The Press and the Myths of War
In wartime we feel a comradeship that, for many of us, makes us feel that for the first time we belong to the nation and the group. We are fooled into thinking that in wartime social inequalities have been obliterated. We are fooled into feeling that, because of the threat, we care about others and others care about us in new and powerful waves of emotion. We are giddy. We mistake this for friendship. It is not. Comradeship, the kind that comes to us in wartime, is about the suppression of self-awareness, self-possession. All is laid at the feet of the god of war. And the cost of this comradeship, certainly for soldiers, is self-sacrifice, self-annihilation. In wartime we become necrophiliacs.
The coverage of war by the press has one consistent and pernicious theme--the worship of our weapons and our military might. Retired officers, breathless reporters, somber news anchors, can barely hold back their excitement, which is perverse and--frankly, to those who do not delight in watching us obliterate other human beings--disgusting. We are folding in on ourselves, losing touch with the outside world, shredding our own humanity and turning war into entertainment and a way to empower ourselves as a nation and individuals. And none of us are untainted. It is the dirty thrill people used to get from watching a public execution. We are hangmen. And the excitement we feel is in direct proportion to the rage and anger we generate around the globe. We will pay for every bomb we drop on Iraq.
"The first casualty when war comes," Senator Hiram Johnson said in 1917, "is truth."
The reasons for war are hidden from public view. We do not speak about the extension of American empire but democracy and ridding the world of terrorists--read "evil"--along with weapons of mass destruction. We do not speak of the huge corporate interests that stand to gain even as poor young boys from Alabama, who joined the Army because this was the only way to get health insurance and a steady job, bleed to death along the Euphrates. We do not speak of the lies that have been told to us in the past by this Administration--for example, the lie that Iraq was on the way to building a nuclear bomb. We have been rendered deaf and dumb. And when we awake, it will be too late, certainly too late to save the dead, theirs and ours.
The embedding of several hundred journalists in military units does not diminish the lie. These journalists do not have access to their own transportation. They depend on the military for everything, from food to a place to sleep. They look to the soldiers around them for protection. When they feel the fear of hostile fire, they identify and seek to protect those who protect them. They become part of the team. It is a natural reaction. I have felt it.
But in that experience, these journalists become participants in the war effort. They want to do their bit. And their bit is the dissemination of myth, the myth used to justify war and boost the morale of the soldiers and civilians. The lie in wartime is almost always the lie of omission. The blunders by our generals--whom the mythmakers always portray as heroes--along with the rank corruption and perversion, are masked from public view. The intoxication of killing, the mutilation of enemy dead, the murder of civilians and the fact that war is not about what they claim is ignored. But in wartime don't look to the press, or most of it, for truth. The press has another purpose.
Perhaps this is not conscious. I doubt the journalists filing the hollow reports from Iraq, in which there are images but rarely any content, are aware of how they are being manipulated. They, like everyone else, believe. But when they look back they will find that war is always about betrayal. It is about betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians and of idealists by the cynical men who wield power, the ones who rarely pay the cost of war. We pay that cost. And we will pay it again.