George Bush, we are told, is a deeply religious person, and so is his yeoman, Tony Blair. It is a pity that they do not read the Bible more.
One of the most beautiful Hebrew sentences can be found in I Kings XX. When he threatened Israel, the King of Syria boasted of his mighty army and demanded surrender. King Ahab replied with four immortal Hebrew words, rendered thus in English: “Let not him that girdeth on (his harness) boast himself as he that putteth it off.”
Schoolbooks in dozens of languages must now be rewritten.
The old books said that the men and women of the French resistance in World War II were heroes. These civilians went out in the night to bomb German trains, kill German soldiers and execute collaborators. The instructions came from London. They knew that if they were caught, they would undergo gruesome tortures and be put to death. American and British movies sang their praise.
The Russian partisans, whose slogan was “Death to the Invader!” made the life of the German soldiers hell. The partisans were hanged in droves. The original guerillas–for whom this Spanish word meaning “little war” was coined–attacked Napoleon’s soldiers. Goya immortalized them in his magnificent painting. A whole generation of Israeli children was taught to admire the Irgun and Stern Group fighters, all civilians, of course, who blew up the installations of the British army and killed its soldiers. It appears now that they were all vile terrorists.
In the Middle Ages, armies were accompanied by large numbers of prostitutes. In the Iraq war, the American and British armies are accompanied by large numbers of journalists.
I coined the Hebrew equivalent of “presstitution” when I was the editor of an Israeli newsmagazine, to denote the journalists who turn the media into whores. Physicians are bound by the Hippocratic oath to save life as far as possible. Journalists are bound by professional honor to tell the truth, as they see it.
Never before have so many journalists betrayed their duty as in this war. Their original sin was their agreement to be “embedded” in army units. This American term sounds like being put to bed, and that is what it amounts to in practice.
A journalist who lies down in the bed of an army unit becomes a voluntary slave. He is attached to the commander’s staff, led to the places the commander is interested in, sees what the commander wants him or her to see, is turned away from the places the commanders does not want him to see, hears what the my wants him to hear and does not hear what the army does not want him to hear. He is worse than an official army spokesman, because he pretends to be an independent reporter.
The problem is not that he only sees a small piece of the grand mosaic of the war, but that he transmits a mendacious view of that piece.
In the Falklands and the first Gulf wars, journalists were simply not allowed to reach the campaign area. It seems that a bright fellow at the Pentagon had an idea: “Why keep them out? Let’s allow them in, they’ll be told what to write and broadcast and eat out of our hands like puppies.”
Since the age of 19, I have been a journalist. I was always proud of it. On innumerable forms I wrote “Profession: Journalist.”
I am ashamed when I see a large group of journalists from all over the world sitting in front of a many-starred general, listening eagerly to what is called a “briefing” and not posing the simplest relevant question. And when a courageous reporter does stand up and ask a real question, no one protests when the general responds with banal propaganda slogans instead of giving a real answer.
Remember the virtual surrender of the Iraqi 51st division? The “uprising” of the people of Basra that never was? The thousand and one other lies, that have gone with the wind? Where were the journalists when all this happened?
Almost all the journalistic reports of this war are a crooked mirror. We see in it a manipulated, distorted and mendacious picture. Therefore, praise be to the few who, like Peter Arnett, are ready to sacrifice their career on the altar of truth.
The bottom of the barrel
I am ashamed of being a journalist. I am doubly ashamed of being an Israeli journalist.
In this war, all sections of the Israeli media have sunk to a new low. No criticism at all gets published. The opponents of the war have effectively been silenced. Even in the American media, some voices of dissent are being heard. In Israel, this is not possible. It would be worse than treason.
The only exception I know of is the TV reporter San Semama, who stole into Iraq, was caught by the Americans, imprisoned in a jeep and starved for 48 hours. He saw what was really happening. Parts of his reports were published here and there, and then the curtain of silence came down. All the rest–journalists, pundits, the bunch of ex-officers and so on–appear on our screens, hour after hour, and repeat like parrots the American propaganda-line, even when it is manifestly ridiculous.
I am especially allergic to “military correspondents”. They are indeed a unique human species, the ultimate he-men, the ultimate soldiers. They are also ridiculous frauds.
I saw them first in our 1948 war, when I was a combat soldier. When we were lying in the mud and crawling among the thorns, from time to time we saw such a “soldier”, clean shaven, in a fresh uniform, wearing a helmet and radiating all the martial virtues. These were the military correspondents, attached to brigade headquarters, associating with senior officers, far from the front line.
(I really shouldn’t complain. When I published my combat-diary after the war it became a run-away bestseller overnight–simply because not one of these toy soldiers was able to write an authentic book about the war.)
The theater of operations
I read somewhere that the briefing room of General Tommy Franks was created by a professional designer for a quarter of a million dollars. The American army does invest a lot of money in designing this theater.
I assume that much bigger sums are paid to the professional designers who shape the public appearances of President Bush. One should pay attention to the scenery–much more interesting than George W.’s words.
For some months now, Bush is almost always seen against a background of soldiers. The stage designer sees to it that the soldiers are all around the President, so that from any photo angle the admiring faces shine behind him.
A few days ago, the designers achieved a special effect: behind the President there stood a white Coast Guard ship, with red-uniformed sailor tastefully dispersed on it in photogenic groups. Other sailors were in front and on either side of the President. No scene from opera could have been better arranged. I would not have been surprised if the President had started to render an aria. But he only uttered his usual inanities.
The Great Patriotic War
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin understood that the Russian people would not lay down their lives for Marxism-Leninism. Overnight he changed his message. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Field Marshal Suvorov and Prince Kutuzov were resurrected in order to win the masses for what was officially named the Great Patriotic War.
Saddam Hussein does it now. He calls upon his people to stand up and kill the invaders–not in the name of the Ba’ath party (whose founders were Christians) but in the name of Allah and the Muslim homeland.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli journalist. His essays are included in The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent.
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