“People always think something’s all true.” —Holden Caulfield
When a wonderful program like Democracy Now does a story on the White Helmets in Syria, the problem is not that the White Helmets don’t exist, or that they’re not rescuing anyone, or that they’re actually filmed in Los Angeles — all of which is ridiculously untrue.
The problem is that the guest who’s on Democracy Now to promote the rescuers repeatedly claims that the war in Syria consists of people being slaughtered by Syria and Russia — and nothing else. And nobody corrects that. There is no mention of people killed by U.S. bombs or by U.S. weapons given to fighters on the ground.
The problem is that the White Helmets’ partners, media allies, and funders promote a one-sided story and, far from working for peace, promote an escalation of the war, demanding a “No Fly Zone” from which to work for the overthrow of the government. In fact, the U.S. government gave the White Helmets $23 million with which to work on “transition” to a different government.
It’s good media practice to reveal funders. We protest when retired generals go on CNN to push for war without revealing their financial ties to weapons makers. We should protest when promoters of the White Helmets go on TV without revealing that they’re funded by Western governments, including the U.S. government which has been pushing for the overthrow of Syria for years.
Now, when the U.S. government funds something good, we ought to celebrate that. A color revolution in someplace like Serbia that develops creative new techniques and nonviolently overthrows a dictator to create a more democratic country is not wholly evil because the U.S. government supported it. But neither should we blind ourselves to that support or its motivations.
And when those motivations, at the highest levels of the U.S. government, appear disreputable, that of course does not tell us the motivations of all the staff people and volunteers involved. The U.S. government’s dishonest demonization of someone like Milosevic doesn’t make him a beloved and law-abiding leader. The U.S. facilitation of a coup in Ukraine doesn’t mean there weren’t Ukrainians with good grievances. The world is just not a simple place.
When it comes to Syria we need to recognize that many people in Syria had and have legitimate grievances against their government, and that the United States and allies have been working for many years now to overthrow the Syrian government, and that U.S. actions in Iraq and Libya and Syria have played a huge role in creating the current disaster, and that Russia and Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Qatar and Iran and ISIS and al Nusra and other “extremist” mass murderers and “moderate” mass murderers and the United States and Syria have Syrian blood up to their shoulders.
We also need to recognize that there are a lot of people trying to help, trying to make things better. And their good work should not be used, with or without their consent, as propaganda for further escalation of the killing and destruction. The way to peace does not lie through greater war. And greater war is the goal of the organized demonization of one side, of the manufacturing of selective outrage. On the contrary, the way to peace lies through taking a different approach entirely, an approach that faces all of the facts and treats as the enemy, not this side of the war or that side of the war, but the institution of war.
ISIS uses U.S. weapons which the U.S. continues supplying to fighters in Syria who are trying to overthrow the government. Meanwhile Russia is backing the government against those fighters. In that context, the U.S. and Russia are proposing to work together while threatening each other. These are nuclear nations. What we need is not slick demonization of one side through appeals to our humanitarian concerns, but disarmament, cease-fire, and actual aid on a much greater scale.
The spokespeople for the White Helmets say they don’t work in government controlled areas because the government will not let them. That may be true. And it may be true because of suspicions that are easy to understand. But it is also probably true that if the White Helmets were making movies of themselves rescuing people on that side of the war, much of their funding would dry up.
Remember that the U.S. government tried to make a case for bombing Syria in 2013 by claiming that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. President Obama claimed to have solid evidence of that, which three years later we still haven’t seen. The public prevented that escalation. But a year later, following the release of ISIS videos, the U.S. public put up little resistance to the U.S. entering the war on multiple sides, including the opposite side from what it had advertised for in 2013.
But the U.S. government was stuck with a problem. How to direct the war against Syria when the U.S. public seemed not to be upset about Syria at all but seemed willing to be scared entirely out of its mind about ISIS? For the past two years we’ve witnessed campaigns aimed at demonizing Assad and Putin. That the White Helmets are saving lives doesn’t change the fact that they are part of those campaigns. We need to observe them with open eyes.
There is, after all, a potential for support of the White Helmets to backfire against war mongers. If the general public caught on that nonviolent aid is the decent, effective, noble, and heroic path, perhaps the U.S. government would shift more than a tiny fraction of a percent of its Syria budget to that approach. If actual humanitarian aid and unarmed civilian peacework (and videography) were scaled up and done in an actually neutral manner, war would end — and the White Helmets would have shown the way.