Real First Casualty Of War
By John Pilger
21 April, 2006
the 1970s, I filmed secretly in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist dictatorship.
The dissident novelist Zdenek Urbánek told me, "In one respect,
we are more fortunate than you in the west. We believe nothing of what
we read in the newspapers and watch on television, nothing of the official
truth. Unlike you, we have learned to read between the lines, because
real truth is always subversive."
This acute skepticism, this
skill of reading between the lines, is urgently needed in supposedly
free societies today. Take the reporting of state-sponsored war. The
oldest cliché is that truth is the first casualty of war. I disagree.
Journalism is the first casualty. Not only that: it has become a weapon
of war, a virulent censorship that goes unrecognized in the United States,
Britain, and other democracies; censorship by omission, whose power
is such that, in war, it can mean the difference between life and death
for people in faraway countries, such as Iraq.
As a journalist for more
than 40 years, I have tried to understand how this works. In the aftermath
of the U.S. war in Vietnam, which I reported, the policy in Washington
was revenge, a word frequently used in private but never publicly. A
medieval embargo was imposed on Vietnam and Cambodia; the Thatcher government
cut off supplies of milk to the children of Vietnam. This assault on
the very fabric of life in two of the world's most stricken societies
was rarely reported; the consequence was mass suffering.
It was during this time that
I made a series of documentaries about Cambodia. The first, in 1979,
Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, described the American bombing
that had provided a catalyst for the rise of Pol Pot, and showed the
shocking human effects of the embargo. Year Zero was broadcast in some
60 countries, but never in the United States. When I flew to Washington
and offered it to the national public broadcaster, PBS, I received a
curious reaction. PBS executives were shocked by the film, and spoke
admiringly of it, even as they collectively shook their heads. One of
them said: "John, we are disturbed that your film says the United
States played such a destructive role, so we have decided to call in
a journalistic adjudicator."
The term "journalistic
adjudicator" was out of Orwell. PBS appointed one Richard Dudman,
a reporter on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and one of the few Westerners
to have been invited by Pol Pot to visit Cambodia. His dispatches reflected
none of the savagery then enveloping that country; he even praised his
hosts. Not surprisingly, he gave my film the thumbs-down. One of the
PBS executives confided to me: "These are difficult days under
Ronald Reagan. Your film would have given us problems."
The lack of truth about what
had really happened in southeast Asia – the media-promoted myth
of a "blunder" and the suppression of the true scale of civilian
casualties and of routine mass murder, even the word "invasion"
– allowed Reagan to launch a second "noble cause" in
central America. The target was another impoverished nation without
resources: Nicaragua, whose "threat," like Vietnam's, was
in trying to establish a model of development different from that of
the colonial dictatorships backed by Washington. Nicaragua was crushed,
thanks in no small part to leading American journalists, conservative
and liberal, who suppressed the triumphs of the Sandinistas and encouraged
a specious debate about a "threat."
The tragedy in Iraq is different,
but, for journalists, there are haunting similarities. On Aug. 24 last
year, a New York Times editorial declared: "If we had all known
then what we know now, the invasion [of Iraq] would have been stopped
by a popular outcry." This amazing admission was saying, in effect,
that the invasion would never have happened if journalists had not betrayed
the public by accepting and amplifying and echoing the lies of Bush
and Blair, instead of challenging and exposing them.
We now know that the BBC
and other British media were used by MI6, the secret intelligence service.
In what was called "Operation Mass Appeal," MI6 agents planted
stories about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction – such
as weapons hidden in his palaces and in secret underground bunkers.
All these stories were fake. But this is not the point. The point is
that the dark deeds of MI6 were quite unnecessary. Recently, the BBC's
director of news, Helen Boaden, was asked to explain how one of her
"embedded" reporters in Iraq, having accepted U.S. denials
of the use of chemical weapons against civilians, could possibly describe
the aim of the Anglo-American invasion as to "bring democracy and
human rights" to Iraq. She replied with quotations from Blair that
this was indeed the aim, as if Blair's utterances and the truth were
in any way related. On the third anniversary of the invasion, a BBC
newsreader described this illegal, unprovoked act, based on lies, as
a "miscalculation." Thus, to use Edward Herman's memorable
phrase, the unthinkable was normalized.
Such servility to state power
is hotly denied, yet routine. Almost the entire British media has omitted
the true figure of Iraqi civilian casualties, willfully ignoring or
attempting to discredit respectable studies. "Making conservative
assumptions," wrote the researchers from the eminent Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health, working with Iraqi scholars, "we
think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more, have happened since
the 2003 invasion of Iraq … which were primarily the result of
military actions by coalition forces. Most of those killed by coalition
forces were women and children…." That was Oct. 29, 2004.
Today, the figure has doubled.
Language is perhaps the most
crucial battleground. Noble words such as "democracy," "liberation,"
"freedom," and "reform" have been emptied of their
true meaning and refilled by the enemies of those concepts. The counterfeits
dominate the news, along with dishonest political labels, such as "left
of center," a favorite given to warlords such as Blair and Bill
Clinton; it means the opposite. "War on terror" is a fake
metaphor that insults our intelligence. We are not at war. Instead,
our troops are fighting insurrections in countries where our invasions
have caused mayhem and grief, the evidence and images of which are suppressed.
How many people know that, in revenge for 3,000 innocent lives taken
on Sept. 11, 2001, up to 20,000 innocent people died in Afghanistan?
In reclaiming the honor of
our craft, not to mention the truth, we journalists at least need to
understand the historic task to which we are assigned – that is,
to report the rest of humanity in terms of its usefulness, or otherwise,
to "us," and to soften up the public for rapacious attacks
on countries that are no threat to us. We soften them up by dehumanizing
them, by writing about "regime change" in Iran as if that
country were an abstraction, not a human society. Hugo Chávez's
Venezuela is currently being softened up on both sides of the Atlantic.
A few weeks ago, Channel 4 news carried a major item that might have
been broadcast by the U.S. State Department. The reporter, Jonathan
Rugman, the program's Washington correspondent, presented Chávez
as a cartoon character, a sinister buffoon whose folksy Latin ways disguised
a man "in danger of joining a rogues' gallery of dictators and
despots – Washington's latest Latin nightmare." In contrast,
Condoleezza Rice was given gravitas and Donald Rumsfeld was allowed
to compare Chávez to Hitler.
Indeed, almost everything in this travesty of journalism was viewed
from Washington, and only fragments of it from the barrios of Venezuela,
where Chávez enjoys 80 percent popularity. That he had won nine
democratic elections and referendums – a world record –
was omitted. In crude Soviet flick style, he was shown with the likes
of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, though these brief encounters
had to do with OPEC and oil only. According to Rugman, Venezuela under
Chávez is helping Iran develop nuclear weapons. No evidence was
given for this absurdity. People watching would have no idea that Venezuela
was the only oil-producing country in the world to use its oil revenue
for the benefit of poor people. They would have no idea of spectacular
developments in health, education, literacy; no idea that Venezuela
has no political jails – unlike the United States.
So if the Bush administration
moves to implement "Operation Bilbao," a contingency plan
to overthrow the democratic government of Venezuela, who will care,
because who will know? For we shall have only the media version; another
demon will get what is coming to him. The poor of Venezuela, like the
poor of Nicaragua, and the poor of Vietnam and countless other faraway
places, whose dreams and lives are of no interest, will be invisible
in their grief: a triumph of censorship by journalism.
It is said that the Internet
offers an alternative, and what is wonderful about the rebellious spirits
on the World Wide Web is that they often report as many journalists
should. They are mavericks in the tradition of muckrakers such as Claud
Cockburn, who said: "Never believe anything until it has been officially
denied." But the Internet is still a kind of samizdat, an underground,
and most of humanity does not log on, just as most of humanity does
not own a mobile phone. And the right to know ought to be universal.
That other great muckraker, Tom Paine, warned that if the majority of
the people were being denied the truth and ideas of truth, it was time
to storm what he called the "Bastille of words." That time
This is an abridged version
of an address, "Reporting War and Empire," by John Pilger
at Columbia University, New York, in company with Seymour Hersh, Robert
Fisk, and Charles Glass.