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War, media, propaganda and language: Coalition of the Killing

`Coalition of the willing', `precision bombing', `surgical strikes', `decapitating the regime', `friendly fire' ... the list of terms could go on. In an analysis of the propaganda war in Iraq, and placing it in a historical context, award-winning journalist P. SAINATH looks at how the language in war journalism has become debased.

"IT looks like it's a bombing of a city, but it isn't," Donald Rumsfeld told admiring media hacks. The bombardment was truly precise, he said. The altitude and angles were calculated to minimise harm to civilians. This, as 2,000 and 5,000-pound bombs and hundreds of missiles pulverised Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Those were the early days of the war.

There was nothing new in that sort of humbug, though. It happened with Hiroshima, too. Brigadier General Thomas Farrell — a scientist — sold the media similar moonshine about Little Boy and Fat Man. The atomic bombs, he told his captive hacks in Tokyo in 1945, were exploded at a "specifically calculated altitude" to "exclude any possibility of residual radiation." You couldn't get more humane than that.

A team of American reporters visited Hiroshima nearly a month after the atomic blasts. On winding up their military-guided tour, these investigative journalists did more than just sell Farrell's line. They "expressed satisfaction with the complete destruction of the city," as the committee compiling materials on the A-blasts would later record.

A few days after the touring hacks had done their bit in 1945, The New York Times chipped in with its own. It carried a story asserting: "No radioactivity in the ruins of Hiroshima." And just days later, the U.S. government, cheered by such embedded loyalty, went further. It denied officially that radiation was harmful.

Little that's new happens in war propaganda. It just happens in different places. The media, though, do invent new ways of using language. Or, to borrow a phrase currently hip in Pentagonese, new ways of "degrading" the language.

In 1965, when the Americans used deadly gas against the Vietnamese — civilian and military — Time magazine praised this as "non-lethal gas warfare". So did much of the other corporate media crowd. That warfare is by definition lethal didn't matter. The magazine lashed out at those making the "noisiest and hysterical protests." Time concluded that compared to weapons like napalm, "these temporarily disabling gases seem more humane than horrible". Napalm, by the way, was also used by the Americans against Vietnamese civilians. But Time did not dwell on that in its report.

In the early part of the 20th Century, when classic colonialism held sway and barbarians knew their place, the British were more honest about these things. "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes," Winston Churchill said. "The moral effect should be good ... and it would spread a lively terror ...." He was commenting on the British use of poison gas against the Iraqis after World War I.

Today the BBC paints British soldiers around Basra as so many Marine Mother Teresas. In a world of more democratic pressures, it's hard for Blair to be truly Churchillian. Lying comes easier to him. In our time, propaganda has to show that poison gas, far from creating a lively terror, is good for the Iraqis. In due course, they will thank us for it. The media are the means by which that line has to be sold. In the United States, when the corporate-owned media sense profits, they strain at the leash to sell the line better.

General Electric, one of the planet's largest military contractors, owns the NBC television network. Other armament companies own, or are closely linked to a slew of other media outlets. The military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned of is now a military-media-industrial complex. That such media will serve their bosses as best as they can should not surprise us. In Bush's Coalition, they are the Most Willing.

The emphasis now is on suggesting that "Coalition" control of Baghdad, and "regime change" when that happens, ends the conflict. Really? A glance at Afghanistan, where Kabul "fell" a long time ago, argues otherwise. And the media now covering Iraq know it. "President" Hamid Karzai has to be guarded by Americans. No Afghan can be trusted not to gun him down. The bloody deaths of civilians goes on and on.

There too, "precision" was, and is, on vivid display. By generating wrong GPS coordinates, the Americans nearly blew away Karzai, their own man, during the war. U.S. missiles hit villages in Pakistan. And wedding parties have been blown to bits by U.S. aircraft.

"Coalition," by the way is another term "degraded" in the present war. This coalition includes the likes of Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Estonia among others.

The "weapons of mass destruction" that British troops in Iraq fear the most are those in the hands of Blair's U.S. buddies. The BBC did a moving, solemn production number on the return home of the first nine British war dead. They did not emphasise, though, that most of these unfortunate men had been slaughtered by Americans. "Friendly fire" is now too sickening a term to even make fun of, anymore.

Indeed, in Pappy Bush's Gulf War of 1991, the Americans killed more British troops than the Iraqis did. But their "surgical strikes", didn't spare their own, either. As journalist Michael Moran points out: "Friendly fire by American forces killed one quarter of all the U.S. troops who died in that war." Thirty-five of the 146 Americans killed in the (1991) Gulf War were slain by their own side.

The latest burst of friendly fire in this war has killed 18 Kurdish soldiers — U.S. allies — and some U.S. Special Forces men with them.

If that's what the precise surgical strikes did to their own side, it's frightening to imagine what is happening now to Iraqi civilians.

In the first two weeks of this war, those incredibly precise missiles landed in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and killed Syrians on that country's border with Iraq. A convoy evacuating the Russian Ambassador and other diplomats from Baghdad (who had sought and been guaranteed protection) was bombed by the Americans. In Iraq, they had killed hundreds of civilians in just the first two weeks. Maybe far, far more. The Iraqis too, had an interest in lying about the actual scale of death for fear of public demoralisation. Yet, even when many civilian deaths are confirmed, the lies continue: The Iraqis did it themselves. So what if the bomb that hit the market left behind an identifiable serial number? The Iraqis must have planted that piece of metal.

It's engaging how the myths of "precision bombing" and "surgical strikes" linger despite having been discredited many times in the past. The idea, of course, is that technology in the hands of caring American and British soldiers, helps avoid civilian casualties. For audiences fed on western journalism's instant history of the last week, it might seem novel. Not so. In 1986, a U.S. "surgical strike" on Libya reduced the French Embassy in Tripoli to rubble. The Americans also succeeded in killing Gaddafi's three-year-old daughter — apparently a dangerous terrorist. Then as now, the U.S. struck to "decapitate the regime".

In this war, an astonishing amount of firepower has been directed at everything Iraqi. But most civilians killed become "paramilitary" or soldiers "disguised as civilians". Any residential area flattened was really harbouring the Iraqi military. No one can count the number of "command and control" structures the Coalition of the Killing have taken out. It's as if every Iraqi phone booth destroyed becomes, posthumously, a "command and control structure".

Yet, even after the first two weeks of this war, we saw the embedded press corps mostly parroting on. They still spoke of the "incredibly precise" nature of the bombing though, of course, a "few mistakes will be made".

The repeated whines of some BBC reporters that the British were trying to send in "humanitarian aid" into Basra even while declaring it a "legitimate military target/objective" were nauseating. A people have to be bombed and butchered into accepting humanitarian aid. Their water and food supply has to be destroyed so they might be helped. Many — not embedded with the military — have pointed out that this aid could be delivered by air-dropping food and water instead of bombs. But the embedded ones did not — or were not allowed to — raise this question.

Three weeks into the invasion, we still do not have a picture of the actual numbers of civilians who have died. But we do know that many more will die long after the bombing stops. Their resources destroyed, their water supply devastated, their hospitals bombed, overstrained and collapsing. The International Committee of the Red Cross puts it simply: Casualties in Baghdad are now so high that hospitals have stopped counting the number of people treated. No one has the time to keep statistics.

Already the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has warned that Iraq's winter grain harvest — and the spring planting — could be devastated. That it faces a huge food crisis. (One that will doubtless be met by dumping on a defenceless population GM foods in the name of "food aid").

But for the embedded ones, these are not the issues. Saddam was dead. His televised appearances had been recorded much earlier. (The debates were not about what he said, but whether it was indeed him.) The man on TV was really an actor resembling the Iraqi dictator. (The tabloids dug out a woman in Greece claiming to be an ex-mistress of Saddam to back this charge.) There were no U.S. prisoners in Iraqi hands. Several reporters "discovered" chemical "facilities" at Najaf. All these stories swiftly collapsed. (Though, of course, a smoking gun will soon be "found".) But the propaganda offensive kept on.

A captured Iraqi "general" turned out, BBC admitted, to be "an officer of much lower rank" (maybe a sergeant?). "Scuds" that landed in Kuwait were all the rage in the first week. But the story was quietly denied by the Pentagon itself a little later.

Umm Qasr, as veteran journalist Robert Fisk points out, had "fallen", was "captured", then "secured", and "finally under control". All in some 48 hours. But the embedded ones were undaunted. Their job was to wage the psychological war.

Even by the sleazy standards of war journalism, they've plumbed new depths. Yet, the structures and principles of such deceit are quite old. The occasional embarrassment is inevitable. But the mainstream corporate media are far from being a hindrance to Bush's war effort. They are vital to its success.

However unique some of the features of the war in Iraq might be, it is not "totally unprecedented". At least, not in propaganda terms. Many of the techniques used to "report" the war have a long and disgraceful history. As always, there are a few, valiant individual journalists doing their best. Those rare Robert Fisks of the world today. The Wilfred Burchetts of the Hiroshima era. The global corporate media conglomerates that have a vested interest — often a direct financial one — in this war are, however, the main "psy-ops" troops. Media weapons of mass destruction.

Do fake stories coming unstuck mean the eternally embedded media haven't served their side well? Not really. Their role is too important and effective to ignore, especially within the U.S. The much-touted 70 per cent support for the war in the U.S. is based on startling untruths. Lies the American media have either left unchallenged or actively promoted. At least one New York Times/CBS News survey reflects this: As many as 42 per cent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. And, an ABC News poll shows, 55 per cent believe the Iraqi dictator directly supports Al-Qaeda.

That these fictions are believed nowhere in the planet except in the United States is a tribute to the capacity of U.S. corporate media to manipulate their public. So, even as their image takes a beating, don't underestimate their ability to sell war and death. They've been doing it — with some success — for decades.

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