Philip Knightley, who authored a masterly study of war journalism called The First Casualty, observes that during the First Gulf War, journalists were told that new bombing techniques meant that targets could be hit with pinpoint accuracy and wouldn’t cause any “collateral damage.” But after the war was over, people came to know that at least one in four of “smart bombs” had failed to hit its target and caused civilian casualties.
A similar phenomenon is occurring during the Second Gulf War. Twenty-fours a day, the major TV networks are showing the glitzy, hi-tech side of the war. Occasionally, the announcers tell their viewers that loud explosions have been heard in Baghdad, and show orange fireballs rising into the distant skyline. They scarcely show the people who have been killed or maimed.
At the end of each war segment, one network shows images of soldiers under a setting sun, helicopters in flight and the US flag fluttering in the breeze. These images then fade to a black screen with the phrase “Our hearts go with them” emblazoned in white.
Commenting on such slanted coverage, Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press at Harvard University, says that the press “consider themselves to be an American news organization covering a war that America is involved in. They have made the calculation that they want to make this kind of demonstration of support for America on this, despite any kind of journalistic cost.”
Geneva Overholser of Missouri University says this biased coverage of the war “goes right at the heart of our credibility. We are supposed to present the facts fairly and without favoritism. It’s not benign. It has a real cost.”
The absence of debate on the TV networks masks the debate that is occurring among ordinary Americans. Nowhere is this debate more evident than in the letters that they are writing to their local papers.
Here is a sampling of what letter writers have been saying in the Contra Costa Times, one of America’s leading small papers that circulates in the eastern suburbs of San Francisco. The area is heavily Republican, and one would expect to find universal support for the war. However, that is not the case.
These writers don’t trust Bush’s motives for waging the war. Some think that Saddam never posed a threat to American national security, and the threat was manufactured in order to precipitate the war. For example, David Ogden wrote, “You have to hand it to Bush. He manufactured a threat from a two-bit dictator, marketed it to the American people, and has started a war to protect the peace. Most of the world knows there’s something terribly wrong with this picture. Americans who support this folly have been conned.”
Another writer, Sue Harvey, wrote that the president did not have an identity before 9/11. That event gave him the identity of “commander in chief.” Since this identity depends on the continued threat of war, “Americans may end up subsidizing the resolution of a lifelong identity crisis with their dollars and their lives.”
Since anti-war protestors have been ridiculed and verbally assaulted by those who support the war, one writer noted with sadness that he was being called unpatriotic simply for suggesting that Saddam should have been disarmed by means other than war. A veteran of the Vietnam War, George Kamburoff, noted “We are being pushed into this mass murder by those were draft dodgers and cowards when their day came to serve.”
Some writers have argued that Bush never won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential elections, and does not speak for them. Commenting on the president’s imperial bearings, one writer asked, “Who crowned him king?” Sue Jarnagon, clearly upset by the chauvinism of the pro-war crowd, wrote, “I never thought I would ever say or feel this, but these days I am a little ashamed to be an American. And please, don’t tell me, ‘America, love it or leave it.’ That’s the kind of mentality I’m talking about.”
Brennan Fallon agreed that the country was passing through dangerous times, but for reasons other than what one hears in the mainstream media. She wrote, “We live in dangerous times; our country is run by a man who has traded in his addiction to drugs and alcohol for power and greed.”
Since several people who support the war have argued that the US has a unique role to play on the global stage, J. Peter Nixon wrote, “The idea that the United States can, on its own, bear the burden of maintaining global order is a dangerous fantasy.” Mike King wrote that Bush would leave behind a legacy based on “arrogance, insensitivity, special interests, false promises, broken alliances, checkbook diplomacy, irresponsibility and ignorance.”
David Sammons, a minister of a Unitarian church, offered a prayer, “May God forgive us for what our president has chosen to do and may the spirit of God ‘s love lead us out of the hell we create into acts of generosity and reconciliation.”
Their arguments are similar to what one encounters on the TV channels. For example, Robert Hadley wrote that Saddam was evil, and “Now is the time to stop the cancer, before it spreads.” Ross Laverty wrote, “peace is not one of our choices,” and another person pleaded, “please, give war a chance.” Other writers argued that Saddam had ties to the al-Qaeda organization and was behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Many writers spoke of America’s manifest destiny to rule the world. Howard Mauthe argued, “Our military constitutes our international police force. Today, we are the only cops on the block. This is not a war; it is a police action.” Another writer argued that the US was fighting for freedom and liberty, and asserted that people want peace and freedom from Baghdad to Beijing, in a hint that was not particularly subtle. Another writer disagreed vociferously with those who have argued that the war is about oil, saying that was a great myth.
Such lively debate among ordinary Americans is healthy, and a tribute to the resilience of America’s democratic traditions. It is unfortunate that the TV networks have chosen to ignore this debate. Airing it would have been one of the best ways of selling the people of the Middle East on the virtues of democracy. Instead, the networks have chosen to sell the virtues of war, by cloaking it in the garb of patriotism and sanitizing it of the death and destruction that it inevitably brings.
The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California. He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars. He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to Disillusionment for International Affairs. He has authored “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.” He is a Fellow of the American Institute of International Studies in California.
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