The new Zogby poll gauging the opinions of American troops in Iraq has drawn attention mostly because it finds that 72 percent believe the United States should withdraw in a year or less and only 23 percent favor George W. Bush’s plan to “stay the course.”
But the poll also illustrates the power of propaganda.
Shockingly, 85 percent of the troops questioned believe they are fighting in Iraq “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks” – one of the key Iraq War myths built by Bush’s frequent juxtaposition of references to Osama bin-Laden and Saddam Hussein.
This subliminal message has stuck with the vast majority of U.S. troops even though Bush eventually acknowledged publicly that there is no evidence linking Saddam to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
In other words, more than eight in 10 of the U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq think they are there avenging the 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, even though the U.S. government lacks evidence of the connection.
The poll also found that 77 percent think that a major reason for the war was “to stop Saddam from protecting al-Qaeda in Iraq” – another myth nurtured by the Bush administration even though Hussein’s secular government was a bitter enemy of al-Qaeda’s Islamic fundamentalists.
Despite this confusion over the reasons for the war, the poll exploded another myth promoted by the administration and its media allies – that Americans are unpatriotic if they criticize Bush’s policies, because to do so would damage troop morale.
It turns out the troops want the war brought to a quick end because they have concluded it’s unwinnable based on their own experiences, not from the carping of home-side naysayers, often denounced as “traitors” by Bush’s supporters.
It seems somehow that 72 percent of the U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq have become “traitors,” too.
But what’s going on? How can the Bush administration and its supporters get away with spreading so much confusion about the reasons for invading Iraq? How can they justify demonizing so many Americans who disagree with the war policy?
The answer seems to be that the relentless application of propaganda was always part of the administration’s strategy for herding the American public in the direction favored by Bush and his neoconservative advisers.
Remember Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Office of Strategic Influence, the secretive project designed to manipulate international opinion but which was expected to “blow back” some of its propaganda onto the American people.
On Feb. 19, 2002, five months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and 13 months before the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times reported that this Pentagon office was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations” in order “to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.”
News of this disinformation program caused outrage and led to a Pentagon announcement that the office had been shut down. But Rumsfeld later explained that the concept was kept alive even though the office was closed.
“There was the Office of Strategic Influence,” Rumsfeld said. “You may recall that. And ‘Oh, my goodness gracious, isn’t that terrible; Henny Penny, the sky is going to fall.’ I went down that next day and said, ‘Fine, if you want to savage this thing, fine, I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done’ and I have.” [See Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting press release, Nov. 27, 2002]
So the Pentagon continued its propaganda project of placing stories, possibly false, in the foreign media, with some of them surely feeding back into the U.S. political debate though the U.S. government is barred from disseminating propaganda at home.
In 2003, the Pentagon produced another propaganda program described in a document called “Information Operations Roadmap,” which describes the need for influencing journalists, enemies and the public.
The document recognizes that Americans consume propaganda – on TV and through the Internet – that is intended for foreign audiences. [BBC, Jan. 28, 2006]
While the Pentagon insists that its public information is accurate, albeit promoting images favorable to the United States, the BBC registered a different opinion about the stories circulated by the U.S. military during the Iraq invasion.
“We’re absolutely sick and tired of putting things out and finding they’re not true,” a senior BBC journalist told the Guardian. “The misinformation in this war is far and away worse than any conflict I’ve covered, including the first Gulf War and Kosovo. …
“I don’t know whether they (Pentagon officials) are putting out flyers in the hope that we’ll run them first and ask questions later or whether they genuinely don’t know what’s going on – I rather suspect the latter.” [The Guardian, UK, March 28, 2003]
Military analysts also shake their heads at how reliant the administration has become on propaganda for promoting its goals. Sam Gardiner, an instructor in strategy at the National War College, said the Bush administration has waged a systematic P.R. campaign to sell the invasion of Iraq to the American public.
“There is absolutely no question that the White House and the Pentagon participated in an effort to market the military option,” Gardiner said. “The truth did not make any difference to that campaign. To call it fixing is to miss the more profound point.
“It was a campaign to influence. It involved creating false stories; it involved exaggerating; it involved manipulating the numbers of stories that were released; it involved a major campaign to attack those who disagreed with the military option; it included all the techniques those who ran the marketing effort had learned in political campaign.” [Kevin Zeese, Democracy Rising, June 23, 2005]
So, there was the tale about Pfc. Jessica Lynch, both her fierce resistance under fire and her daring rescue from a hostile Iraqi hospital – when the reality was that she never fired a shot and the hospital staff presented no opposition to her rescue. [AP, Nov. 11, 2003]
Then, there was ex-football player Pat Tillman, who died in Afghanistan. Contrary to official reports of his death in a firefight while on patrol, he actually was killed by friendly fire, a reality that was suppressed for five weeks while the Bush administration milked the propaganda advantage of Tillman’s death.
“I’m disgusted by things that have happened with the Pentagon since my son’s death,” his mother, Mary, told the Los Angeles Times. “I don't trust them one bit.”
The truth was stretched, too, when it came to containing negative stories, like the abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Bush said the problem was limited to a few guards on the night shift and that the United States doesn’t engage in torture.
The reality has turned out to be much worse. Torture and other abuse of prisoners have reached from Guantanamo Bay to Iraq and Afghanistan – finally overwhelming official denials.
The Bush administration has practiced propaganda on domestic issues as well. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office objected to the broadcasting of fake “news videos” that were designed to look like independent news stories. The GAO said the stories appeared to violate federal rules against propaganda. [AP, Feb. 19, 2005]
The GAO also reported that the administration spent more than $1.6 billion on public relations and media contracts in a 2 ½ year span, including hiring advertising firms to sell its policies to the America public. [http://www.democrats.reform.house.gov/]
Beyond this expensive outreach, the Bush administration has succeeded in gaining cooperation from U.S. news organizations in its news management. Bowing to the administration’s national security claims, New York Times executives held the story of warrantless wiretaps for more than a year, possibly altering the outcome of 2004 election.
Violence in Iraq
And what has happened to journalists who act independently and write what they observe in war zones like Iraq?
In 2005, they were killed at a record rate, including a growing number of them becoming the victims of “targeted” killings, according to the International Federation of Journalists. At least 89 journalists were murdered because of their professional work out of a total of 150 media deaths, IFJ said.
“The numbers are staggering,” IFJ general secretary Aidan White said. IFJ listed 38 deliberate killings in the Middle East in 2005, with 35 occurring in Iraq. Five other media workers in Iraq were killed by U.S. troops, bringing the total killed by coalition forces to 18 since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. [Reuters, Jan. 23, 2006]
In April 2003, as U.S. forces were moving into the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, a U.S. tank fired on the Palestine Hotel, which housed foreign journalists, purportedly in “response to hostile fire.” Two journalists were killed, but other reporters monitoring the fighting from their balconies denied that there had been any shooting from the hotel.
“There is simply no evidence to support the official U.S. position that U.S. forces were returning hostile fire from the Palestine Hotel,” said a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. [CBS, May 28, 2003]
U.S. news executives also have complained about strong-arm tactics used to prevent journalists from reporting on incidents that might undermine support for the war back in the United States.
“Our journalists in Iraq have been shoved to the ground, pushed out of the way, told to leave the scene of explosions; we’ve had camera disks and videotapes confiscated, reporters detained,” said Associated Press Washington bureau chief Sandy Johnson. [Nation, Dec. 25, 2003]
As the Iraqi insurgency grew in 2004, so did the heavy-handed tactics against journalists. In May, three Reuters journalists and one working for NBC said U.S. forces subjected them to beatings and other abuse similar to what was later revealed at Abu Ghraib prison.
“Two of the three Reuters staff said they had been forced to insert a finger into their anuses and then lick it, and were forced to put shoes in their mouths, particularly humiliating in Arab culture,” Reuters reported.
“The soldiers told them they would be taken to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, deprived them of sleep, placed bags over their heads, kicked and hit them and forced them to remain in stress positions for long periods.” [Reuters, Oct, 14, 2004]
The British newspaper, The Guardian, described Iraqi police following the American lead in adopting their own harsh tactics toward journalists in 2004: “Dozens of journalists in Najaf, including the entire BBC team, were forced from their hotel at gunpoint and detained by local police. Around 60 journalists from local and foreign news organisations including the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent as well as the BBC, were held for almost an hour while police officers delivered what one correspondent described as an ‘unexpected press conference at gunpoint.’ …
“Correspondents in the Najaf Sea hotel said around a dozen policemen, some masked, stormed into the rooms of journalists and forced them into vans and a truck. The Independent's Donald Macintyre reported that the police, some masked, ‘shouted threats and abuse at the reporters, along with their Iraqi drivers and translators, and fired about a dozen shots inside and outside the hotel before taking them before the police chief, Major-General Ghaleb al-Jazaari, to hear his emotional complaints about media coverage and the sufferings of police officers during the present crisis’.” [Guardian, Aug., 26, 2004]
One of the lessons of “democracy” apparently being taught to the Iraqi government is the need to control the information reaching the public, at almost any cost. What American spin doctors call “spreading our values” has become the tireless manipulation of public perceptions within an endless “information war.”
Media stories are planted; public relations firms are hired to shape the opinions of an unsuspecting public; reporters who document contrary facts are deemed the enemy and are subject to bullying or worse.
Rumsfeld’s dictums about the need to wage “strategic” media campaigns may be right in a way that his words didn’t fully articulate. The truth must be managed lest the American people learn what the administration is actually doing.