Welcome to another of my patented dissertation-length essays. (Consider yourselves forewarned.) This one is about perception and propaganda; about conviction, communication, conversion. It is, to some extent, about a documentary film, but more it is about government, about war, about politics, about history.
As I have noted here before, TSM has a groupie, one Markadelphia of the blog Notes from the Front. Mark has been a persistent commenter here ever since I visited his site in the wake of the Great Zumbo Incident of 2007 and left these words in his comments:
Having perused your site I can see that we’re not at all on the same plane philosophically or politically, so I’m going to disagree with you on a lot of things. This is good, because you learn much more arguing your case with someone who disagrees with you than you do preaching to the choir.
Well, so far Mark hasn’t presented much of a philosophical challenge, but he has spurred a terrific upswing in reader comments pointing out his errors, illogic, etc., and for that I’m grateful.
However, Mark considers Michael Moore a valid source of information, and apparently admires Bill Mahr (and, one would imagine, Keith Olbermann), so when he recommended I watch the 2005 Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary Why We Fight, you might understand why I was somewhat reluctant to accept the suggestion. But I did some looking into the film, and decided to give it a shot.
I’m glad I did, and I recommend it to everyone – with a caveat: Understand that this documentary is also a propaganda piece.
It is unfortunate in this world of language manipulation that the word “propaganda” has morphed so that the primary understanding of it has become one of malevolence. Propaganda is properly defined as “material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause.” Propaganda, however, can mean (and too often does mean) deliberately lying in support or opposition of a cause. That’s what Michael Moore does. That’s what many gun control groups do. And, to be honest, it’s what the NRA does from time to time as well. The lying is most often by commission, and it can be small “white lies” or great big whoppers.
The best propaganda, however, does not actively lie. It tells the truth – just not all of the truth, or at least not truths that weaken or contradict the message. This is know as lying by omission, but seen from certain perspectives, the omission of information detrimental to the message can be excused, since from that perspective the omitted information is seen as inconsequential. This is the kind of propaganda in Why We Fight. The film-maker, Eugene Jarecki, has a perspective, and he has done an admirable job of assembling a cast of intelligent, well-educated, and credible people who share his worldview, an equally creditable job of assembling a small number of people whose philosophy he opposes, and he uses the words of both groups, along with striking historical imagery and audio clips to tell his story.
And, to be honest, his story raises very valid and important questions, it makes very cogent points, and, at least in my case, it encourages the viewer to look deeper into the background information presented.
Why We Fight is named after a series of propaganda films directed by Frank Capra during World War II. Wikipedia has an excellent overview of Jarecki’s documentary, with biographical information on the subjects interviewed. I recommend that you read that before proceeding with this essay.
The film runs a bit over ninety minutes, and I’m not going to go point-by-point through the whole thing. Several themes run through it, a couple of which I’m not going to discuss here due primarily to length limitations (I’m long-winded enough as it is), partially because I think you ought to watch it yourselves. Here’s a synopsis of the notes I took during my second viewing:
04:42 – voiceover by Chalmers Johnson, identified as a CIA employee from 1967-1973 (Mr. Johnson is also an author and professor emeritus of the University of California, San Diego):
Blowback. It’s a CIA term. Blowback does not mean simply the unintended consequences of foreign operations, it means the unintended consequences of foreign operations that were deliberately kept secret from the American public so that when the retaliation comes the American public is not able to put it in context, to put cause and effect together that they come up with questions such as ‘why do they hate us?’
At 06:39 white words on a black background:
On September 12, 2001, the President’s national security team met to discuss a military response to the attacks of the previous day.
The discussion included the prospect of a preemptive military strike against the nation of Iraq.
No attribution, no list of who was at the meeting, just the bald statement. I would really like to have some verifiable citation for that assertion. After all, we were told by George Tenet in his book At the Center of the Storm that he had a chance meeting with Richard Perle coming out of the White House on 9/12 where Perle is alleged to have told him “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.”
Except Richard Perle was in France on 9/12 and would not return to the U.S. until flight restrictions were lifted on 9/15. If George Tenet – director of the CIA – could get this point wrong, it makes you wonder what else he got wrong.
It’s not that I find the assertion that someone would mention a strike on Iraq in national security meeting all that unlikely, I’d just very much like a credible source. I’m afraid George Tenet is the source.
06:56 – Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace:
There was a moment when the entire world was behind us. There was a million people demonstrating in the streets of Tehran, in favor of the United States.
(Accompanied by images of marchers, largely women in headscarves holding candles. Image fades to an American crowd holding flags in the daytime.)
We had the world behind us.
(Image switches to a soldier with a rifle, a soldier being carried out of a Bradley, apparently wounded.)
Now kids are dying,
(Dead child being covered with a cloth, crying woman in a hijab)
billions are being spent every month,
(British soldiers shown climbing aboard a Chinook helicopter in the desert – you can tell they’re Brits by one soldier in the foreground with an SA-80 rifle – image switches to an angry crowd of fist-shaking Arabs.)
animosity against the United States is stronger now than it ever has been in history.
(Cut to what appears to be a student protest, which then fades to a soldier holding a shotgun to the head of one of two men crouching on a street, hands bound behind their heads.)
What happened here? Is it just that… just the experience of September 11th, or is there something else going on here? When something like happens, you’ve gotta take stock of this. You’ve gotta understand what went wrong here.
One small problem with Mr. Cirincione’s assertion, though: The world wasn’t really 100% behind us on 9/11, nor has it ever been. There was a lot of dancing in the streets, and, I imagine, dancing behind closed doors. The people who plotted 9/11 weren’t alone. Steven Den Beste wrote a short, cogent piece on this topic not too long back, specifically on just how disunited the U.S. was over 9/11 – those who were asking “why they hate us” and those who didn’t give a damn why.
08:05 – Gore Vidal, identified merely as the author of Imperial America:
We live in the United States of Amnesia. Nobody remembers anything before Monday morning. Everything is a blank. We have no history.
Remember this – we’ll come back to it.
08:15 – Announcer’s voice:
Guatemala, 1954. The United States intervened unilaterally to protect its vital interests. Lebanon, 1958. The United States feels its policy of containment in the Middle East is threatened. Reponds openly and unilaterally. The United States intervened in Laos, the Congo, Brazil…
Cut to talking head, identified as Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity:
There are so many theories about what happened in Iraq and why we really went in, but when you look at the history of the United States almost every President, there is something we don’t like somewhere in the world and we’ve got to dispense military force…
Sam Donaldson’s voice, accompanied by a shot of helicopters flying in a line:
Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983…
George H.W. Bush’s voice:
Last night I ordered U.S. military forces to Panama….
Back to Charles Lewis with Bill Clinton’s face on screen:
This is not about one President or one party…
Wait, wait! If we’re going to make a point, let’s add a few more to that list: The bombing of Libya, 1986. Gulf War I, 1990-91 and the “no-fly zones” thereafter. Somalia, 1992. The bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1995, and Yugoslavia, 1999 where our troops are still on the ground. Cruise missile strikes on Iraq in 1996 and a four-day bombing campaign in 1998 over Iraq’s failure to comply with the terms of the 1991 cease fire, specifically over the WMD terms.
No, it truly isn’t about one President or one party.
Fade to Ronald Reagan’s face as Lewis’s voice continues:
We fight as a nation because we perceive it is in our interest to fight, and we then mention words like ‘freedom’ and nice common values. Who can be against freedom? When in fact much more has been going on privately.
Fade to a photograph of a George W. Bush cabinet meeting with Bush’s voice-over:
Just completed a meeting with our national security team…
(fade to press conference video at the cabinet meeting table)
...and we’ve received the latest, uh, intelligence updates. The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war.
Chalmers Johnson at 09:32:
September eleventh, 2001 provided a group of people deeply committed to the expansion of the American empire the opportunity to implement plans that they had been laying since 1992. At that time, a young Paul Wolfowitz was working in a subordinate position under Dick Cheney who was then Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cheney orders Wolfowitz to write a plan…
(Shot of a March 8, 1991 New York Times Late Edition cover with an above-the-fold story: U.S. STRATEGY PLAN CALLS FOR INSURING NO RIVALS DEVELOP – A ONE-SUPERPOWER WORLD – Pentagon’s Document Outlines Ways to Thwart Challenges to Primacy of America by Patrick E. Tyler.)
…to write a grand strategy. That it was now our destiny that without the Soviet Union there is no one who can possibly approach us in military terms. It says that’s the way it ought to be, and our policy must be to maintain and expand that. That we are the new Rome. That’s their strategy. On 9/11 they begin to implement it.
(Perhaps that’s a slip-of-the-tongue or I’m just being overly sensitive, but reading that – On 9/11 they began to implement it – it appears that Chalmers Johnson is implying that the attacks of 9/11 were a part of the strategy. From what research I have done on Mr. Johnson, I have found no evidence that he’s a troother, so I’m going to go with the slip-of-the-tongue hypothesis.) What follows that excerpt are quotes from a Paul Wolfowitz press conference, a Richard Perle interview, and a Bill Kristol interview, part of which I transcribe below:
10:45 – Bill Kristol:
When September 11 happened, the President and his top advisers said to themselves, correctly I think, ‘We need to rethink American foreign policy.’ And I think that would have happened even without September 11. But September 11 was really the event that changed American foreign policy.
This quotation, I am certain, is meant to show Kristol’s deliberate mendacity (i.e.: he lied) – he had to know that the “rethinking of American foreign policy” had been done long prior to 9/11, and the originators of this new policy were already on Bush’s staff.
At 11:00, Air Force Lt. Col (Ret.) Karen Kwiatkowski:
Well I was in the Pentagon when we got hit. You know… I… Yes. It did change. It was a very dramatic and terrible thing. And it does change your perspective, but the war in Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism. That was a huge leap, a manufactured leap, in order to implement a very calculated and predeveloped foreign policy.
About 15:00 the film makes the argument that dropping the atomic bombs in WWII were unnecessary. Gore Vidal is the person making the argument:
I can remember in the Pacific when the word was spread that the atomic bombs were dropped that 99.9% of us were delighted because we’d been convinced that if Japan was not hit by nuclear weapons one million of us would be killed. Drop those bombs and they will surrender. Well they were trying to surrender all that summer. Well, Truman wouldn’t listen. Truman wanted to drop the bombs. To show off. To frighten Stalin. To change the balance of power in the world. To declare war on Communism. Perhaps we were starting a preemptive World War. Eisenhower hated the dropping of it, and thought it should not have been done.
Err, what? For one thing, I’m fairly certain that the proportion of the population delighted over the dropping of the atom bombs was far in excess of 999 out of a thousand. Second, while some Japanese might have been trying to surrender prior to August 6, they were not willing to unconditionally surrender, and those were the only terms the Allies were going to accept. A very large portion of the Japanese – military and civilian – were willing to die to the last man, woman, and child. America might be the land of Amnesia, but there are some things many of us who have studied history understand. As far as I can determine after watching the film twice, this quote is there to A) illustrate how militaristic the U.S. is, and B) illustrate how good a man Ike was – the latter point being hammered home a bit later in the film.
23:40 – Gwynne Dyer, Military historian:
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is, to a very considerable extent about repositioning the United States as the country that must be obeyed. It’s an easy way to send a signal to the planet that the United States is in charge and it’s going to do what it wants, and anybody that defies the United States will be punished.
Excuse me, re-positioning? Isn’t that the position we’ve been accused of holding for over a decade already?
26:20 – Bill Kristol
I most Americans don’t want to police the world, but I think most Americans understand that if we don’t at least help police the world, then no one’s going to.
Cases in point: Somalia, after we pulled out; Rwanda – the UN was there, and did nothing; ethnic cleansing in the Sudan. We’re not there. Neither is anyone else, but the whole situation is apparently our fault.
26:50 – Gwynne Dyer:
They do believe that this is not only for the long-term benefit of the U.S., but it’s for the long-term benefit of everybody else as well. We’ll bring them American values, prosperity, peace, all the rest of it, but the way we’re going to do that is take over. Even more than we did at the height of the Cold War.
After the Second World War the United States literally divided the world up into commands, and some American officer was responsible for every region of the world. There was this domino theory, if any of these places fall to Communism, then the next place, and the next place, and the next place would fall as well, and the next thing you know they’re in Missouri.
And if we hadn’t resisted, they wouldn’t have? And, by the way, the Communists were already in Missouri, they just weren’t very effective there. They weren’t very effective in Greece right after WWII, either (because we helped oppose them), but they did much better in North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia…
The film continues with footage of nuclear war propaganda films of launching missiles, military parades (ours, but not the Soviets), etc., followed by discussion about the ramp-up of the military industry. Quotes from Eisenhower from his own lips during speeches, from his son and his granddaughter reading from his speeches:
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities. It is two modern power plants each serving a town of sixty thousand population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than eight thousand people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under a cloud of threatening war it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Stirring stuff, particularly if you believe that government should be responsible for providing these things. (Don’t misunderstand – Ike never suggests this, but the Left does.) This is followed by Eisenhower’s farewell address concerning the dangers of the military-industrial complex, and a short discussion of that speech – followed by footage from an airshow, first-person shooter video games, etc., illustrating what the military-industrial complex looks like today. This is then flashed on the screen:
Today, the United States spends more on defense than on all other discretionary parts of the federal budget combined.
Well, that was true in 2004, according to table S-11 on this OMB webpage: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2006/tables.html.
It’s dropped a bit since then, but our military budget is quite high, even when we’re not fighting a two-front war. Our non-discretionary “entitlement” spending, however, is significantly higher. Of course we do a lot more with our military than other countries do, since most of Western Europe depended on us to protect them from the Soviet Union, most of Asia depends on us to protect them from North Korea and China, and the whole world depends on our military to provide the bulk of rescue and recovery efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Our naval vessels provide clean water, our hospital ships provide medical care, our air and sea transport provides the logistics train for not only our own supplies, but the supplies and personnel of other nations who don’t have the capability to move their own people and equipment across the world at a moment’s notice. (Canada springs immediately to mind here.) Yes, our military provides not only police services, but fire, ambulance, and paramedic duties as well.
Then there’s several minutes of footage from a military supplier trade show. There is discussion about how Eisenhower’s warnings proved prophetic, and how the system works by involving Congress in the mix. Key quote by Chalmers Johnson:
The B2 bomber has a piece of it made in every single state to make sure that if you ever try to phase that project out you will get howls, howls from among the most liberal members of Congress.
That’s one of those telling points the film makes.
Starting at about 41:00 the film spends about five minutes explaining how Dick Cheney and Halliburton are intertwined with the “military-industrial complex.” I think the film does a pretty fair job of that. What it doesn’t do is talk about any other contractors, except to mention that “at least 71 companies” got contracts for Afghanistan and/or Iraq, but the film concentrates on only one. It does make the point, however, that in 1991 Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense gave a contract to Kellogg Brown & Root to study whether outside contractors could or should be used to perform functions previously performed by military personnel. The report enthusiastically recommended the practice. Subsequently Halliburton hired Cheney and started providing those services. What the film doesn’t mention is that this began under the Clinton administration as the military was downsized.
45:24 – Lt. Col Kwiatkowski:
You do have to follow the money. If you follow the money, it’s not so much that Halliburton wanted a war so they told Dick Cheney to go get one for them, it wasn’t that. But you do get a willingness to go to war.
I think the Colonel overreaches a bit here, but immediately after her statement follows this on-screen text:
On October 10, 2002, the U.S. Congress passed Joint Resolution 114, granting the President the right to use force against Iraq at his discretion.
Yes they did. All legal and everything, 296-133. At least they admitted that.
Another key quote about 46:00 by Chalmers Johnson:
The defense budget is three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Profits went up last year well over 25%. I guarantee you, when war becomes that profitable, you’re going to see more of it.
Now THAT is a telling comment, made much better than Col. Kwiatkowski did it. For example, since 2003 both Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin have seen their stock prices nearly double. War is good for the industrial portion of the military-industrial complex, and their stockholders, but I still don’t see Raytheon or Lockheed-Martin lobbyists urging Congresscritters to vote for war, nor do I realistically see those same Congresscritters considering what a war will do for the munitions suppliers in their districts once the war begins. Still, it’s a thought that requires consideration.
At 49:00 we’re introduced to William Solomon who has decided to enlist in the Army. He’s not joining in order to take vengeance against anyone or anything, but to escape his bleak life. No other enlistees are presented. The film then discusses recruitment and spending for advertising.
We appeal to self interest and then put them in a situation which is based on self-sacrifice.
To some extent this is true – especially when the military is not engaged in conflict. It is not so true when we are.
The point of this story thread is apparently that volunteers are just ignorant cannon-fodder who cannot refuse to do what they volunteered to do. I think this is the part that I find most objectionable. Are they suggesting that draftees would balk, or that the volunteers should balk, thus rendering the military useless? William Solomon wants to fly high-tech helicopters. I doubt seriously that he believes that said helicopters won’t be armed and won’t be employed in combat zones. But if he’s only as bright as he is made to appear in this documentary, perhaps he hasn’t considered the question. It apparently wasn’t asked of him. At any rate, I expect he will wash out of flight school and will then be disillusioned about the promises of the Army.
Charles Lewis, 56:57:
We have been lied to in every military escapade, frankly, over the last fifty or sixty years without exception. There’s no better example, probably, than Vietnam where you had the President of the United States and the top generals in the Pentagon out-and-out lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and got us into the war, about the casualties, about how the war was going. Anyone who has ever looked closely at the Vietnam war can see that the public and the media were manipulated uh, substantially. We don’t like to think of ourselves as a militant nation, but we are in fact an incredibly militant and militaristic nation. It’s not a view of ourselves that we want to carry around, but the fact is, we are. If the President and the military-industrial complex, the defense establishment, if they all have decided that suddenly there’s a problem somewhere, we need to drop some bombs or even put some land forces somewhere in some country, this is a ritual that we have been seeing for decades.
We’ve toppled governments. We’ve done coup d’états. We’ve used intelligence services for covert purposes and done horrible things around the world, and we have put up with the most heinous human-rights abusing countries. We have propped them up, we’ve even trained them how to commit human rights abuses. Today’s demon was yesterday’s friend, all in the name of either the Cold War or for commercial reasons. It’s basically economic colonialism. Nobody uses the colonialism word, but instead of just taking over the countries we have a better way, we just go in and have free markets. Whether we’re trying to sell our products to their citizens or we’re trying to mine their resources, we need to be in that country for some reason and therefore we’re going to talk about free markets, free trade, but what’s really going on is, we want our companies to get rich in your country.
Yup. A little truth, a lot of omission, and we’ll return to that “lied to in every military escapade” comment a little later on, but finally the film finally starts talking about oil.
Chalmers Johnson at 59:27:
The United States is the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels. Oil is what drives the military machine of every country, as it provides the fuel for aircraft, for the ships, for the tanks, for the trucks. Control of oil is indispensable. When you run out of it, your army stops.
There is a direct connection between events that happened more than fifty years ago and the war in Iraq today. In 1953 the Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, became extremely irritated. The British were ripping off the country’s national resources, he wanted a greater share in it. The British came to the new President Eisenhower and asked for help on this, Eisenhower very conveniently declared Mossadegh to be a Communist and we then set the CIA to overthrow him.
The result was we brought the Shah to power and he created an extremely repressive regime that within twenty years had led to a revolution against him. The Ayatollah Khomeni creates a government that is violently anti-American.
In the after-action report by the CIA on what they had done in Iran in 1953, they said ‘We’re going to get some blowback from this’. We then made a puppet out of Saddam Hussein in Iraq who was a friend of ours. He was an asset in the CIA’s computers. We did so because he was anti-Iranian. He was very fearful that the revolution in Iran would spread into his country. He therefore went to war with Iran. The war was extremely bloody, went on throughout the 1980’s. Unfortunately for Saddam Hussein, he began to lose the war. At that point, in comes the United States in the form of Donald Rumsfeld sent to Saddam Hussein by President Reagan to tell him ‘We will supply you with intelligence, with the weapons you may need through covert means’ (which) is why cynics in Washington say ‘We know Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We have the receipts.’ This is what we mean by ‘blowback.’ He remained a friend of ours right up to his invasion in the summer of 1990 of Kuwait. We became alarmed when he invaded Kuwait that he could also go on and invade Saudi Arabia itself – the largest reserves of oil on earth. We stationed troops in Saudi Arabia. It was a mistake in every sense of the term. Remember Osama bin Laden said ‘I resent the government of Saudi Arabia for using the Americans to defend Saudi Arabia against Iraq’. At that point we began to fear that we were going to lose our position in Saudi Arabia. Well the second largest source of proven reserves on Earth are in Iraq. This leads us now to demonize our previous ally, and to prepare the American public for the thought that we must take him out.
The remainder of the film details how the administration – with the help of non-governmental think-tanks – went about convincing the American public and Congress to go to war in Iraq.
68:00 – Rumsfeld at a press conference:
The United States knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. The UK knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski:
These guys were manipulating public opinion, OK, creating, uh, falsehoods and fantasies to inspire fear in the American people so that they could have their war.
Some time is spent discussing how the media was manipulated, how Congress failed to stop the march to war, how anti-war protests were ignored by the press and by Congress, and finally, in a piece that wends its way through the entire film, how the opening strike of the war – a “precision” munitions strike with JDAM GPS-guided bombs on a bunker suspected of housing Saddam Hussein – resulted in the deaths of numerous women and children when the bombs failed to strike their target and instead hit civilian housing nearby. Interviews with family members, doctors, footage of wounded children and wrecked homes. It’s pretty damning.
91:00 – Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski:
The reason we’re in Iraq first off has not been honestly told to the American people. It certainly had nothing to do with the liberation of the Iraqi people. It was never part of the agenda, and it’s not part of the agenda now.
Others would disagree. But then those others are just duped volunteers whose self-interest we’ve appealed to in order to get them to sign up, right?
We know we did not have an exit strategy in the invasion of Iraq because we didn’t intend to leave. We are now in the process of building fourteen permanent bases in Iraq.
Quite probably true – at least partially. The question is, if we’re asked to leave, will we? When we were asked to leave the Philippines, we did. It appears that the new Iraqi government isn’t too keen on the idea of our having permanent bases there. Are we building bases? I wouldn’t doubt it. Are we staying permanently? That remains to be seen.
There is this incredible hubris right now that we are invincible and we are the preeminent power on planet earth. American power and American empire is actually flaunted in people’s faces around the world, where we rub our shoe in their face and tell them that we’re top dog. And you will work with us because you sure as hell don’t want to be against us.
Also quite probably accurate and unfortunate.
The world has changed, and we are not going back to where we were. I find one of the sillier ideas is the notion – and you hear it all the time – American policy’s been hijacked by a handful of people and as soon as they’re out of there we’re going to go back to the way it was. They’re wrong about that because we are not the same people we were before.
Not quite accurate. We’re not going to go back to the way it was because entropy works in politics, too.
We are walking on thin ice. We are treading the same path taken by the first democratic regime ever created in the Western world, namely the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic inadvertently acquired an empire around the world and they then discovered that to maintain, expand, protect this empire they required standing armies. Standing armies is what George Washington warned us against in his farewell address – that they will destroy the structure of government that we tried to create in our Constitution to prevent the rise of an imperial presidency. The single most important article in our Constitution is the one that gives the right to go to war exclusively to the elected representatives of the people, to the Congress. Our Congress, in October of 2002, voted in both houses to give this power to a single man, including the use of nuclear weapons, if he so chose, and of course less than six months later he did so choose to exercise it in Iraq.
I think the history of the United States as a work in progress and our attempt at democracy here is a constant struggle between capitalism and democracy, and there have been ebbs and flows where democracy looks like it’s winning – you rein in those powerful forces, but the fundamental reality is that most of the government’s decisions today are substantially dictated by powerful corporate interests. Clearly capitalism is winning.
Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski:
You’ve got to realize twenty years in the military, you’re trained to always respect authority, to be a team player. When the war started in Iraq I hit a turning point in where my values as an officer diverged. I had to basically remove myself. So, um, why we fight? I think we fight ’cause, uh, too many people are not standing up saying ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’
The film then ends. Whew! That’s a lot, isn’t it?
Get comfortable. Now it’s my turn.
As is probably obvious, Chalmers Johnson is the key voice in this film. It is his perspective, his narrative around which all the rest of the film revolves. Much of what he says is quite valid, and we should listen to what he is saying. But we should also pay attention to what he is not saying, or what is being obscured.
Johnson notes that “blowback”
means the unintended consequences of foreign operations that were deliberately kept secret from the American public so that when the retaliation comes the American public is not able to put it in context, to put cause and effect together that they come up with questions such as ‘why do they hate us?’
Note how that statement is made: almost that the point of keeping our covert actions covert is to keep America in the dark, not our enemies. Gore Vidal complains that we’re “The United States of Amnesia,” but how much does America ever really get told? Johnson’s key example is the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s Prime Minister. Johnson throws an almost offhand comment that
The British came to the new President Eisenhower and asked for help on this, Eisenhower very conveniently declared Mossadegh to be a Communist and we then set the CIA to overthrow him.
The British were ripping off the country’s national resources, (Mossadegh) wanted a greater share in it.
Remember, Chalmers Johnson is a professor of international relations and political science, and the author of numerous books (most of them on how America is a decaying Empire.) Doesn’t this strike you as simplistic? Especially after the film essentially idolizes Eisenhower? Here’s how Time magazine described Mossadegh when they named him Person of the Year for 1951:
In foreign affairs, the minister pursued a very active policy—so active that in the chancelleries of nations thousand of miles away, lamps burned late into the night as other governments tried to find a way of satisfying his demands without ruining themselves. Not that he ever threatened war. His weapon was the threat of his own political suicide, as a willful little boy might say, “If you don’t give me what I want I’ll hold my breath until I’m blue in the face. Then you’ll be sorry.”
In this way, the old nobleman became the most world-renowned man his ancient race had produced for centuries.
In this way, too, he increased the danger of a general war among nations, impoverished his country and brought it and some neighboring lands to the very brink of disaster.
He was Mohammed Mossadegh, Premier of Iran in the year 1951. He was the Man of the Year. He put Scheherazade in the petroleum business and oiled the wheels of chaos. His acid tears dissolved one of the remaining pillars of a once great empire. In his plaintive, singsong voice he gabbled a defiant challenge that sprang out of a hatred and envy almost incomprehensible to the West.
There were millions inside and outside of Iran whom Mossadegh symbolized and spike for, and whose fanatical state of mind he had helped to create. They would rather see their own nations fall apart than continue their present relations with the West. Communism encouraged this state of mind, and stood to profit hugely from it. But Communism did not create it. The split between the West and the non-Communist East was a peril all its own to world order, quite apart from Communism. Through 1951 the Communist threat to the world continued; but nothing new was added—and little subtracted. The news of 1951 was this other danger in the Near and Middle East. In the center of that spreading web of news was Mohammed Mossadegh.
The Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., most of whose stock is owned by the British government, had been paying Iran much less than the British Government took from the company in taxes. The U.S. State Department warned Britain that Iran might explode unless it got a better deal, but the U.S. did not press the issue firmly enough to make London listen. Mossadegh’s nationalization bill scared the company into concessions that were made too late. The Premier, whose mind runs in a deep single track, was committed to nationalization—and much to the surprise of the British, he went through with it, right down to the expulsion of the British technicians without whom the Iranians cannot run the Abadan refinery.
Results: I) the West lost the Iranian oil supply; 2) the Iranian government lost the oil payments; 3) this loss stopped all hope of economic progress in Iran and disrupted the political life of the country; 4) in the ensuing confusion, Iran’s Tudeh (Communist) Party made great gains which it hoped to see reflected in the national elections, due to begin this week.
Tears & Laughter. Mossadegh does not promise his country a way out of this nearly hopeless situation. He would rather see the ruin of Iran than give in to the British, who, in his opinion, corrupted and exploited his country. He is not in any sense pro-Russian, but he intends to stick to his policies even though he knows they might lead to control of Iran by the Kremlin.
Read the whole thing, written before, obviously, Mossadegh was overthrown. Mossadegh “wanted a greater share” but was willing to see the oil wells capped and the refinery shut down? It’s not quite as black-and-white as Johnson so flippantly makes it sound, is it?
In the immediate aftermath of WWII, America was in a position no country had never been in before – it was, as the film states, the only major nation left un-smashed. It was the only nation with nuclear weapons. And it was the only nation that could stand up against Communist expansion. Our government was not configured for this. Our Founders envisioned a nation that kept to itself politically, and involved itself with the world only through trade. We didn’t have that option any longer. We were forced to act. We were amateurs, and we made amateurish mistakes. We still are and we still do. We were arrogant, and we acted that way. We still are and we still do.
Gwynne Dyer is right – we do believe that capitalism and free markets, democracy and pluralism is good not only for the long-term benefit of the U.S., but the long-term benefit of everyone else as well. Chalmers Johnson believes, however, that what we’re spreading is not that, but Empire, and holds up the model of Rome not once, but twice. But let’s look at this excerpt:
We are treading the same path taken by the first democratic regime ever created in the Western world, namely the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic inadvertently acquired an empire around the world and they then discovered that to maintain, expand, protect this empire they required standing armies. Standing armies is what George Washington warned us against in his farewell address – that they will destroy the structure of government that we tried to create in our Constitution to prevent the rise of an imperial presidency.
Point 1: I’ve read George Washington’s farewell address. He warns against party politics, foreign influence, and altering the Constitution by extralegal means, but he doesn’t mention the army once. In fact, George was in favor of a standing army, since he was the General that led America to victory in the Revolutionary War. He intimately understood the limitations of the militia, and saw as a necessity a small, professional military as the core around which a functional army could be built in time of need. No mention is made of how a standing army will “destroy the structure of government,” no mention of “an imperial presidency.” Odd, that.
Point 2: The first democratic regime in the Western world was not Roman, but Athenian. Athens, too, rose to great power pretty much by accident, as the great individual freedom enjoyed by Athenian citizens led to tremendous prosperity. The success of Athens influenced its neighboring city-states, and Athens formed unions with many of them – citizens first – essentially overpowering the local governments much as Why We Fight accuses America of doing.
Charles Lewis protests:
We have been lied to in every military escapade, frankly, over the last fifty or sixty years without exception.
But this is hardly new, particularly in democratic nations. Henry Louis Mencken in the 1930’s:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
And though the hobgoblins are not always imaginary, the practice goes back much farther. Themistocles, Archon of Athens, convinced the Athenians about 482 B.C. that a huge sum of money they would otherwise individually get from a newly discovered silver mine would be better spent building a great fleet of triremes to defend against the impending threat of the neighboring island-state of Aegina, when in fact the fleet was being built against the far more real, but less politically popular threat of a second invasion by Persia. The Athenians were lied to – the Agenians were never that much of a threat – but without the fleet Themistocles frightened Athens into building, the famous stand of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae would have been for nothing, and Greece would have been conquered by Persia. I don’t know how many schools or hospitals that money could have built, but the fleet turned out to be more important.
Looking at Greece in the modern era, I ran across something interesting in this recent piece by Ron Silver:
After the Second World War, with Truman’s approval rating in national polls falling more than 50 points, the president and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, called in Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and explained to him how the Communists were establishing a beachhead in Greece that would threaten all of Western Europe. According to Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes: “The U.S. was going to have to find a way to save the free world-and Congress would have to pay the bill.” Senator Vandenberg replied “Mr. President, the only way you are going to get this is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.” On March 12, 1947 the president made that speech to a joint session of Congress. He argued that money needed to be sent to Greece, because they “were threatened by the terrorist activities of thousands of armed men.” Thus the president’s decision with Congressional approval led to one of the early battles against Soviet domination. These cold and not so cold wars would last for more than 50 years, culminating in the Soviet Empire’s defeat.
We put people in charge in order to perform the business of government because we’re too busy to do it ourselves. It’s unfortunate, and it’s dangerous, but it’s necessary. And these people have to look at the whole world and determine what is and what isn’t dangerous to us, and what they can and what they can’t do anything about. Then they have to convince enough of us to go along with them, and they often have to do it on a very time-constrained basis.
Is it any wonder that frightening us is the general method of choice, for bad or good?
The United States is the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels. Oil is what drives the military machine of every country, as it provides the fuel for aircraft, for the ships, for the tanks, for the trucks. Control of oil is indispensable. When you run out of it, your army stops.
What he neglects to mention is that when you run out of oil, your economy stops, not just your army. I was reminded by this excerpt, Gwynne Dyers’ notation that
After the Second World War the United States literally divided the world up into commands, and some American officer was responsible for every region of the world.
and Johnson’s telling of the Mossadegh story, of the film Three Days of the Condor (another good one, BTW.) In this film everyone in a small CIA research office is murdered except for one analyst who happened to violate protocol by slipping out the back door to pick up lunch. Robert Redford played the analyst, a man who did pretty much nothing but read books and write reports, who figures out that he accidentally stumbled upon an active plot to overthrow a Middle Eastern nation, and his discovery was the reason his division was targeted. At the end of the film, Redford’s character Turner confronts a senior CIA administrator:
Turner: Do we have plans to invade the Middle East?
Higgins: Are you crazy?
Turner: Am I?
Higgins: Look, Turner…
Turner: Do we have plans?
Higgins: No. Absolutely not. We have games. That’s all. We play games. What if? How many men? What would it take? Is there a cheaper way to destabilize a regime? That’s what we’re paid to do. . . . Fact is, there was nothing wrong with the plan. Oh, the plan was alright, the plan would’ve worked.
Turner: Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?
Higgins: No. It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Turner: Ask them.
Higgins: Not now — then! Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ’em when their engines stop. Ask ’em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em. They’ll just want us to get it for them!
Three Days of the Condor was released in 1975 in the era of oil embargoes and gas shortages.
Did the government lie to us in order to convince the public and Congress to vote to authorize war? Not to mince words, yes. Did Bush & Co. – Rumsfeld included – believe that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons? Of that I honestly have no doubt. As Rumsfeld stated, anybody with an active intelligence program believed that. In April of 2004 a plot to set off a massive chemical weapon in Amman Jordan was foiled. Twenty tons of chemicals were seized, “including blistering agents to cause third-degree burns, nerve gas and choking agents.” Oddly, no one apparently bothered to wonder where these chemicals came from, but Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was said to be behind the attack, and al-Zarqawi was in Iraq at the time. If you look at a map carefully, you’ll notice that Jordan shares a border with Iraq.
Nukes? Probably not, but it is my assessment that no one really knew what Iraq’s nuclear program looked like in 2002-2003. Regardless of the protestations of Mr. Valerie Plame, Saddam did, in fact, have significant stockpiles of yellowcake, though no word on where it came from either. But mobile bio-weapons labs in semi-trailers? Doubtful. Aluminum tubes suitable only for gas centrifuges? Laughable. But it does prove the point that we are the United States of Amnesia. We only remember what we want to remember.
I believe that in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War there was a realization that leaving Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq had been a terrible error. Twelve years of maintaining “no-fly” zones and “Oil for Food” sanctions had proven useless. There was mounting pressure to remove both the no-fly zones and the sanctions, thus leaving Saddam in power, and with the cachet that he had thus defeated the Great Satan. Saddam had twice attempted to seize the oil assets of his neighbors – first Iran, then Kuwait. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t do it again, or worse. After his humiliation in the first Gulf War he had tried to assassinate George H.W. Bush. His government gave sanctuary to Abu Abbas, the mastermind behind the Achille Lauro hijacking. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in the country prior to the 2003 invasion. Abu Nidal enjoyed Baghdad hospitality, as did American-born Abdul Rahman Yasin, accused of being the man who mixed the chemicals detonated in the basement of the World Trade Center in 1993. Saddam paid the families of Palestinian suicide bombers $25,000, essentially a fortune. Who else did he pay?
The point of Why We Fight is that America goes to war not really for “‘freedom’ and nice common values” but for nationalistic reasons – that we’re “an incredibly militant and militaristic nation” run by large corporations that see warmaking as a profit center (“Clearly capitalism is winning.”), and that this fits in with the current administration’s desire to “take over,” that “it was now our destiny that without the Soviet Union there is no one who can possibly approach us in military terms. It says that’s the way it ought to be, and our policy must be to maintain and expand that. That we are the new Rome.”
Except we’ve been doing this kind of thing almost since the inception of the country. From our war against the Barbary Pirates to the invasion of Iraq, each time our government has used our military force it has been for our national interests, with a few notable exceptions. We have indeed sponsored coup d’états, and supported tyrannical regimes (Saddam being just one) when the people in the executive office believed it was the best thing for America.
But what the film left out was Bush’s other justifications for invading Iraq. In his Feb. 26, 2003 speech he said this:
The current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq.
The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein — but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us.
That is, it’s in America’s national interest. Col. Kwiatkowski:
The reason we’re in Iraq first off has not been honestly told to the American people. It certainly had nothing to do with the liberation of the Iraqi people. It was never part of the agenda, and it’s not part of the agenda now.
Sorry. The liberation of the Iraqi people wasn’t the primary purpose, nor even the secondary, but it was part of the agenda, and it still is.
Bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy. Yet that is no excuse to leave the Iraqi regime’s torture chambers and poison labs in operation. Any future the Iraqi people choose for themselves will be better than the nightmare world that Saddam Hussein has chosen for them.
Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more. America has made and kept this kind of commitment before — in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments. We established an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom. In societies that once bred fascism and militarism, liberty found a permanent home.
There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq — with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people — is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.
The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. And there are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East. Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the “freedom gap” so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater politics participation, economic openness, and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.
It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world — or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim — is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror.
Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state. The passing of Saddam Hussein’s regime will deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron that pays for terrorist training, and offers rewards to families of suicide bombers. And other regimes will be given a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated.
If you want to see that as “repositioning the United States as the country that must be obeyed” I suppose that’s valid, but if you see it as “treading the same path taken by the first democratic regime ever created in the Western world, namely the Roman Republic” I’ve got some news for you. The Imperial Roman motto was “Veni, vidi, vici” – “I came, I saw, I conquered.” The American version seems to be more along the lines of “We came, we kicked ass, and then we hauled out the checkbook.” As Bush said in a later speech:
We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.
As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.
This is a substantial change in policy from Kissinger’s “our bastards” realpolitik, the kind that has resulted in the “blowback” that Chalmers Johnson speaks of – the festering problems and ideologies of violence that we now face.
The question now is not “does he mean it?” The question now is “will we carry through?”
The invasion of Iraq had nothing directly to do with 9/11 – that much is true. But it has everything to do with the ideological war we are engaged in with radical Islam. This is something the people in those think tanks recognized back in 1992, and I believe they were right. Eugene Jarecki, Chalmers Johnson and a whole lot of very bright people think they were wrong. Why We Fight is a propaganda piece advocating that position, and it does it well, but it depends on The United States of Amnesia to prevent the asking of uncomfortable questions.
Yes, indeed, the military-industrial complex is large and influential, but the companies who make the weapons systems and munitions, the contractors who provide food and fuel to our soldiers in the field, the large corporate interests, aren’t the ones who pushed for the invasion of Iraq. Yes, it was about oil, but it wasn’t about making Halliburton, Exxon/Mobile, and Shell Oil rich – it was about ensuring that America and the rest of the world have access to oil – oil we buy, not oil we steal. And to do that, instead of toppling Saddam with a coup d’état and installing one of “our bastards” in his place, as we did with Mossadegh and the Shah, we’re now attempting that much hated phrase, “nation building”. So far it’s cost about 4,000 coalition dead, nearly 30,000 wounded, and multiple billions of dollars. Iraqi casualties are in the 100,000 range, out of a population of about 27.5 million.
The Romans would have just rolled in and decimated the population, installed a governor, and rounded up all the military-age males for induction into the army, shipping them off to other frontiers.
Sorry, but in my opinion, the America/Rome parallel is a bad joke.
Why do we fight? We fight in defense of our national interests. It’s what we’ve always done. As a democracy, it is necessary to gain the support of the electorate in order to do so, and the only effective method to do that – from ancient Greece until today – is to frighten the populace. Why? Because it isn’t just the United States of Amnesia. Nearly the whole of humanity suffers from the same affliction. Hopefully the hobgoblins our government frightens us with are real, just not as terrifying as they are made out to be – because if they’re not real, our effort, our treasure, and the lives of our young are sacrificed for nothing.
In this case, the hobgoblins were real, just not as dangerous as they were made out to be. But had we left Saddam in power, anybody want to predict what the blowback from that would have been?
UPDATE: The original JSKit/Echo comment thread (53 comments) has been resurrected by the herculean efforts of reader John Hardin. It is available here.