The Propaganda War

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America, both government and people, is preparing for war with Iraq. The reasons are very clear: Saddam Hussein is a sponsor of terrorism and is developing weapons of mass destruction. He is a threat to both America and Israel, and indeed to stability in the Middle East. By overthrowing Hussein and replacing him with a democratic, pro-American leadership, the U.S. will gain a valuable ally in the Middle East and, perhaps best of all, will liberate the oppressed people of Iraq.

Those are the reasons for war with Iraq, and to the extent that they contain any factual claims, they’re all false. No credible evidence has linked Hussein to 9/11 or any other recent terrorist acts. He may be developing “weapons of mass destruction,” but that can hardly be a casus belli when other regimes in the Middle East already have such things or are better able to develop and deploy them than Iraq. Israel is one state that already possesses weapons of mass destruction, and is more than able to fight its own war if it considers Iraq to be a danger. Hussein’s other neighbors, including Iran, with whom he fought a war in the 1980’s, do not consider him a grave threat, certainly not enough so as to warrant U.S. intervention. As for U.S. success in the field of “nation building,” the record speaks for itself.

None of this will come as news to the readers of LRC. In fact, it should not come as news to any well-informed American, but there’s the rub. According to a Washington Post poll, 57% of American adults favor going to war with Iraq, including deploying ground forces. It is possible that the people polled have reasons other than those cited above for supporting the war, but is it likely? Ignorance by itself cannot account for such large numbers of Americans supporting invading another country; some sort of reason is needed. Understandably enough, most American adults probably are not very interested in the nuances of foreign policy, but something has convinced them that Iraq, of all places, is worth invading. That “something” is propaganda, and it bears a close examination.

Propaganda comes in many, many forms, but thankfully much of the pro-war propaganda has been crude and is thus easily analyzed. For example, there are specimens such as Rod Dreher’s recent National Review Online column “America, Get Angry,” that substitute emotion for thought. Dreher writes: “…we need to be shocked again. We need to be traumatized again. Our national survival depends on it.” He may believe this, but he does not provide anything resembling an argument to support his contention. Not that he needs to, as long as he’s willing to use the crudest but most effective propaganda method of all, repetition. Even an assertion without an argument will come to be believed, over time, if it is repeated often enough and creatively enough.

Anyone who has worked on an advertising campaign in business or politics knows the importance of repetition. It takes a certain number of iterations before your audience will even recognize your product’s name, let alone buy it. The “product” that neoconservative propagandists are selling is war with Iraq. The reasons for the war may not stand up to scrutiny, but the sheer volume of the propaganda is enough to give it psychological force. It helps too that the propaganda is disseminated from multiple sources, and that these sources refer back to one another, and thereby reinforce one another. It may be that no one reads the Weekly Standard, but so long as it exists it is another “source” that can be cited to verify the “truth” of what the neoconservatives are asserting. To the extent that propaganda is consistent between different sources it gives the impression of being logical, even if it has no connection to the outside world. Additionally, every undergraduate knows the benefits that can be had from padding a bibliography with redundant sources, if the professor is inattentive. The more sources that are cited, the more true it all seems, even if what is being argued (or asserted) is nonsense. In this fashion, entire worldviews can be created out of tautologies.

Polls are a specialized kind of tautology. The Washington Post poll cited above is a good example. Polls are treated as news, even though they are based on opinion. Furthermore, they’re based on opinions that are shaped by the questions that pollsters ask and the response options that they provide (since most polling is multiple choice). Pollsters may try to be neutral, but they have to “frame the issue” — that is, they have to decide what questions to ask, and what answers to accept — and that itself is a source of distortion. Propaganda can affect the process at every stage, first by providing the people being polled with false information, then by framing the issue at large (which influences how the pollsters frame it). The poll then finds out that the public holds the same view that the propagandists have put out, and this finding is treated as a meaningful fact. All that’s happened is that the propaganda has gone in a circle. It’s a tautology, and it says nothing about reality: in this case, about whether or not Hussein is a threat to you and me. (Conservatives understood this point very well during the Clinton years, when they argued that Clinton’s approval ratings in the polls had nothing to do with whether or not he was guilty of perjury.)

One more propaganda technique worthy of note is one familiar to anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984, or his essay “Politics and the English Language.” Change or remove the meaning from language, and you can condition human thought and behavior. A case in point is “war.” “War” has always had a metaphorical application, but lately the distinction between war as a metaphor and war as war has been destroyed. National Review Online is not being metaphorical when it uses the rubric “At War” for a section on its front page. Even the “mainstream” media is full of references to America already being at a state of war. One hears it so often, it’s easy to believe. But is it true? Certainly Congress has not declared a war, as the Constitution specifies. So we’re not constitutionally at war. The U.S. could be unconstitutionally at war, but even this is problematic — with whom is the U.S. at war? There are American forces in Afghanistan, and around the world, and they’re engaged in sporadic fighting, but none of this quite rises to the level of what is usually meant by the word “war.” Of course, it’s easier to go to war with Iraq if you believe that you’re already at war; it’s also easy to think that war is not so bad if this is what it’s like.

A war on terrorism is not a war, because terrorism is an abstraction, a mode of behavior which anyone at any time can engage in. There is not a limited amount of terrorism in the world that can be found and eliminated (I am indebted to Robert Higgs for this observation). Clearly a “war on poverty” and a “war on drugs,” are metaphorical wars, but somehow the “war on terrorism” is treated as something different. It isn’t. As an aside, it’s worth noting that one of the problems with these metaphorical wars is that they not only cannot be won — how do you know when you’ve “won” the war on terror? — but that they cannot be lost either. Real wars, as terrible as they are, can at least be ended by killing everyone on the other side. Fake wars, on the other hand, are just as terrible but have no necessary end, because one man’s definition of defeat might well be another’s victory.

One final propaganda technique must be mentioned in association with the proposed war on Iraq: spectacle. The Soviet Union used to hold lavish military parades to demonstrate its strength, a show of force to frighten enemies and build morale at home. The Romans had bread and circuses and gladiatorial games to keep the masses distracted and mollified. The United States today has televised wars. War itself is a technique of propaganda; war, just like regular propaganda, serves to identify an enemy, supply an impetus to action, encourage participation, boost morale and create psychological solidarity. As a spectacle, nothing is better than a war for unifying the masses behind the State, mobilizing them in service to the State, and making the masses forget their troubles at home.

The only antidotes to propaganda are logic and reality. No amount of Soviet propaganda would have been sufficient to hide the failures of an insane economic and political system. No amount of neoconservative propaganda on Iraq will be enough to stop a war on that country from turning into a quagmire and encouraging more terrorism. Reality has a way of imposing itself on unworldly ideologies. But the war on Iraq can be stopped before that happens, if enough Americans are willing to exercise some critical thought in evaluating the proposed reasons for going to war. Never mind the polls and the talking heads, never mind the conventional wisdom, and don’t just get angry, but ask yourself: does war with Iraq make sense?

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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