The Iraq War’s Trashiest Piece of Propaganda
by John Chuckman
April 14, 2003
There are scores of candidates for the distinction of trashiest war propaganda in a mainstream publication, and readers outside Canada may not recognize my nominee's name, but I am confident readers will recognize the merit of Margaret Wente's column in the Toronto Globe and Mail, April 10. I've excluded CNN and Thomas Friedman from consideration since trash propaganda on the Middle East is virtually all they do.
Ms. Wente, who normally writes earnestly on such matters as the angst of parents whose child has stubbed a toe on faulty play ground equipment in the city of Toronto, occasionally lends her deep understanding of human nature to Middle Eastern affairs. Some regard these forays as akin to having the late Irma Bombeck write on world affairs, but they are wrong, because Ms. Wente is not funny, not even slightly amusing, just earnest and overflowing with peculiarly-selective concerns.
Her prize column came with a large photograph of a happy-faced Iraqi boy walking with a small group of heavily-armed American soldiers, one of them near the boy smiling generously. The striking impression was of a photograph taken in Italy near the end of World War Two, although the glossy technical quality better resembled modern advertising than war footage. Many ragged children at that time were photographed smiling at American "GIs" or "Joes." Some of them had just received a stick of gum or a bit of chocolate, some were orphans identifying with the new god-like men in town, and all of them were undoubtedly glad to see an end to the dreadful sights and sounds of killing.
At first, I thought the editor should, instead, have featured one of hundreds of searing photographs from the Internet documenting children who will never smile or walk again, children whose faces resemble clotted candle wax or with limbs like smashed twigs, the work of American bombing. But as I read Ms. Wente's cheery, glossy take on horror, I knew the editor had indeed used the perfect picture.
Ms. Wente brushed aside concerns the beaming photo might raise by assuring us that less people had been killed in twenty-one days of war than Hussein killed every year. Statements of this nature do serve a purpose: they immediately signal a writer's true intent. There is no way Ms. Wente could know accurately how many Iraqis died when she wrote those words (she addresses herself only to civilians - the poor conscript soldiers killed while opposing an invasion of their home apparently counting for nothing), nor could she know how many will yet die in an unfinished war that has induced chaos in the cities, and there is certainly no way she could know how many people Hussein killed each year.
- John Chuckman
Ms. Wente celebrates the joys of Hussein's "prison for children" being liberated. We have no way of knowing what she is talking about since the obscure institution seems to have appeared out of nowhere, but we must accept that some children were imprisoned for refusing to join Ba'ath party organizations. This of course is not improbable in a dictatorship, but for all we know the children she refers to were delinquents and the so-called prison a boot camp, something very popular with their American liberators.
Ms. Wente doesn't let the image of a prison for children go unembellished. She adds that children were "tortured and killed" while the men who "kept the whips and keys" were lavishly rewarded. Wow, in just a few words, she has the children rendered as youthful resisters and freedom-fighters and their keepers as whip-totting Gestapo agents.
Somehow, during a quick stopover in Baghdad, Ms. Wente learned the complete history of this mysterious institution and apparently managed to locate and scrutinize its books for expenditures on payroll and leather accessories. I dislike being pushed into such cynicism, but one has to ask what child ever born would accept whipping, torture, and death rather than simply joining a party's politicized equivalent of boy scouts?
Of course, her effort at Nancy Drew and the Nazi Dungeon of Evil is intended to minimize the impact of the hundreds of dead and mutilated Iraqi children many of us are all too familiar with. The American authorities did their very best to keep us from seeing these images of what war is really about, but thanks to the Internet and heroic reporters for organizations like al-Jazeerah, the truth is branded into memory.
Well, children's dungeons or not, there are few thoughtful people who aren't glad that Saddam Hussein is gone, but that is not the same thing as saying they are glad with the way it was done: in defiance of the concerns of most of the world's people; in defiance of a majority of the UN Security Council; and in contempt for the heroic work of UN weapons inspectors - all while setting an example in international affairs that we will certainly live to regret. The satisfaction at his departure also is not the same thing as the immense, long-term problems created by the government of a people whose attention span to problems not filling their television screens with smoke and fireballs is measured in nanoseconds.
Ms. Wente is one of those who see the United States as the brave and noble loner - Kirk Douglas in "Lonely Are the Brave," Sylvester Styllone in "Rambo," or Gary Cooper in "High Noon" - standing away from the ugly mob's opinion (in this case, consisting of virtually the entire planet) to do what he has somehow mystically been given to know, deep-down, is the right thing to do. She shares this view with the President of the United States, a man who appears never to have read a serious book.
So, why should we be surprised when Ms. Wente includes such a B-movie line as "Freedom does not come cheap, I know that," placed in the mouth of an Iraqi? Now, I suppose it is possible that an Iraqi, exposed to the antics of CNN and glib hacks from outfits like the Heritage Foundation, actually repeated this pathetic bromide, but why would a journalist quote it?
Ms. Wente sprinkles her description of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue with suggestive words like, "For all the jubilation in the streets…The people cheered and danced…On the fringes of the ecstatic crowd…." Photographs of the statue-toppling, just the day before Ms. Wente's glowing column, had been broadcast all over the world and clearly signified Hussein's loss of power.
Now, it turns out, from an aerial or high-rise photograph of the square at the time, published on several Internet sites, that almost the entire square was empty. There was a tiny group of people and a far greater density of military vehicles than people. This panoramic view offers a remarkably different perspective to the published close-ups of people around the statue and a remarkably different perspective to Ms. Wente's jubilation in the streets, cheering and dancing, and ecstatic crowds. The numbers of people in the square appear to have been so small as to make the words almost silly.
The pictures broadcast of the statue being toppled were not technically untrue, they simply lacked perspective. The old adage from statistics that, with one hand in ice water and the other in boiling water, you are on average warm, applies to news coverage. In fact, here it appears the distortion was far greater than talking about the meaningless average of two extremes because there appears to have been no balance in the extremes to which the people of Iraq were exposed. These were photographs of a few happy moments by a small number of people in a vast trail of tears.
It is ridiculous to focus on one aspect of a huge and complex situation and declare yourself satisfied with the result. This is a good deal like celebrating the fact that some dollar bills are fluttering around for the taking after a deadly, massive highway crash involving an armored car.
My judgment of the overall tone in Iraq is supported by reports of Iraqis telling American troops "Thanks, but now go home." Many Iraqis, fearfully miserable before the bombing even began, have been pleading unsuccessfully with the American troops for help. Other reports tell of many Iraqis simply miserable, not gleeful, sitting and weeping. After all, their country has been ravaged by bombs, the hospitals overflow with piteous cases, thousands have been killed, anarchy in the cities has meant the looting of museums and hospitals, they swallow the indignity of defeat and occupation, and they face a terribly uncertain future with possible civil wars and the break-up of their country. When you throw in the fact that genuine, stable democracy is a very remote possibility for a country with no history of it and a devastated economy, there just isn't a whole lot to celebrate, even though a genuine tyrant has been overthrown.
Well, after a good lot of her bubbly-earnest touch, Ms. Wente gets around to quoting an expert on the Middle East, and who else should that be but Mr. Bernard Lewis, the man regularly trotted out by everyone who wants to make an informed-sounding negative point about the region? Anyone who has read Mr. Lewis or listened to one of his lectures will know that he is just the kind of expert lawyers look for to support a weak case in an appalling murder trial.
Ms. Wente uses Mr. Lewis the way a ventriloquist uses a dummy, to say things without seeming to move her own lips. One of the gems we are offered from "the great scholar of Islamic history" (This kind of introduction always effectively tells the reader, "Go ahead, just try disagreeing with someone like that!") is that nothing about "Ba'athism" (an awkward neologism referring to the principles of Hussein's Ba'ath party) is native to Islam, that Ba'athism is in fact an imported fascist ideology from Europe.
Well, after first wondering why Mr. Lewis, just introduced as peerless scholar of the Middle East is used to comment on fascism from Europe - you have to wonder why you'd even need to call upon any scholar to support so utterly obvious and banal a statement.
The fact is that almost nothing about the politics and organization of the Middle East today is native to the Middle East, and that applies even more completely to Israel and its institutions than it does to the Arab states. It all consists of uniforms, flags, posters, slogans, brand names, ideas, and institutions imported from Europe or America.
This is what you find anywhere in the world after a long period of colonialism. It was certainly true of the early United States after it separated from England, with the President typically being addressed then as "Excellency," carrying a sword as a symbol of office, and the country adopting, wholesale, concepts and phrases from English law and government tradition. In fact, Americans, for many decades, used to burn the Pope in effigy on the anniversary of Guy Fawkes day.
Ms. Wente's other profound insight from Mr. Lewis is the observation that there are two fears in the Middle East about Iraq's future: one is that democracy won't work; and the other is that it will. That sounds terribly clever for a few seconds, international affairs delivered by the late Oscar Levant. The truth is that it is just about as helpful as a quip from Oscar Levant to our genuine understanding. So why would you quote it? Only if you either do not understand what you are saying or if you are making a cheap propaganda point.
Mr. Lewis is intensely biased in favor of Israel, and he is very much in demand these days as a speaker against the world backlash created by Israel's bloody excesses. You'd be hard put finding a critical statement from Mr. Lewis on Israel, its policies, or its institutions, but you will find a huge amount of unflattering observations about Arab societies. Ironically, many of the observations he makes have relatively little to do with Arabic studies per se, and more to do with areas of scholarship such as economic development or the history political institutions, but perhaps Mr. Lewis is a much greater and wide-ranging scholar than I am aware.
Societies that are poor and underdeveloped are just that, poor and underdeveloped. Their particular cultural history may arguably have had a role or not in their arriving at that state, but it is the state of poverty and underdevelopment that retards democracy and the flowering of human rights in every culture on the planet. It is not a people's history, otherwise the Renaissance would never have happened, and there would be millions of Europeans eating gruel and flagellating themselves in monasteries.
People adapt to change, often surprisingly readily, especially when it is clear there is a positive future, but the magic of economic growth has not come to many portions of the Middle East yet. I truly wish I could see America bringing billions of dollars in investment, aid, and technical assistance rather than cluster bombs, but I don't. And the same for Israel, which always seems to have billions for armaments but does almost nothing to raise the level of its impoverished neighbors.
Democracy and concern for human rights, as I've written before, flow naturally out of healthy economic growth and a rapidly expanding middle class who do not see their interests served by a single leader or small aristocratic group. This is the story of Western civilization since the Renaissance. No bombs or revolutions are required, just the remarkable power of economic growth to dissolve away ancient traditions and organizations and bring new ways of looking at things. The experience has been universally demonstrated from the death of scholasticism in Europe to the receding backwaters of the American South.
The other time I recall noting Ms. Wente had departed from her fluffy subject matter in Toronto, she had joined the chorus of morally-obtuse columnists at the height of the suicide bombings in Israel to suggest that Palestinian parents must be deficient. Now, in her anxiety over a Baghdad institution for 150 children, she has overlooked Israel's gulag of more than three million Palestinians, an overwhelmingly youthful population. I reflect on the hopelessness that causes such children to kill themselves and others instead of enjoying the sunshine of youth, but I doubt Ms. Wente, so selective in her earnest concerns, will examine that any time soon.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. He writes frequently for Yellow Times.org and other publications.