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.
two things go perfectly together. So much so that its
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 itwhether we
actually will or not.
process has been official since the Wilson administration.
Wilsonpro war yet elected on a peace platformneeded
a way to convince a pacifist population to lend its support
to WWI. To do it, he set up the Creel Commission, which
was Americas 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.
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.
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 doesnt automatically
work. In order to make it work nowwith the American
public being predisposed to cynicism regarding public
officials and the mediathe popular culture must
also be manipulated, and manipulated in such a way that
it appears organic.
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:
encyclopedic record of Americas 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."
of military hardware?
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 shouldnt." 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 strengthsits
elected leaders, the security of its military, its worldwide
and the courage and unity of its people."
almost too much there to take, but its 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 Suspects
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.
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.
"disturbing images that were shown repeatedly on national
newscasts" are missing in action, and not just from the
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
were doing is right, and dont worry your pretty
little head about it.
this war, however, things are different.
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 "Id Fly Ten Thousand Miles To Smoke a Camel"
T-shirts started appearing, and America became entranced
by Norman Schwarzkopfs regular-Joe dissections of
smart-bomb chimney strikes. It wasnt an unqualified
success, but it certainly wasnt a failure.
difference this time is that America didnt 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 couldnt
help themselvesthey had to turn it into something
it isnt, and they had to sell that something to
isnt, of course, an easy answer. Indeed, any answerincluding
the attempt at one that followsis 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.
process began right away, with Bushs first words
to the nation the afternoon of the attacks: "Freedom itself
was attacked today." That rhetoricthe 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
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.
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 administrations
propaganda achievement. This war should be against the
people who attacked usbin 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?
we are really fighting here is every government that is
not sympathetic to U.S. interests. Bush has accidentally
admitted as much himself"Youre either with
us or youre 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.
people that do benefit are the usual suspectsthe
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.