Wars always have their propaganda, but it is often not very subtle. In the first world war, the Germans bayoneted babies, and nearly a century later, in a rework of the same false story, the Iraqis tore babies from respirators. But if you want to study the techniques of effective propaganda, you could hardly do better than the War on Terror.
For many, the word propaganda raises an image of ham-fisted Soviet commissars insisting that black is white. But effective propaganda is far more subtle than that. And who should understand better the dark art of planting suggestions than the most practiced people on the planet at advertising and marketing?
The most effective propaganda theme during the Afghan phase of the War on Terror was the status of women under the Taliban. Almost as if by magic, when the B-52s were ready to make those Afghan heathens understand what red-blooded Christians really mean by hell, articles and broadcast commentaries sprang up like mushrooms after a humid spell to enlighten us on the plight of women in Afghanistan. The subject seems to have been of rather marginal interest before saddling up the B-52s with their thirty-ton loads of high explosive and shrapnel.
Now, please don’t misunderstand, women were treated hideously under the Taliban. But women were treated horribly anywhere during the fourteenth century, and that is approximately the phase of development in which the average Afghan lives. Women fared little better under some of the thugs in the Northern Alliance when they ruled previously.
And women do not exactly thrive under the absolutism of Saudi Arabia, a country whose important financial support of the Taliban has been more or less expunged from the record by America’s informal-but-effective Ministry of Truth. Women are not treated well in Pakistan either, a vital supporter of the Taliban now redeemed by a cornucopia of bribes.
Wherever economies are poor and backward and wherever religious fundamentalism plays a significant role, women are not treated as full human beings. My goodness, just think of all those old Virginia planters, Thomas Jefferson among them, using their young female slaves for sex.
An interesting sidelight to the Jefferson-Hemmings story, one that gives you a good raw whiff of life under American slavery, is that Sally was the half sister of Jefferson’s dead wife, and she resembled her closely. The existence of half-brothers and sisters by slave women was an ordinary fact of Southern plantation culture, but it was not one discussed at Sunday dinner after church.
The American notion that you can just sweep political players off the board and change the basic patterns of a society has no basis in history. It is wishful thinking at best. Advanced societies evolve over long periods of economic growth in which large numbers of people gain the influence that comes with economic resources. This is the way democracy and modern attitudes towards human values develop. This is the story of civilization since the dawn of the modern era about five hundred years ago.
The record of political revolutions when societies were not ripe for their results is one of utter failure. After the American Civil War – a truer political revolution in many respects than the original American Revolution – blacks were fitted into a new, more sophisticated form of bondage for another century. As late as the 1930s in the American South, lynchings were an occasion for family picnics. Only long-term, solid economic growth bringing an end to rural stagnation made it possible to change the status of America’s blacks.
Now America has just about achieved its limited purpose in Afghanistan. America is not about to try occupying the place as the Russians tried doing, nor does it seem likely that truly generous financial assistance will be given to these very poor people once our dirty work is done. No, that kind of generosity is saved by the State Department for places we need to bribe.
Does anyone believe that the status of Afghan women will change greatly after the first photo-op schools for girls, with a few hundred token students, have been adequately featured in our press? Or that we will ever hear much about anything in Afghanistan once we have destroyed what we came to destroy?
I hope I am wrong, but history doesn’t support optimism here. Afghanistan – like Haiti, following a more elaborate, showboat intervention – will recede from our view and sink back more or less to the same early state of economic and social development that characterized it before.
The point of the propaganda effort on women’s rights was that the subject should be on people’s minds when it counted, when our bombs were blowing the limbs off peasants. Aroused concern in America over those rights blunted potential criticism by middle-class women to the bombing. It made the sensibilities of soccer moms safe for Bush. And, like all the best propaganda, it started with truth.
Another line of propaganda in Afghanistan, less subtle and less truthful, has been that familiar refrain, “weapons of mass destruction.” This phrase, so overused in the case of Iraq, is beginning to sound a bit tinny and hollow, but it proved still serviceable for Afghanistan. Although coming as it does from the only nation that ever totally incinerated two cities full of civilians, it is remarkable that the speakers have not choked on the words.
One cannot help recalling Secretary of Defense Cohen at a pulpit in the Pentagon a few years ago, preaching to us about “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. In his best, earnest vacuum-cleaner salesman’s style, he held up a bag of sugar to illustrate how small a quantity of some nasty things could destroy American society.
The truth is that there is only one weapon of mass destruction, and that weapon is a nuclear or thermonuclear device. Biological agents, while all advanced countries have experimented heavily with them, are not effective weapons of mass destruction.
The actions of our own armed forces support this assertion. The Pentagon never saw a weapon it didn’t like, so long as it does a good job of killing people – and that is the very reason it strongly opposes the international treaty against land-mines. But the Pentagon is not uncomfortable with existing international regimes concerning biological warfare.
Sophisticated delivery systems are essential to any success with these weapons – we saw with the anthrax scare that crude distribution methods render biological agents to be anything but weapons of mass destruction. Even with such delivery systems, weather and other factors make using these weapons full of uncertainty.
Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War did not use his supply of biological and chemical weapons. American and Israeli nuclear weapons provided a complete check against his paltry arsenal. The calculation is easy enough to make: inflict some highly uncertain and limited damage on your enemy in exchange for the certainty of being obliterated. Even a man often called mad was unwilling to take those odds.
Now, anyone with a fully-functioning brain knows that a true terrorist would relish having a nuclear weapon. I am sure Timothy McVeigh dreamed dreams of possessing such power. And the boys who were to die slaughtering their fellow students at Columbine High School undoubtedly enjoyed such fantasies. But what has that to do with reality? Reports of pieces of paper with such dreams found in al Qaida caves are meaningless, except to scare people by combining the words nuclear and bomb and al Qaida in the same statement.
The only kind of bomb involving nuclear material that an organization like al Qaida would be remotely capable of making is a conventional bomb wrapped in radioactive material. Such a bomb would leave an area littered with radioactive debris, but it is not a particularly effective weapon. Discussing it in the same breath with a device capable of a nuclear explosion is confusing and dishonest.
Nuclear weapons still represent a massive technological and financial undertaking, far beyond the resources of an al Qaida, and Washington’s experts know this. Even Iraq, with all its oil wealth and the kind of government that can direct resources without answering to anyone, working very hard to develop a nuclear weapon, remains at least a few years from getting it.