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Words Of War

By Lila Rajiva

08 February, 2007

Sex may sell newspapers, but it is War that buys newsmen and publishers.

For every Eros, there is a Thanatos.

The newsman who until now was agonizing over what might possibly have happened to two four year olds in the lunch room of their preschool, is suddenly breezily indifferent to the starvation, burning, and bombing of hundreds of thousands of children.

For, now he is off on another tack. He has become a steely eyed pupil of Machiavelli. He talks casually about Realpolitik and Geostrategy, as though they he had found them on sale at the local supermarket. He narrows his eyes keenly when he hears the words, National Interest; he can point out Kandahar on a map. He knows the difference between Ayman al-Zawahiri and and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi without Googling.

Now, he is no longer a part of the fourth estate; he is no longer interested in being a watchdog of the people. He has a better paying job. He is an attack dog for the politicians.

Thus, an MIT security studies maven, writing in a column in the Outlook section of the Washington Post, that the new U.S. strategy of paying Iraqi journalists to place stories favorable to the U.S. in the media is perfectly kosher. A reporter, says Michael Schrage, should be helping the military along, not just chattering about it. Even Christopher Hitchens, the latest unlikely adornment to the Potomac militerati, has condemned “story boarding” as a breach of journalistic faith. But Schrage isn’t having any.

“Enough already,” he writes in his piece. “Securing positive coverage for our troops in Iraq can be as important to their safety as "up-armoring" vehicles and providing state-of-the-art body armor. The failure to wage the media war is a failure to command.”

Ah – the media war. Until now we thought the war meant those cluster bombs going off in Baghdad. But we realize we were mistaken. It must have been the blood that got us confused! The real war we now see is on the front pages. Take cover!

The pen pushers are no longer making obscure marks on paper as before. No, they have joined Rommel and Patton. Left and right, they load up their muzzles with dangling modifiers and prepositional clauses and go in like gangbusters. With every well-turned phrase and pithy bon mot, the borders of the empire are pushed further along. In the old days, you at least had to have an arm or leg shot out from under you to corner such glory. But no more.
That is the monumental conceit of it all. The fact is, the average reporter today knows less than ever about what happens on the battle-field. He knows only what he is told by some gas-bag general or reads in some other fellow’s article. His stories are vetted, his questions at press conferences are scripted, his private emails get him censored and thrown out from his assignment. That’s what happened to Farnaz Fassihi, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who happened to voice her opinions about the war to friends.

We even read of one reporter Jeff Gannon, who managed to join the White House Press Corps on the strength of having been a male escort. That is the sort of experience that really counts these days, we imagine.

But resigning himself to being as much in the dark as anyone else would puncture the self-importance of the modern journalist. It simply won’t do. So what does he do? He lets you know that yes, he is simply parroting the military’s line, but so what? That’s what he is supposed to do. If he can’t beat them, he will join them. True, he has been turned into a presstitute, as one wag remarked. But he is a willing one. He revels in it. He is waging war, you see. And so, off he goes, squirting black ink in every direction like a wounded octopus. And the sorry fact is he probably will do more damage this way than at the head of a battalion of Abrams tanks.

Now, if the pundits would only stick to arguing that massaging the news is not a recent development for the military and leave it at that, he would be on strong ground. Fake news is not new. It’s been part of military offensives since Neanderthal man first tricked his neighbor and clubbed him over the head.

The classics are full of such swindles. In the Indian epic, Mahabharatha, Yudhishthira - the eldest of the five Pandava brothers - is a legend for always telling the truth. Then things come to a head during the battle between the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas, who want to usurp their kingdom. The Kauravas have an unstoppable warrior-guru, Drona. But the Pandavas get the bright idea of demoralizing Drona by spreading the lie that his son, Ashvathama, is dead. Ashvathama, it happens, is also the name of an elephant - which really is dead. Until then Yudhishthira had always been so truthful that his chariot wheels never touched the ground; they hovered just above it. Now, he succumbs and allows himself to whisper hoarsely - “Ashvathama, the elephant (sottovoce), is dead.” Drona believes the rumor and dies of a broken heart. The tide turns for the Pandavas, but Yudhishthira’s wheels start hitting the ground like everyone else’s.

So fake news is not new at all. It’s old news. Story-boarding does to the news what water boarding does to prisoners – it persuades them to say what you want to hear. Hoodwinking the enemy on a classical battle-field - which follows its own rules of engagement - is one thing. Bamboozling civilians in modern total warfare is rather different. And swindling the crowd cheering at home is something else altogether.

By that standard, American chariot wheels have not just hit the ground. They have gone through it and are burrowing down into Hades. Story-boarding was directed not at the population in Iraq, which is supposed to be a born-again democracy now anyway. It was aimed at the population back home in the U.S. Journalists who fake new stories are firing on this pathetic home crowd, making it impossible for the lumps to get even the tiniest scrap of real information about the war, even though they were being asked to give up their children for it. They thought they were volunteering to fight for the republic; they didn’t know they were signing up for Aztec child sacrifice.

There are the people who argue that you need to put out spin to counter the other fellow. They did it first, they say. This is a bit thick. America, after all, went jack-booting into Iraq. Iraqis can hardly be expected to keep still about it. If a quarter of a million Arabs flooded Washington D.C and set up camp in the White House, we expect American would not remain mute either. And the Iraqi insurgents, by definition, did not come into existence until after the Second Gulf War in 2003. The U.S., government, on the other hand, had been brewing disinformation in Iraq, well before the first Gulf War.

Still, there’s no denying that the press can do damage. Lots of it. Back in 1990, the fellows in charge of the PR game came from the D.C. firm, Hill & Knowlton, which hatched the first of many fables that took the country down the road to war. Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait were tossing babies out of incubators, they claimed, taking the line from old fibs about the Germans from the World War I. Then they roped in the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter, Nayira, who was at the time was no where in the vicinity. It was her tear-jerking I-was-there account of the baby-toss on the floor of the U.S. Congress that got the war started. The psy-op was directed not against Iraqis but mainly against the American public and Congress. And as atrocity stories go, it is the gold standard of them all.

Another firm, Rendon, was hired by the CIA in 1990 to help "create the conditions for the removal of Hussein from power" Rendon went on to earn a hundred million dollars in government contracts in just the five years following. It got together a rabble of militants, gave them a “brand” as though they were home made pot-pies -- the Iraqi National Congress -- and advised them on PR strategy. It also hand-picked Ahmad Chalabi – an ex- bank con turned peddler of pro-war propaganda - and primed a fly-specked assortment of defectors in the fine art of bluffing polygraph tests. All for a Five-Year Plan for “creative destruction” in the Middle East that a bunch of hacks and apparatchiks in D.C. had dreamed up.

Even bungled lie-detector tests didn’t stop Rendon. They planted fake stories about where exactly Saddam had stashed his Weapons of Mass Destruction. They used a paid operative, who masqueraded as a free-lancer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. What made them pick Australia? Because, under U.S. law, the government is not supposed to be directing its propaganda at the American public. That’s supposed to be the job of American journalists!

And how well they did it. There was Judith Miller - the Madame Roland of the New York Times - giving heads up to the Iraq flim-flam right on the front pages of the gray lady. Liberty itself was at stake, she assured us. Mushroom clouds were going to pop up over Manhattan like a Japanese umbrella if we didn’t get rid of Saddam. From there the faux-news spread like avian flu to every chicken-hawk in the West.

But wait, maybe this extravaganza was performed outside the decorous sight of the military? Wrong again. Rendon was patted down, sniffed and approved by the military. “We've worked in ninety-one countries," boasts the firm’s boss, John Rendon. "Going all the way back to Panama, we've been involved in every war, with the exception of Somalia."

Rendon didn’t work alone, either. It coordinated its work with a whole bevy of whole-salers of disinformation. In 2001, the Office of Strategic Information (OSI) was created, with its very own express line for junk news. Even the military is supposed to have found the OSI “scary.” Then there was the Office of Global Communications, run out of the White House "Information War Room." The OGC monitored breaking news reports all over the globe - English and Arabic internet chat-rooms, web-sites in at least four more languages, e-mail lists, and planted false stories abroad. The Global Communications office was tasked with punishing journalists who broke ranks all over the world, in Jakarta, Islamabad, Riyadh, Cairo, Ankara, and Tashkent. Propaganda, psy-ops, and espionage - they were all part of the Imperial Carnival.

Private contractors - like Rendon - who now perform half of the CIA’s work - run half the nation’s most secret military operations and they don’t have to say a word about what they do to the people who foot the bill and face the fire. There you have your free and fair press. As one wag remarked - freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.

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