April 10, 2020
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Friendly Fire

The US-British Hollywood-type propaganda against Saddam badly backfires on the coalition forces

Friendly Fire
Friendly Fire
American and British forces never were going to knock on the gates of Baghdad, they were going to knock them down. For more than two weeks now, getting to Baghdad had been the target. And then? The push to Baghdad, like one of those arrows curving around on television graphics, got there and stopped. The graphics, like the military tacticians, did not seem to know where to go from there.

"All they have done is drive through a desert," Hani Lazim, an Iraqi who has spent 20 years in London campaigning against Saddam Hussein, told Outlook. "But see how it's being projected as a success. Remember World War II? It was the Russians who destroyed Hitler's forces. But look at all the Hollywood movies about the war. Americans are the heroes, there are no Russians to be seen."

Lazim and many who oppose the war see a Hollywood-isation of this conflict too. The greatest challenges of the war come not on ground and air but in print and air time. Watch the press conference called at Central Headquarters in Doha

at 3 am to announce the rescue of private Jessica Lynch and think of the hundreds of Iraqis dead in a single operation barely mentioned in the usual briefings. The usual word for an exchange where no one dies on one side and hundreds die on the other is massacre. That may be left to historians; the dominant journalism of today doesn't want to know.

"The Americans have incredible resources for disinformation and propaganda," Tim Crook, a leading specialist on propaganda at Goldsmith College, London, told Outlook. And yet they have managed to get many things wrong, he points out. With some poorly constructed language to begin with. "They are talking about the 'decapitation' of Saddam Hussein," he observes. "That's pretty brutal and disgusting—and wouldn't appeal to the rational mind."

'Shock and awe' too has rebounded. "Given the pathetic nature of Iraqi defences, this language creates an uncomfortable feeling," Crook says. "It raises the question, who's the underdog here? American propaganda has succeeded only in making Saddam look heroic."

Saddam may not have got the propaganda right either. Propaganda launched by a totalitarian regime that can be seen to be patently false can't last long either, Crook says. "If you think you can spot it, then the propaganda operation is really bad. People always find other ways of getting to the truth." By the same token again, there will be little need in Britain and the US to control the media because of a "high degree of self-censorship already achieved in the mainstream media arising from the emotional and ideological commitments of the journalists".

Those commitments can lead to the classic pitfall of believing one's own lies, or at least believing what one would like to be true. This is the reason the Americans and the British "have not just miscalculated, they have completely misunderstood the nature of Iraqi society and its institutions", says Labour MP Tam Dalyell.

"When I was in Baghdad in 1994, a lot of people were very critical of Saddam Hussein and the Baath party," he said. "When I went back in 1998, there was far less criticism of Saddam. The effect of the bombing and the sanctions had begun to tell." The obvious remained unknown to Americans.

This time, he says, the US-British alliance lost their cause when the war began. "Within the first night, the bombing blitz on Baghdad would have united most Iraqis against the US and Britain," he said. "So, there is first a misunderstanding about the nature of Iraqi society and then a total miscalculation about fighting the Iraqi people—and they are now fighting the Iraqis, not Saddam Hussein."

The huge miscalculation has been the flip side of continuing anti-Saddam propaganda, Dalyell says.A British government dossier late last year went on at length about Iraqi footballers being tortured for losing a World Cup qualifying match. "But an inquiry by fifa found those allegations to be false in 1997. Why did the British government bring those allegations into a dossier in late 2002?" In fact, sections of the dossier detailing Iraq's surreptitious attempts to procure enriched uranium were plagiarised from research posted on the Web by a Californian student.

The attempted deception led only to self-deception, he says. And this has led the Anglo-American forces to dig traps for themselves all the way to Baghdad. Umm Qasr was 'taken' half-a-dozen times before it was taken. Tony Blair announced a rebellion in Basra and then some Al Jazeera bulletins later acknowledged it had been a "limited" kind of uprising. He announced that two British soldiers had been executed and then withdrew the allegation in the face of undeniable facts from unbound media. Above all, there's no sign that the Americans and British have been welcomed as liberators; not in the desert, not in the outskirts of the towns they have edged past. About the last spin still waiting to unravel is the idea that Iraqis are secretly joyous about the invasion. But already the unease over this last-ditch optimism is beginning to surface. "The enemy we are fighting is not the enemy we war-gamed against," said Lt Gen William Wallace, the senior-most commander of US ground forces, in his now famous confession arising from that often self-destructive American need to drip sound bites.

Most Americans seem too caught up in that Hollywood fix to see that. "I'm in bad-guy country," says an American colonel. "I like it." This language is hitting Americans like friendly fire. Massacres become "rapid depletion", to kill is to "degrade", to drop cluster bombs is to "whack them pretty hard". It's a language that sets distance between projections and ground realities.

Those ground realities showing the other side of the story are visible on Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. Those images do appear and marginally on the cnn and bbc, embedded among reports from the journalists embedded with the military. Baghdad is a quick few scenes in the military theatre; the overwhelming footage comes from journalists in bed with the Anglo-American forces. And a view from bed will necessarily be limited.

Two weeks have brought some sobering home truths, though. "We know that for the moment we'll be seen as villains," says British home secretary David Blunkett. "We know that from the reaction before the conflict started." Which raises the question why they started it in the first place, since this moment doesn't look like it is going to be momentary.
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