“In war, truth is the first casualty.” –Unknown
The first premise of my argument is:
1. It’s likely that we cannot trust the information being given to us about war.
What I’m basically saying is that the most readily accessible information about war is predominantly some form of propaganda. And, by propaganda, I don’t mean some sort of tin foil hat kind of thing. I just mean that the narrative of the information we read and watch is guided in a certain direction so that a particular impression is given. This does not mean that there is a secret person, or group of people within government that exert this control over the narrative. Instead, there are groups of people at every level of government, business and media that benefit from misinformation about war. And, because of this, they are all coincidentally on the same page.
I think, that war information is propaganda, is obvious if we consider these facts about such information(news):
- Fear causes people to be less interested in the veridicality of news and information they receive about war.
- Self-interest at every level of government produces an organic filtering of news as it travels through the bureaucracy.
- Civilians naturally flee active and potential war zones, leaving only the military and embedded journalists behind.
- Battlefields, thus being controlled by militaries and absent of competing news interests will inherently provide only curated news.
These seem fairly obvious to me, and provide a context that we can use to judge history as we look at a few examples.
There are four phases of war propaganda that we can look at:
I’ll cover the first two here, and go over the next two in the next post of this series.
“The deception of whole peoples is not a matter which can be lightly regarded. A useful purpose can therefore be served in the interval of so-called peace by a warning which people can examine with dispassionate calm, that the authorities in each country do, and indeed must, resort to this practice in order, first, to justify themselves by depicting the enemy as an undiluted criminal;”
Proper justification for the initiation of a war is absolutely critical for gaining the popular support necessary in a democratic system. Therefore, the lead-up to war is where the narrative is the most controlled. There are many examples of this, and whole books have been written on the topic. So, for the sake of brevity, I’ll share three examples that I feel are the most easily explainable: the sinking of the Lusitania, the Gulf of Tonkin and the killing of babies in Kuwait. These three events cover a large time period and show that lead-up propaganda is nothing new and hasn’t really changed much.
The Sinking of the Lusitania
The latest studies of the Lusitania wreckage confirm that the ship was indeed carrying munitions. The Germans were right. Wilson had been warned by the Germans in advance that they considered the Lusitania to be a valid target since it was carrying war supplies and munitions to and from England. Wilson, instead, did not warn Americans sailing on the ship about the threat, and publicly denounced the German action in a series of three “notes.” The sinking of the Lusitania was widely used in war posters and recruiting propaganda to whip up sentiment for America joining the war.
Churchill, for his part, in a confidential memo said, “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the U.S. with Germany. For our part we want the traffic – the more the better and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
It’s widely known now, due to the recent de-classifying of material, that Lyndon Johnson lied about the gulf of Tonkin incident that justified, in American eyes, the full scale invasion of Vietnam by U.S. forces. The declassified NSA report that describes the lie says, “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night. [...] In truth, Hanoi’s navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of the boats damaged on August 2.” Robert Mcnamara corroborated this in the documentary The Fog of War.
Killing of babies in Kuwait
Like the Gulf of Tonkin event, it is now known that the George H.W. Bush administration lied about the killing of babies by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the lead-up to the first gulf war. It was widely reported, and repeated by Bush himself, that Iraqi Republican Guard troops, during the invasion, had gone into a Kuwaiti hospital, removed babies from incubators and left them to die. The eye witness(known at the time simply as Nayirah) that testified to the event was later found to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and her story was coached by P.R. firm Hill & Knowlton. The story was false, but it was used readily by the Bush administration to justify the first gulf war. George W. Bush would later use a similar tactic (claiming Saddam was pursuing material for nuclear weapons) to justify the second gulf war.
As long as the lead-up propaganda was properly executed, the narrative of the ground war is fairly easy to control. Once the justification is made to actually start a war, many things will be forgiven in the mind of the public that might be inexcusable in another context. Let’s again look at three events from twentieth century wars.
The Katyn Forest Massacre
In 1938, Russia killed 22,000 polish intelligentsia and buried them in mass graves in Katyn Forest. Stalin blamed the Germans for the atrocity after the Nazi government discovered the mass graves at a later date. The massacre was used widely in Europe during the war to reinforce the view of Germany as evil. Of course, German officials would indeed turn out to commit atrocities, but the Katyn Forest massacre was propagandized in a way that covered up war crimes by an ally(Russia) and blamed it on the enemy(Germany). It’s also clear from now-public dispatches between Churchill and F.D.R. that they knew with fair certainty that Stalin was to blame for Katyn, but kept the matter quiet.
Vietnam Body Count
This is not an event, but rather an interesting observation that, even to this day, there is almost no awareness of the true death toll in a major U.S. war. Very few average citizens know how many Vietnamese were killed during that decade of active war(nearly two decades of U.S. involvement). The total number of deaths due directly to the war is over 1.2 million. But, the only numbers most Americans are aware of are U.S. troop casualty numbers. This protocol of not reporting on enemy death counts is still in place today, and for good reason. The numbers are shocking.
Iraqi Body Count
Again, like Vietnam, the lack of knowledge is what’s so fascinating. The best count we can get on the number of dead as a result of the Iraq war is from the government itself. The number of war dead, according to leaked documents, is placed at well over 100,000, with over 60% of those being civilians. This is a number that virtually no American citizen on the street is aware of because it’s never given to them in a mainstream news broadcast.
Controlling the ground war narrative in this way is very easy. Since active war zones are under military control, it’s a simple matter to keep journalists out of those areas. And, the reporters who are “embedded” with various troop units have very little incentive to report information that would reflect negatively on military operations, since that would get them sent home.
I’ll examine the propaganda surrounding the personalities of war and the post-war justification period in the next post of this series. These take a long time to research, so it might be slow in coming. I have to get the facts straight however, so I’m taking my time.