Wartime Lies: A Consumer's Guide to the Bombing

"George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where."

-- CBS News anchor Dan Rather, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center

Here come "surgical strikes"! Check out that "laser-guided" "pinpoint precision."

"Collateral damage"? Hardly any.

It's a glorious war, a noble cause, the only solution to a world crisis....

So we heard in the Gulf War.

So we hear at the onset of the Afghan war. Many of the same characters who ran and propagandized the last war -- Colin Powell and Dan Rather, for instance -- have returned to our living rooms.

Last time, it turned out there was more to the story. In the first days of CNN-fueled war hysteria, we couldn't know the truth about whom we bombed, or to what end. It's the same this week as our bombs began raining on Afghanistan. It's hard to know the truth about what's happening -- and therefore impossible to judge whether the action is justified.

We can assume only this: Right or wrong, the government is lying to us. And the media is repeating and magnifying those lies in order to convince us to put our brains on hold and yell for blood behind a waving pennant of the stars and stripes.

They did it last time.

Last Time's Lies

Consider ABC News' Sam Donaldson. He helped convince the nation that Star Wars works, through his live coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

On Jan. 22, 1991, ABC showed a bright object flashing through the sky. Another bright object raced toward it. Donaldson told viewers that one of Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles was heading toward Saudi Arabia. But here came a good old U.S.-made Patriot missile to the rescue.

"Bull's-eye!" Donaldson proclaimed. "No more Scud!"

Such media accounts -- and parroting of government claims that Patriot missiles hit almost every Scud they aimed at -- led to a public celebration of the Patriot missile. We weren't powerless. America was strong! We could stop enemy weapons. That November, Congress boosted the budget for the "Star Wars" anti-missile shield from $3.1 billion to $4.15 billion.

The following year, as Columbia Journalism Review would report ("Patriot Games," July/August 1992), that film clip showed up at a Congressional hearing concerning inflated military claims. Pointing to the same clip Donaldson had narrated, a former nuclear weapons analyst pointed out that the Scud passed through whatever explosion appeared on the screen -- and that Patriots were a "total failure" in the Gulf War.

Some other examples of Gulf War lies (courtesy of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting):

- After the war, The New York Times retracted a story, repeated by other major news outlets, that Iraqi soldiers had killed 300 premature babies by removing them from incubators.

- 60 Minutes featured an interview with "Captain Karim," a supposed former Saddam bodyguard, spinning fearful tales about the Iraqi dictator. Karim turned out to be a fraud.

- The Times, CNN, Time and others supported then-President Bush's attacks on Iraqi radio by reporting that a broadcaster named "Baghdad Betty" had told U.S. troops to return home because "Robert Redford is dating your girlfiend ... Bart Simpson is making love to your wife." In fact, the media was repeating a Johnny Carson Tonight Show gag. (Or misquoting. Johnny said Homer, not Bart.)

What to Watch Out For

While we rely on government and CNN, CBS, et al for our first torrent of war news, history gives us some advice in filtering the noise:

- Don't assume any fact to be true. Especially about the success and human toll of our military actions.

- Watch the videotape. Just because they say something blew something else up, judge for yourself.

- Read next-day or on-line full transcripts of speeches. For instance, some national media characterized Osama bin Laden's first statement as in effect acknowledging he authorized the Sept. 11 attack. It didn't. Also, some accounts played up bin Laden's threat that peace must "reign in Palestine" before Americans have peace -- but left out his next statement that "the army of infidels [must] depart the land of Muhammad," historically his primary gripe.

- Don't take depictions of "allies" at face value. Remember that we helped put the Taliban in power (to destabilize the old Soviet Union), along with Saddam Hussein. Remember that Pakistan's government and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance have horrid human rights records.

- Pay attention to questions on which the media or officials remain silent. So counsels Normon Solomon, a media watchdog and syndicated columnist: "Newsday after the Gulf War quoted somebody in the Pentagon saying, 'We lie by not telling you things.' The starvation issue, for instance: Bush was talking about [our airlifting] 37,000 kits of food and medicine. This is in contrast to several million people who are on the verge of going into starvation [because of U.S. military action]. This fact that serves as a lie is window dressing. A crime against humanity is dressed up as humanitarian action."

- Read and listen to the alternative press! But don't necessarily just believe us, either.

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