The Real First Casualty of War

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During the
1970s, I filmed secretly in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist dictatorship.
The dissident novelist Zdenek Urbánek told me, "In one
respect, we are more fortunate than you in the west. We believe
nothing of what we read in the newspapers and watch on television,
nothing of the official truth. Unlike you, we have learned to read
between the lines, because real truth is always subversive."

This acute
skepticism, this skill of reading between the lines, is urgently
needed in supposedly free societies today. Take the reporting of
state-sponsored war. The oldest cliché is that truth is the
first casualty of war. I disagree. Journalism is the first casualty.
Not only that: it has become a weapon of war, a virulent censorship
that goes unrecognized in the United States, Britain and other democracies;
censorship by omission, whose power is such that, in war, it can
mean the difference between life and death for people in faraway
countries, such as Iraq.

As a journalist
for more than 40 years, I have tried to understand how this works.
In the aftermath of the US war in Vietnam, which I reported, the
policy in Washington was revenge, a word frequently used in private
but never publicly. A medieval embargo was imposed on Vietnam and
Cambodia; the Thatcher government cut off supplies of milk to the
children of Vietnam. This assault on the very fabric of life in
two of the world’s most stricken societies was rarely reported;
the consequence was mass suffering.

It was during
this time that I made a series of documentaries about Cambodia.
The first, in 1979, Year Zero: the silent death of Cambodia, described
the American bombing that had provided a catalyst for the rise of
Pol Pot, and showed the shocking human effects of the embargo. Year
Zero was broadcast in some 60 countries, but never in the United
States. When I flew to Washington and offered it to the national
public broadcaster, PBS, I received a curious reaction. PBS executives
were shocked by the film, and spoke admiringly of it, even as they
collectively shook their heads. One of them said: "John, we
are disturbed that your film says the United States played such
a destructive role, so we have decided to call in a journalistic

The term "journalistic
adjudicator" was out of Orwell. PBS appointed one Richard Dudman,
a reporter on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and one of the
few westerners to have been invited by Pol Pot to visit Cambodia.
His dispatches reflected none of the savagery then enveloping that
country; he even praised his hosts. Not surprisingly, he gave my
film the thumbs-down. One of the PBS executives confided to me:
"These are difficult days under Ronald Reagan. Your film would
have given us problems."

The lack of
truth about what had really happened in southeast Asia — the
media-promoted myth of a "blunder" and the suppression
of the true scale of civilian casualties and of routine mass murder,
even the word "invasion" — allowed Reagan to launch
a second "noble cause" in central America. The target
was another impoverished nation without resources: Nicaragua, whose
"threat," like Vietnam’s, was in trying to establish a
model of development different from that of the colonial dictatorships
backed by Washington. Nicaragua was crushed, thanks in no small
part to leading American journalists, conservative and liberal,
who suppressed the triumphs of the Sandinistas and encouraged a
specious debate about a "threat."

The tragedy
in Iraq is different, but, for journalists, there are haunting similarities.
On 24 August last year, a New York Times editorial declared:
"If we had all known then what we know now, the invasion [of
Iraq] would have been stopped by a popular outcry." This amazing
admission was saying, in effect, that the invasion would never have
happened if journalists had not betrayed the public by accepting
and amplifying and echoing the lies of Bush and Blair, instead of
challenging and exposing them.

We now know
that the BBC and other British media were used by MI6, the secret
intelligence service. In what was called "Operation Mass Appeal,"
MI6 agents planted stories about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass
destruction — such as weapons hidden in his palaces and in
secret underground bunkers. All these stories were fake. But this
is not the point. The point is that the dark deeds of MI6 were quite
unnecessary. Recently, the BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden,
was asked to explain how one of her "embedded" reporters
in Iraq, having accepted US denials of the use of chemical weapons
against civilians, could possibly describe the aim of the Anglo-American
invasion as to "bring democracy and human rights" to Iraq.
She replied with quotations from Blair that this was indeed the
aim, as if Blair’s utterances and the truth were in any way related.
On the third anniversary of the invasion, a BBC newsreader described
this illegal, unprovoked act, based on lies, as a "miscalculation."
Thus, to use Edward Herman’s memorable phrase, the unthinkable was

Such servility
to state power is hotly denied, yet routine. Almost the entire British
media has omitted the true figure of Iraqi civilian casualties,
willfully ignoring or attempting to discredit respectable studies.
"Making conservative assumptions," wrote the researchers
from the eminent Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health,
working with Iraqi scholars, "we think that about 100,000 excess
deaths, or more, have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq .
. . which were primarily the result of military actions by coalition
forces. Most of those killed by coalition forces were women and
children . . ." That was 29 October 2004. Today, the figure
has doubled.

Language is
perhaps the most crucial battleground. Noble words such as "democracy,"
"liberation," "freedom" and "reform"
have been emptied of their true meaning and refilled by the enemies
of those concepts. The counterfeits dominate the news, along with
dishonest political labels, such as "left of center,"
a favorite given to warlords such as Blair and Bill Clinton; it
means the opposite. "War on terror" is a fake metaphor
that insults our intelligence. We are not at war. Instead, our troops
are fighting insurrections in countries where our invasions have
caused mayhem and grief, the evidence and images of which are suppressed.
How many people know that, in revenge for 3,000 innocent lives taken
on 11 September 2001, up to 20,000 innocent people died in Afghanistan?

In reclaiming
the honor of our craft, not to mention the truth, we journalists
at least need to understand the historic task to which we are assigned
— that is, to report the rest of humanity in terms of its usefulness,
or otherwise, to "us," and to soften up the public for
rapacious attacks on countries that are no threat to us. We soften
them up by dehumanizing them, by writing about "regime change"
in Iran as if that country were an abstraction, not a human society.
Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela is currently being softened up on
both sides of the Atlantic. A few weeks ago, Channel 4 News
carried a major item that might have been broadcast by the US State
Department. The reporter, Jonathan Rugman, the program’s Washington
correspondent, presented Chávez as a cartoon character, a
sinister buffoon whose folksy Latin ways disguised a man "in
danger of joining a rogues’ gallery of dictators and despots —
Washington’s latest Latin nightmare." In contrast, Condoleezza
Rice was given gravitas and Donald Rumsfeld was allowed to compare
Chávez to Hitler.

Indeed, almost
everything in this travesty of journalism was viewed from Washington,
and only fragments of it from the barrios of Venezuela, where Chávez
enjoys 80 per cent popularity. That he had won nine democratic elections
and referendums — a world record — was omitted. In crude
Soviet flick style, he was shown with the likes of Saddam Hussein
and Muammar Gaddafi, though these brief encounters had to do with
OPEC and oil only. According to Rugman, Venezuela under Chávez
is helping Iran develop nuclear weapons. No evidence was given for
this absurdity. People watching would have no idea that Venezuela
was the only oil-producing country in the world to use its oil revenue
for the benefit of poor people. They would have no idea of spectacular
developments in health, education, literacy; no idea that Venezuela
has no political jails — unlike the United States.

So if the Bush
administration moves to implement "Operation Bilbao,"
a contingency plan to overthrow the democratic government of Venezuela,
who will care, because who will know? For we shall have only the
media version; another demon will get what is coming to him. The
poor of Venezuela, like the poor of Nicaragua, and the poor of Vietnam
and countless other faraway places, whose dreams and lives are of
no interest, will be invisible in their grief: a triumph of censorship
by journalism.

It is said
that the Internet offers an alternative, and what is wonderful about
the rebellious spirits on the worldwide web is that they often report
as many journalists should. They are mavericks in the tradition
of muckrakers such as Claud Cockburn, who said: "Never believe
anything until it has been officially denied." But the Internet
is still a kind of samizdat, an underground, and most of
humanity does not log on, just as most of humanity does not own
a mobile phone. And the right to know ought to be universal. That
other great muckraker, Tom Paine, warned that if the majority of
the people were being denied the truth and ideas of truth, it was
time to storm what he called the "Bastille of words."
That time is now.

This is
an abridged version of an address, “Reporting War and Empire,” by
John Pilger at Columbia University, New York, in company with Seymour
Hersh, Robert Fisk and Charles Glass.

21, 2006

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.

John Pilger 2006

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