Operation Enduring Freedom
By Neal Shaffer

A good gin is a specialized thing, and each good gin has a taste and aroma to which no other gin can lay claim, even another of comparable quality. When paired with tonic, however, the experience becomes directed. The mix becomes the beverage, and in the hands of a charlatan that mix can be rendered in such a way that only the most discerning palate will be able to distinguish Barton and Bombay Sapphire. So, too, the relationship between war and propaganda.

The two things go perfectly together. So much so that it’s impossible to imagine war without propaganda, and difficult to imagine propaganda without considering war. There is a kind of perverse reasoning to it: if you operate under the assumption that the bulk of a given nation is too ignorant to know where its own interests lie (as government often does), then it stands to reason that the common good must be manufactured and marketed so that it remains focused and homogeneous. The practice is, of course, not limited to war, but it is during war that it is most obvious. People must be convinced that there is a reason for sending men and women off to put their lives on the line, and that we will all be better off for it—whether we actually will or not.

This process has been official since the Wilson administration. Wilson—pro war yet elected on a peace platform—needed a way to convince a pacifist population to lend its support to WWI. To do it, he set up the Creel Commission, which was America’s first large-scale propaganda organization. The techniques that commission developed became a working model that was later used to break strikes and whip up anti-Communist hysteria. During World War II that model gave us Rosie the Riveter, and has since given us the "Great War" and the "Greatest Generation." Public relations is a billion-dollar industry by itself, to say nothing of the businesses it serves.

The basic idea is this: by setting up concepts that are devoid of real meaning the government (or the company, the school, whomever) defines its own purpose and eliminates the room for debate. If a war is for "democracy" or "freedom" and against "evil," who can possibly be opposed? The language is such that dissent automatically appears to be off-topic.

To make it work requires a very serious, substantial commitment. There must be unity on the part of government officials of all stripes, and their message must be coming from several different angles. Major media outlets must appear unbiased but must all be saying essentially the same thing. This alone, however, is no longer enough. Vietnam proved that what is normally very effective doesn’t automatically work. In order to make it work now—with the American public being predisposed to cynicism regarding public officials and the media—the popular culture must also be manipulated, and manipulated in such a way that it appears organic.

As a case in point, the Topps company has released a series of "Operation Enduring Freedom Trading Cards." Each pack contains seven cards and one sticker. On the back of the package the mission statement reads:

"An encyclopedic record of America’s war against terrorism. Cards contain biographical information on civilian and military leaders entrusted to guide us through this fight, statistical data, and photos of military hardware."

Photos of military hardware?

The Topps web site goes even deeper into the filth by stating, in part, that "Kids need to understand that the President (and his team) will keep them safe and that evil-doers will be punished. Our cards deliver the details in a medium with which they are familiar and comfortable." Further down the set is described as "All it should be... and nothing that it shouldn’t." This part is explained with the note that "Not included are the disturbing images shown repeatedly on national newscasts. Instead, Topps has chosen to focus on America's strengths—its elected leaders, the security of its military, its worldwide support… and the courage and unity of its people."

There’s almost too much there to take, but it’s that last part that is so illustrative. On the face of it the cards appear to be one more part of the "wave of patriotism" that has come over the country, and a nifty collectible at that! What they really are is a popular rewriting of history through the filter of the propaganda machine. One card, number 22, is captioned "Police Search Suspect’s Home in Florida" and has a photo of federal officials scaling a ladder to enter said home through a second-floor window. Is this the sort of thing we should be celebrating? All throughout the set the tone is gleeful, even giddy, and there is nothing to suggest that there is anything complex or disturbing about what happened to America and what is being done about it.

Topps, to be fair, has done this sort of thing before. They released cards to commemorate both Korea and Desert Storm, so this set was inevitable. Why though, one wonders, did they choose to be so selective with the history and fill the gaps with apple pie? Surely a card of the flaming World Trade Center or the destroyed Pentagon would have been appropriate, considering that those things are, ostensibly, the impetus for this entire conflict. It is almost as if the folks who are marketing this war have a vested interest in a collective memory lapse when it comes to the real reason all of this is happening, as that will make it easier to convince us that the Madison Avenue reasons are legitimate.

Those "disturbing images that were shown repeatedly on national newscasts" are missing in action, and not just from the Topps set.

Everyone is impressionable, especially so when they have no direct stake in their opinions. This leads to a kind of passive assent. That counts as support, and is in fact the exact end to which effective propaganda is directed. Non-participation is better than active support in a situation where any kind of real involvement could expose one to knowledge that might change the desired opinion. Trust that what we’re doing is right, and don’t worry your pretty little head about it.

With this war, however, things are different.

In the past, most notably during the Gulf War, the machine kicked in because it had to. Without substantial manipulation of public opinion there is no way that the country could have been sold on the merits of liberating Kuwait with American military force. Then suddenly yellow ribbons and "I’d Fly Ten Thousand Miles To Smoke a Camel" T-shirts started appearing, and America became entranced by Norman Schwarzkopf’s regular-Joe dissections of smart-bomb chimney strikes. It wasn’t an unqualified success, but it certainly wasn’t a failure.

The difference this time is that America didn’t need to be sold on this war, not exactly. For the first time since WWII there was a concrete and apparent reason for military action, and roughly 90 percent of the population considered that action justified. This war could have been conducted in an open, forthright manner and nobody would have complained. But the decision-makers couldn’t help themselves—they had to turn it into something it isn’t, and they had to sell that something to us. Why?

There isn’t, of course, an easy answer. Indeed, any answer—including the attempt at one that follows—is going to be heavy on speculation. Still, it is just that sort of speculation, regardless of the particular political viewpoint from which it stems, that is so necessary right now. There is a danger that, culturally, we are being taken for granted. That our collective will is so weak that they can turn anything into a power grab.

The process began right away, with Bush’s first words to the nation the afternoon of the attacks: "Freedom itself was attacked today." That rhetoric—the rhetoric of "evil ones" who "hate freedom"—has become the theme of this war, to the point where Bush is even being praised for his homey, tough-talk approach. What does it really mean? Absolutely nothing. Both evil and freedom are concepts that manifest themselves in different ways depending on the situation at hand. They are, in fact, both entirely subjective.

Suppose, though, that we take Bush at his word on both counts. If this war really is for freedom and against evil, then he and his advisors are at war against themselves. Freedom, by definition, is not something that is given. It is inherent in all humanity at birth, and it can only be taken. Understanding that, it is obvious that the biggest threat to our freedom comes not from afar but from John Ashcroft. Here is a man who, by raping the Fourth Amendment and virtually repealing the Freedom of Information Act, has done more to strip Americans of their benchmark freedoms than bin Laden ever could, or likely ever wanted to.

This fact goes ignored because of the still overwhelming support the war effort enjoys. The majority of Americans still believe that we are in Afghanistan fighting terrorism. Therein lies another example of the Bush administration’s propaganda achievement. This war should be against the people who attacked us—bin Laden, his military forces, and the government(s) that fund and support them. That war, were it the one we are fighting, would be justifiable. Instead, the war is "against terrorism." It is as impossible to "fight terrorism" as it is to "hate freedom." Terrorism, like freedom and evil, is an abstraction. It is a methodology, a style of fighting, that is employed across the world by various groups to various ends. If we are fighting terrorism, do we intend to invade Northern Ireland? The Basque region? Or perhaps to bomb the CIA headquarters?

What we are really fighting here is every government that is not sympathetic to U.S. interests. Bush has accidentally admitted as much himself—"You’re either with us or you’re against us." It would be hard to engender broad-based support for this war if it were being conducted on those (honest) terms. Lives, money, and years are at stake and there is very little to gain that will benefit, even indirectly, the average American.

The people that do benefit are the usual suspects—the armaments industry, the Pentagon, etc. Their paranoid, frantic insistence on keeping their dirty hands in conflicts that span the globe is perplexing and troubling. The fact that they have chosen to extend that urge by exploiting a legitimate national tragedy is, well, evil.