It has long been a problem for the U.S. imperial establishment that using
their ever-improving arsenal of death in projecting power, from Vietnam to
Iraq, kills large numbers of target state civilians, in violation of widely
accepted norms of morality, international law, and in contradiction of the
regular claims of good intentions toward the civilian victims supposedly
being "liberated" (from Communism or rule by a bad man). Even worse, it can
upset people at home, who don't like to know about, let alone see, the
mangled bodies of bombed civilians, or even a GI using a lighter to burn
down the home of a Vietnamese peasant family (as in a famous Vietnam war
photo). The home population may be struck by the incompatibility of these
deaths and destructive acts with the alleged benevolent war aims, with the
result that support for the military venture may fade and even be
transformed into a political opposition.
Full-Spectrum Domination: Including Media Choices of News and Frames
A first principle of controlling information in the interest of "freedom"--to kill civilians without impediment--is that the war-makers must dominate the frames and factual evidence used by the media. This has become easier as the media have become more commercial, concentrated and dependent on the government for favors (e.g., rights to merge, rights to spectrum allocations, tax and labor policies, protection abroad, information access) and as the growing rightwing echo chamber has served as an enthusiastic conduit and enforcer of government propaganda. The government has also become more efficient at feeding the media suitable information, providing experts for TV commentary, embedding and coopting journalists, keeping reporters away from inconvenient scenes and sources, and bullying them and their bosses into silence on matters that put state policy in an unfavorable light (helped by the rightwing enforcers).
In fact, information policy has become openly recognized as a weapon of war and is included among the elements of the U.S. official strategy of "full spectrum dominance," which U.S. military experts Jim Winters and John Giffin have indicated means both "building up and protecting friendly media and degrading information received by your adversary" (quoted in David Miller, "Information Dominance: The Philosophy of Total Propaganda Control," Jan. 2004, <http://www.coldtype.net). Friendly media may be subsidized and given privileged access to information, and some friendly media may even be created by the state (e.g., the Iraq Media Network, paid for by the Pentagon). Media deemed hostile may be "degraded" by harassment and even cruise missile attacks. This policy is hardly new, but reached a new peak in planning, resort to violence, and extensive usage in the invasion-occupation of Iraq.
A problem for the mind control managers is the brazenness with which the
United States has projected power since the fall of the Soviet Union, with
three major wars of aggression, even more aggressive support for Israel's
ultra-ethnic cleansing, and an openly publicized plan for global domination
by force and threat of force. This has contributed to the growth of more
alert dissident communities, helped along by the Internet and the rise of
alternative media, of which Al Jazeera is the most important (on Iraq, it
reaches far more people than CNN).
The Fraud of Allegedly Minimizing Civilian Casualties
Another part of the official arsenal is to claim a sincere effort to minimize civilian casualties, helped by "precision bombing" and "surgical strikes" aimed solely at military targets. There is absolutely no reason to believe these claims as regards either intent or result, as in each recent U.S. war of aggression--Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq--there is evidence that non-military sites have been regularly targeted, that bombing raids often hit strictly civilian sites because of poor or no evidence of military relevance, and that sites are regularly attacked where civilian casualties are highly probable even if there is a valid military target (in violation of international law). It is a huge fraud that hundreds of bombing attacks on sites where civilians are sure to be killed, even where they are not specifically targeted, does not constitute a "deliberate" killing of civilians (for a good legal and substantive discussion, see Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away With Murder [Pluto: 2004], pp. 46-56).
In Yugoslavia, the United States, under NATO cover, openly extended targets
to civilian sites like power stations, factories producing only consumers
goods, farms, and even hospitals, museums, churches and monasteries, with
the clear and sometimes acknowledged aim of making civilians suffer to force
an early surrender.
Fallujah has also been a free fire zone, both in the April assault and that in November, with few if any restraints on targeting. As in Afghanistan, targets have included hospitals, mosques, power facilities, ambulances, and fleeing civilians--young, old, male and female. In Fallujah the phrase for the "liberal rules of engagement" is "weapons free," and reporter Kevin Sites, who spent some days with the marines in Fallujah, says that "Weapons free means the marines can shoot whatever they see--it's all considered hostile."
There are of course regular official efforts to deny civilian casualties, and lying about them is standard operating procedure, often brazen lying to the point of laughability (some samples are provided in "'Tragic Errors' As An Integral Component of Policy"). But when denial is impossible and the lies are exposed too authoritatively, there are regrets, assurances that the "tragic errors" and "collateral damage" were all sad mistakes and certainly not deliberate, and if enough publicity attaches to the sad mistake there are announcements that an "investigation" is underway. We rarely hear the results of these investigations, and sometimes there is evidence that they never took place. Thus, after British ITN journalist Terry Lloyd was killed by U.S. marines in Iraq, Colin Powell promised an investigation, but some time later when ITN investigators spoke with the marines involved, the investigators were told that the marines had never been questioned in any investigation (see Tim Gopsill, "Target the Media," in David Miller, ed., Tell me lies [Pluto: 2004], pp. 253-4). There are never any costs attached to these tragic errors and collateral damage--to the attackers--unless we include the building up of a huge reservoir of hate based on de facto murders for which there is no legal remedy in the present world order.
It was acknowledged during the war against Yugoslavia that the turn to the bombing of civilian sites was for the purpose of inflicting pain on civilians, and it has occasionally been admitted as regards both Afghanistan and Iraq that killing civilians has its merits--because the civilians were sometimes suspected of supporting the Taliban or Iraqi resistance, and because killing civilians and its threat would instill fear and help render the population quiescent as well as less willing to help insurgents. In Iraq, a "senior Bush administration official" is quoted in the New York Times saying that the bombing of Fallujah was helpful in that it would push the "citizenry" of Fallujah to deny sanctuary and assistance to the insurgents, adding "that's a good thing." A "Pentagon official" was also quoted as saying: "If there are civilians dying in connection with these attacks, and with the destruction, the locals at some point have to make a decision. Do they want to harbor the insurgents and suffer the consequences that come with that?"
Attacking civilians directly or with assured collateral damage is a war crime, as "The Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives" (Protocol 1, Article 48 of the Geneva Conventions, 1977 supplement). Attacking hospitals and deliberately depriving civilians of access to medicines and doctors are war crimes. Deliberately depriving civilian populations of food and water is a war crime. Shooting anybody that walks into the street or tries to cross a river seeking refuge is a war crime. The "wanton destruction" of a city is a war crime. These are all features of the U.S. assaults on Fallujah, so that U.S. authorities and their Iraqi puppet ("Saddam without a moustache") are violating these articles on a continuing and large scale.
Avoiding Body Counts of Civilians Killed
Another weapon in the public relations arsenal of the death-machine managers is negative: don't count bodies. The political and racist double standard here is staggering. In Kosovo, after the 78-day bombing war, the Clinton administration allocated $25 million to the Tribunal for a search for bodies, and of course the body searches in Bosnia have been going at it for years; whereas in the aftermath of the Indonesian massacres of East Timorese in the run-up to the 1999 East Timorese vote for independence, the justice-loving Western powers were uninterested in body-counts, and so were the mass media.
U.S. body counts are known in detail and reported, whereas Vietnamese, Afghan and Iraqi civilian tolls are not, at least from official and mainstream media sources. During the 1991 Persian Gulf war Colin Powell stated that "Body counts don't interest me," and during the current aggression-occupation General Tommy Franks has acknowledged: "We don't count bodies." He meant Iraqi civilian bodies. The number of U.S. personnel missing in action or prisoners of war in Vietnam was constantly harped upon in the U.S. mainstream, but the number of Vietnamese missing in action and a count of the vast civilian toll in Vietnam were of no interest, and as Noam Chomsky has pointed out that civilian toll in Indochina is not even known within the range of millions (and estimates run up to four million). In Iraq today, the media reported at one point that 38 GIs had been killed in the November U.S. assault on Fallujah, but no figures are given for the Iraqi civilians killed--unworthy victims, or unpeople, by rule of political-racist bias, but serving the function of protecting the U.S. onslaught from adverse information.
Preventing Others From Counting Civilian Bodies
Equally important, and a complement of the official policy of not counting
bodies, is preventing others from counting bodies (or reporting such
counts). This involves buying up, intimidating, or destroying the media,
journalists, and even hospitals and doctors in hospitals, who might testify
to civilian casualties. Actions along these lines have been carried out on a
Most recently, the media reported that among the first actions of the U.S.
forces in Fallujah was to bomb out of existence a clinic and take over the
main General Hospital. One of the stated purposes of the takeover was to "shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants:
Fallujah General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian
casualties" (Eric Schmitt, "A Goal is Met. What's Next?," NYT, Nov. 15,
It is well-known that Colin Powell pressed officials of Qatar to crack down on Al Jazeera, and Al Jazeera (and the web site Arabia.com) were subjected to major hacker attacks that caused brief Al Jazeera web site closures and intermittent interruptions throughout the war. The level of the most serious attack suggested government involvement (Faisal Bondi, "Al Jazeera's War," in David Miller, ed., Tell me lies [Pluto: 2004], pp. 248-9). The U.S.-chosen Allawi government of Iraq raided and closed down Al Jazeera's office in Baghdad. One condition insisted on by the United States in the April negotiations for a truce fire in Fallujah was that Al Jazeera agree to move its cameras and personnel out of the city, where that broadcaster had been able to transmit hostile "propaganda" (i.e., photos of and interviews with civilian victims; pictures of ambulances under fire, etc).
The United States bombed and destroyed the main broadcasting station in Belgrade during the 1999 bombing war (while killing 16 people); it bombed all of the regional radio stations of Radio Shuriet in Afghanistan, and it bombed the Al Jazeera broadcasting facilities in Kabul. Shortly after the start of the Iraq invasion, on March 25, 2003, U.S. forces bombed the Iraqi TV station. On April 8, the day after their entry into Baghdad, U.S. forces attacked Al Jazeera's broadcasting facilities there, despite the fact that Al Jazeera officials had told the U.S. military the precise coordinates of their offices in the hope that this would make it more difficult for them to make another "tragic error." This anti-media warfare was hardly noticed by the U.S. mainstream media.
Intimidating and Killing Reporters
The U.S. bombing of the Al Jazeera station in Kabul in 2001 was explained by
U.S. officials as a result of detection of a satellite uplink indicating an
interview with a Taliban member, and U.S. officials have gone farther,
stating publicly that any uplink from enemy territory if detected by U.S.
planes could be the basis for an attack, without differentiation between
journalism and enemy communications (see Gopsill, "Target the Media," pp.
251-3). This threat to bomb even "friendly" journalists and stations would
be a strong deterrent to placing them in enemy territory, and the threat
helped induce CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox to pull out of Baghdad before the March
2003 invasion. Gopsill notes that "This exodus was pleasing to the
Pentagon," causing the U.S. public to be "ignorant of what their forces were
doing to the city."
The policy of encouraging the embedding of journalists, complemented by
warnings, threats and occasional attacks on "unilaterals," had a similar
affect of diminishing the likelihood of reporting outside U.S. military
The day after this attack on the journalists in the Palestine Hotel, the U.S. invaders, using an armoured personnel carrier, pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein right outside the hotel, passing it off as an Iraqi celebration of the victory. The journalists from the hotel filmed this charade, and as Tim Gopsill says, reported it "as the coalition's greatest moment of triumph. Such magnanimity on the part of people who had just been shot at is remarkable."
This "magnanimity" flows from structure and internalized bias that causes
the media to performs miracles of apologetics for state policy. They can
report with great indignation false stories of Saddam's alleged removal of
babies from incubators in Kuwait, but the destruction of a clinic and
seizure of the main hospital in Fallujah, cutting off of the water supply to
this and two other cities, leveling Fallujah with advanced weaponry, and
Madeleine Albright's remark that killing 500,000 Iraqi children through the
"sanctions of mass destruction" was "worth it," are treated at best with
brevity and with no detectable indignation.
In short, the mainstream media are "willing collaborators" in imperial policies that involve the mass killing of civilians-their leaders and many of their journalists are spiritual "Embeds" who hardly need coercion and threats to see their government's view of things, but they and their associates are also under pressure from the media leaders, the government, and the private enforcers to stay away from such "controversial" matters as the killing of unworthy victims or unpeople. The media serve as an arm of the state, and do a better job of state propaganda than systems of explicit government control and crude propaganda. This is state propaganda voluntarily provided, though from parties with symbiotic connections to the state and deriving substantial benefits from this relationship.
Published in Z Magazine
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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