War Propaganda and the State

The killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons occasioned another farrago of propaganda from the War Party.

The deed done, we heard, pro-Saddam “guerillas” would stop murdering American occupation troops. The “guerillas” immediately murdered three boys from the Army’s storied 101st Airborne.

It was propaganda of the moment to justify the war at hand. Over the years, however, a more insidious cant has gnarled the American mind: When American troops fight, they always fight to “defend our freedom.”

It’s a naked lie requiring puerile innocence to believe. But we never stop hearing it.

Two Examples

Consider some recent mail about my touchy column on mothers in the military.

More than one correspondent wrote that journalists are lucky American soldiers man the global ramparts to protect free speech. Aghast that journalists exercise that right, they insisted that American misadventures in such remote places as Bosnia and Iraq guard the unpatriotic Fourth Estate from a dark night of censorship.

A broader corollary suggestion was that American expeditionary forces defend American freedom in general. Apparently, when American troops grapple with outlaw Serbian thugs, Somali warlords and Arab dictators, they are stopping the barbarian hordes from sailing into the Chesapeake Bay and marching on the capital city.

Veterans groups propagate this mythology, acceptance of which must be total. Anyone who disagrees is ungrateful and unpatriotic.

The Greater Threat

As hard and unpopular as it is to say, this received wisdom is preposterous.

American troops in Iraq are not protecting our right to free speech or civil liberties. Nor did the first Gulf War.

What of others? Perhaps we might conclude likewise about Vietnam and Korea, although at least we fought a Communist menace that subjugated half the planet and promised same for the United States. Then again, we lost both, with no apparent diminution of our conventionally understood freedoms.

World War II? We can say the Axis hit first, but that truth leaves an important question unanswered: Was the United States ever in danger of imminent invasion? No.

World War I? A total waste of life, but Americans happily warbled the refrain of Cohan’s “Over There.”

Sad truth is, American presidents have always been a monumentally greater threat to free speech and civil liberties than foreign enemies. The police-state tactics of Lincoln, Wilson, FDR and now George W. Bush well prove it.

Put it this way: An Iraqi has never threatened to kill me over a controversial column. An American has.

Lies Diminish Service

One purpose of propaganda is to engender worship of the military to enable imperialism.

Everyone believes the troops fight for our freedoms; critics are seditious. We cannot question “our commander-in-chief,” although he lied about the reason for going to war. Sound familiar?

That isn’t patriotism, it’s nationalism and jingoism. Admiration is one thing, but uncritical worship and lies about “protecting our freedom” are another, the point not being to diminish the oft-bloody sacrifice of Americans who bravely serve.

They die, often in great agony; they suffer irreparable physical and mental wounds. They deserve undying gratitude.

But lying about why they die, or why they serve, cheapens their sacrifice and obscures their valor and heroism. It also invites needless sacrifice and death, such as what we witness in Iraq.

The dangerous result of war propaganda is unreflective sentiment and blind obedience to a State that endangers our liberties far more than a second-rate military power.

Remember that.

July 26, 2003

Syndicated columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

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