy magazine once asked Congress Members if Freedonia needed to be bombed. Jay Inslee was one Congress Member who assured them that it did.
Studies have found that U.S. citizens typically assume, quite nonsensically as well as falsely, that any war has been launched only after having exhausted all alternatives. This is nonsensical because it is always possible to propose another alternative. It’s false because arriving at an actual war requires actively fending off every opportunity for peace — and fending off recognition or understanding of doing so.
In the case of Syria, the United States has spent years sabotaging U.N. attempts at peace, while on the contrary fueling the war. To imagine the U.S. riding in to rescue the hopelessly violent (and somehow armed with U.S.-made weapons) from themselves requires avoiding any knowledge that the United States dismissed out of hand a Russian peace proposal for Syria in 2012, as it had done others before it. Supposedly the United States is killing people with drones as a last resort, even though in that minority of cases in which the United States knows the names of the people it is aiming for, many (if not all) of them indisputably could have been easily arrested. Before it could attack Libya in 2011, the U.S. had to fend off a plan for peace advanced by the African Union.
Prior to the 2003 attack on Iraq, the Iraqi government had approached the CIA’s Vincent Cannistrato to offer to let U.S. troops search the entire country. The Iraqi government had offered to hold internationally monitored elections within two years, and offered Bush official Richard Perle to open the whole country to inspections, to turn over a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to help fight terrorism, and to favor U.S. oil companies. Hussein offered, in the account that the president of Spain was given by the U.S. president, to simply leave Iraq if he could keep $1 billion. Similar accounts of avoiding peace at all costs can be given for the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in 2001 or the First Gulf War or the war on Vietnam or that on Mexico or that on the Spanish empire and the Philippines, etc.
Then there’s the problem of wars that don’t happen. They’ve also always been marketed as a last resort. But when they’re prevented — as was the proposed bombing of Syria in 2013 — some other resort is pursued instead. Numerous U.S. Congress Members said in 2015 that the nuclear deal with Iran needed to be rejected and Iran attacked as a last resort, until the deal wasn’t rejected. No mention was made in 2015 of Iran’s 2003 offer to negotiate away its nuclear program, an offer that had been quickly scorned by the United States.
Are you yet persuaded that war support requires not a type of thinking but the absence thereof? Consider that each new war depends on having learned no lessons from any of the previous ones. Find a supporter — it’s not hard — of the idea that the U.S. government lies from morning to night about all non-war topics, and ask them for an explanation of how the topic of war functions as a truth serum. Or do this: review the opinion polls on a war that hasn’t yet happened (as was at the time the proposal to bomb Syria in 2013) and something that has already been done (such as the U.S. bombing of an air strip in Syria in 2017). When something has already happened, millions of people find that they support it, regardless of any coherent rationale, even as the same people tell pollsters that they don’t want any more bombing to occur.
Or consider this: statistically, women are less supportive of wars than are men. Nobody has explained this as the result of greater or lesser intelligence or information or insight or wisdom. Rather it is indisputably, as common sense and studies I’ll come to in a second both establish, a question of levels of acceptance of war in general playing out on the question of a particular war.
Or consider the important role played by fear. In 2013 millions of people across the U.S. political spectrum opposed bombing Syria, many objecting to the U.S. entering (as if not already in it) a war on the same side as al Qaeda. In 2014, following the release of frightening ISIS videos, millions of the same people supported escalating U.S. involvement in that war, despite the official explanations from the U.S. government making clear that it was participating in the war on both sides. Fear appears to increase acceptance of war and of illogic in general.
Or observe the growing opposition in the U.S. public to Israeli wars that is not matched by any similar consideration of the problem of U.S. wars. A similar gap can be found between the war support of many Americans when the U.S. president belongs to one party and when he (or a hoped-for she) belongs to another. Asking many supporters of bombing a predominantly dark-skinned country where a terrorist incident has occurred whether they’d support bombing a European country in similar circumstances can be equally revealing.
Richard C. Eichenberg and Richard Stoll recently published an academic article titled “The Acceptability of War and Support for Defense Spending: Evidence from Fourteen Democracies, 2004–2013,” put into straightforward English by the War Prevention Initiative. In addition to other studies reviewed, people in 14 countries were asked annually “Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following—Under some conditions war is necessary to obtain justice.”
“In survey responses from all countries, when paired against current events or short-term threats, people’s attitudes towards war were more strongly and consistently related to their fundamental values and life experience. As an example, although respondents considered the extent to which they viewed the Iran nuclear program or China, for instance, as military threats, these threat assessments did not play as important a role in the formation of their attitudes on war and defense spending as did their beliefs, values, and experiences. Gender was also a strong factor. . . . The United States was found to be the . . . society whose citizens accepted war as an instrument of their foreign policy the most.”
This lines up with a 2013 Gallup poll in dozens of countries that found a relatively high percentage of respondents in the United States claiming that they “would” fight in a war for their country (as if there weren’t a half-dozen wars available to join if they really wanted to).
It also lines up with the geographic and academic presence of the alternative system of facts known as “just war theory.” I wrote a book rejecting that whole field, called War Is Never Just, and sent it with friends to discussions at the Vatican of whether the Catholic Church should finally reject one of its most destructive creations. The most interesting feedback I received was the report that members of the Catholic Church from outside the Western world had never actually heard of “just war theory” — a creation, after all, of empire.
The skillful propagandizing of the U.S. public, with many of those techniques dating back to the government propaganda effort during World War I has, no doubt, played a major role. Yet I suspect that, not only is the general culture and the system of childhood education more at fault than particular propaganda in any given case, but the problem also dates to much earlier than World War I in a country that grew out of colonies founded on the basis of war.
The lesson to be drawn by the fact-based community from the irrationality of war support is not that all is hopeless, but that
- the danger is greater than might be imagined, as much war support knows no limits — a danger that grows with every day that the U.S. government works toward the deployment of more and smaller and “more usable” first-strike nuclear weapons; and
- key to building resistance to each particular war is educating young and old people to oppose the entire institution of war.
I recently spoke to a college class and asked them to name some justified wars. It absolutely made my day that for the first time in my experience nobody said “World War II.” But they did say “the revolution” as if there had only ever been one, and “the civil war” as if these young people had had the good fortune to be born into the one country where both of the justifiable wars in world history had happened. This line of thinking is no different from imagining one’s parents, by virtue of being one’s parents, to have possessed and bestowed on you the one true religion.
When a Florida school district this past year announced that it would evict from its sporting events anyone who failed to properly honor the U.S. flag, it was engaging in a policy of holy excommunication, and it was doing as much or more for the support of coming wars as any forged documents that any future Karl Rove might commission.