The Hydra’s New Head

Just as weapons have gotten “smarter,” so too has the military gotten more sophisticated about how to use the media to meet military objectives.

— Jerry Broeckert, Lt. Col., public affairs officer in the US Marines Corps. [1]

As the fog of war lifts, the propaganda model followed by the United States to sell the US-Iraq War is now clear, and the best way to understand this campaign is to consider it as psychological warfare against the US population [2]. From the beginning, the propagandists opted for a “sports show” metaphor as the overt image for this campaign. There are numerous features of this propaganda campaign that are worth examining since they are innovations, and sometimes contravene previously held assumptions about such campaigns. There remain questions about its long-term effectiveness, and whether the same formula can ever be used again.

A war looking for a pretext.

The US-Iraq war started years ago, but it was only in Sept. 2002 that a decision was made to finish the job, and the hot war phase started on Mar. 19, 2003 [3]. It was in mid-September that the US sought to pass a UN resolution with onerous conditions attempting to elicit an outright Iraqi rejection, and thus create a trigger for war [4]. Unfortunately for the US, several Security Council members objected to the purpose of the proposed resolution and forced its watering down, resulting in UNSCR 1441. It is important to view the ongoing bombing campaign against Iraq in this context.
The bombing campaign beginning in September 2002 was meant to provoke the Iraqis to reject the UN resolution–which would have given the US the needed pretext for the war. (See Graph [5]). Once UNSCR 1441 was passed early in Nov. 2002, then the level of provocation escalated again in an attempt to get the Iraqis to reject the UN inspectors. However, it is also clear that once the decision to go to war was made the propaganda machine was set in motion. This was evident because key propagandists initiated their campaign at the Pentagon in Nov. 2002 [6]. A deliberate use of bombings seems to have been made to justify the war; the propagandists seem to have found a new implement for their toolkit. The Pentagon has officially integrated the propagandists into its ranks; but it is also evident that propagandists may be using the military for their own ends.

Prior to Nov. 2002, one witnessed a remarkably inept attempt to justify the war. This so-called public diplomacy failed to deliver a credible justification for it, and made it very difficult for the subsequent propaganda campaign, the one meant to herd the population and squash dissent. The war-drummers not only had to stoke up the usual levels of jingoism, but also required a search for a pretext. This job was made even more difficult by the unwillingness of the UN to play along and the unprecedented opposition to the war in Europe. This is one of the unusual aspects of this war.

After Nov. 2002, public diplomacy sputtered along until it was completely replaced by the war drummers after Feb. 6, 2003 — when Powell ineffectively accused Iraq of violating UNSCR 1441 in his address to the UN Security Council. From that point, it was clear that war was inevitable, and no further attempts were made to justify the war in a serious way. The justification phase was simply over, and it was time for the war-drummers to take over.

Targeting the home population.

When one thinks of “psychological warfare operations” (psyops), one thinks of airplanes dispensing leaflets over Iraqi army positions, but it also encompasses threatening, starving, and even terrorizing the enemy population. Psyops is meant to instill deep fear and defeatism. The implements of such psyops are blunt, transparent, and of questionable effectiveness. One generally doesn’t think of psychological warfare as something waged against the home population; but this is perhaps the best way to appreciate the US experience during the past few months. The objective of such a campaign was to stifle dissent, garner unquestioning support, and rally people around a common symbol. Americans, and to a lesser extent Europeans, have been subjected to a propaganda barrage in an effort to neutralize opposition to the war, and this fits directly into a psyops framework.

Psyops appeal to the base human behavior of large groups. In the case of the enemy, fear and even terror are likely to achieve the desired results. In the case of the home population, it is the stoking of jingoism, the “we-ism” in the crowd, the intimidation of dissent– and the fear factor is there too. The American flag acreage on display everywhere is a clear manifestation that we are dealing with psyops targeting the home population.

Psyops specialists know that one of the strongest human tendencies is to try to conform to a group. Their objective is to create a din of jingoism pushing for “our” team intimidating others, and at the very least causing dissenters to lay low. It is not a good idea to go against the grain in the middle of a riled crowd. This is achieved by filtering the news so that it fits in with the desired message by, e.g., “embedding” of journalists, incorporation of censors within the main media networks, and shutting out alternative news sources. The result was stoking rampant jingoism in the US–and a mostly silenced anti-war movement.

In the current military jargon, there is a distinction: psyops are targeted at the enemy, and “military-media relations” are meant to target the home core population. But the people involved in these different operations tend to be the same, and there is a certain amount of overlap. Jerry Broeckert, the US Marines media specialist, wrote about “coordinat[ing] our information management campaign” with the psyops officer [7]. And stated: “[using the media] blurs the line between public relations and psychological operations”. The integration of propaganda specialists in the military, and in turn, their coordination with the media during this war means only one thing: the home population is specifically targeted, and is probably the primary target of this campaign. This raises disturbing questions for the media on whether they want to become an implement in psyops against the home population.

Restricting the Channel

A great part of the media campaign post Feb. 6, 2003 entailed restricting the information emanating from Iraq. Robert Fisk wrote about the censorship built into the major networks where all incoming news items would be made propaganda-compliant [8]. The major American networks complied willingly and seemed to have become part of the propaganda structure. BBC’s Gavin Hewitt, an embedded journalist, claimed recently that no restrictions were placed on his reporting, and that he could beam out whatever he pleased [9]. It just means that the filtering took place with his embedded editors in London, or that he only saw what the army wanted him to see.

A second important aspect was the cleansing and control of the news flow. As the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus wrote on April 17th: “You had this absolute avalanche of material from our colleagues in Baghdad and with the actual units in the field. But in a strange sort of way a lot of it was like looking through a key-hole at a very small piece of the war.” All the blood and gore were expunged, and there were only hints of Iraqi suffering. During the 1991 Gulf War the video of bombings played a central role, but this time, its usage was toned down. Some at the Pentagon must have been upset at this because the US armory had upgraded much of the video capability of its weapons. The “smart weapons” had been upgraded to “smart multimedia weapons”. Alas, the images generated from these weapons are now mostly meant to make Rumsfeld chuckle. Ah! one can only imagine him watching these with Wagner playing in the background!

The Sports Metaphor

Propaganda campaigns usually follow a theme or have a flavor-of-the-month. The propagandists borrow from product advertising campaigns that are conducted in a similar fashion. During the 1991 Gulf War, the theme was the “video game”, which was evident due to the number of demolition video clips. This theme couldn’t be reused because the video-game scenes raised some uncomfortable questions about this enterprise especially among opponents of the war. It was therefore necessary to conjure a new theme, and all indications are that this campaign followed a “sports show” metaphor. The main advantage of this approach is that Americans are very comfortable with the “sport show” — it is part of their daily diet, it is intelligible to them, and it gives them a passive “entertained” role. Casting propaganda in such a known, comfortable framework makes people adjust favorably to the message.

Given that the war didn’t have an accepted justification, the propagandists opted to stress the “support our troops” refrain, paralleling the “support our team” chant. It doesn’t matter if people opposed the war; they could still understand supporting the troops in the current context. This proved to be a very effective ploy. Erstwhile opposition groups changed their stance overnight when the “hot” phase of the war started. The Liberal Democratic party in the UK switched from an anti-war stance to “support our troops” mode overnight. Although base political calculations may have come into play, opposing British troops once they went into action was not tenable even if the party continued to oppose the war.

Presenting the war as a sports event enabled the propagandists to circumvent the thorny issue of why the US was so eager to engage in this war in the first place. When one watches a sports game, there is no need to think about the “why” of anything; it is only an issue of “supporting our team”. You are also only supposed to root for the “good guys” team, and hate the “Iraqi meanies”. Dissident voices are also drowned out–you are only supposed to cheer for the home team. Cheering for a team in the opponent side’s benches is a dangerous proposition–which can even entail mortal danger [10].

Equally important is that sports fans are supposed to react on cue, and otherwise are expected to be quiet. This passivity is ideal for the propagandists, and possibly this can be imbued in the war spectacle.

Sports matches are informal events, and the presentation of this war followed a similar setup. There was no need for a formal declaration of war. Just the starting whistle was necessary for the game to begin. Even the non-recognition of the Iraqi “regime” was part of this–the US was playing against Saddam, and we refer to the other players by their first names. If this game is informal, then no appearance is given that the whole enterprise may have any serious consequences.

The 24-hour Newscast networks portrayed the “war as sports show” splendidly. The networks constantly fed news snippets without context. In sports, context isn’t necessary, and carrying this through to the war circumvented awkward questions. Context is a dangerous thing because it raises questions, and propagandists don’t want to foster that. The newscasters also showed the “good guys” in action from many angles, and only slow motion replays were missing. Exposed to this spectacle, one is only meant to cheer, drink beer, and release one’s jingoistic id. Truculent slogans like “shock & awe” conveyed the might of our team, and appealed to primitive behavior; the name of the putative American strategy resembled the name of a wrestler, and is something that can be ignored due to its artificiality.

The “play-by-play” military analysts incorporated the sports analogy completely–with maps/diagrams, advice to players, and making the audience think about the marvelous strategy. The military analysts in CNN certainly were portrayed as retired football coaches. In the morning, these “Xs” (ex-military-so-and-so) would congregate for Pentagon briefings. One can only speculate what briefings they received and from whom, but their uniform terminology indicates that the propagandists had a major say. “Once our troops go over the red line” and similar nonsense was sports talk generated by the propagandists.

Sportsmen in the US have their names inscribed on their shirts. Before the war, all tanks had names stenciled — in large, black, easy-to-read letters — on the barrels of the gun. The tank commanders were encouraged to write an evocative name on their tanks, and the sporting analogy is obvious. The staged nature of this activity was also evident since all tanks had the lettering on the same spot. This is the first time known that tanks have been labeled in such a fashion.

Lies don’t matter in sports events. If you are told that your team is the best and eat poodles for breakfast–no harm is done. Planting lies, semi-truths and deceptions is useful for the propagandists, and in the current context, it is necessary because no viable justification has been found. So it is not surprising to find even war supporters making statements like: “Everyone knows he [Bush] lied about weapons of mass destruction being the point of the war.” But then it doesn’t matter that Bush lied! [11]

The war even had a trophy–covering Saddam’s face with the American flag that hung outside the Pentagon on 9-11 was a salute to the propagandists themselves. Now that they work for the military, they will certainly earn medals for this!

Propaganda Highlights

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9th was certainly a propaganda coup. (NB: The same propagandists who fabricated the throwing-the-babies-out-of-incubators story in 1991 produced this event. [11.5]) These scenes certainly had an impact around the world, and it briefly seemed that it justified the war. However, US Marine Corporal Edward Chin admitted that he was ordered to wrap the face of Saddam in the US flag before toppling the statue–nothing spontaneous about this. Furthermore, some Iraqis were bused in for the occasion, to join the small crowd that was mostly made up of journalists. The crowd wasn’t even able to topple the statue by themselves, but an engineering vehicle was handily available on site to finish an American operation.

Mark Damazer, the BBC’s deputy director of news, accepted that they were carried away in broadcasting this event, and only later “did questions arise about it”. Nevertheless, he justified its broadcast because it symbolized a defining moment in the demolition of the regime. Unfortunately, it was a defining moment for propaganda since the event was entirely staged, and major media unquestioningly broadcast this message.
Now that the war is almost over, and that the search for a justification of the war continues apace, there is a need to be skeptical of many of the “discoveries” taking place. Anyone who remembers the “discovery” of stashes of whiskey and the like after Salvador Allende was killed in Chile should not have been surprised to see the discoveries in Uday’s lair [12]. Uday Hussein may not have been a nice guy, but it is highly unlikely that stashes of pornography were left lying around. On the face of it, there is a high probability that many such items were indeed planted.

Another dubious claim is that regarding the discovery of a “suicide-belt factory”–with the suicide outfits neatly hung in dry cleaner’s plastic. This is a rather absurd story, for the simple reason that suicide bombing was a concept foreign to Saddam Hussein’s “regime”. Some of the foreign volunteers fighting in Iraq may have been so disposed, but it is difficult to imagine their setting up such a factory. The propagandists seem to want to have it both ways: on the one hand Iraqi soldiers must be threatened by enforcer squads in order to coerce soldiers to fight, but on the other hand, some people are so motivated that they are willing to die for the “regime”. It is highly unlikely that this story is legitimate, and it was produced to provide another after the fact anti-terrorism justification.

There is perhaps a simple proof that the suicide-belt story was a sham. If the story were true, then we would have heard it repeated many times over. Journalists would have been allowed to inspect this a bit closer. But the story disappeared in no time, and indicating that it had served its purpose. It is also curious to see the faces of some of the same soldiers reappear in several of these seemingly staged events. One of the soldiers in the suicide-belt factory seems to be the same one showing off a tacky poster in one of the palaces.
The emergence of a general rule: If a “news” item about a grotesque aspect of the regime, WMD, or terrorism, appears on TV for a day or two and then disappears, it is safe to bet that it is a fabrication. Similarly, if the reporter from such a story is not identified, then you are watching another fabrication.
It is certainly taking a long time to find chemical weapons–the staging of such an event must take some time. By 1995 UNMOVIC/UNSCOM had demolished “95 to 98%” of all weapons of mass destruction and their infrastructure, and therefore there may be precious little proof lying around. The propagandists may have to ship in barrels of the stuff, and maybe even entice an admission out of Dr. Ammash, known to the propagandists as “Dr. Anthrax”. For her cooperation, she may end up getting a position at a mediocre Texas university.

Ah! the embedded journalists

The word embedded itself suggests a carnal relationship with the Pentagon. Questions arise about who is using whom, and about the journalists’ integrity while riding along in a tank. Any illusions of retaining independence are entirely dispensed with. In fact, the Pentagon used the embedded journalists, and not the other way around. NB: the Pentagon views the media as a “force multiplier”. These journalists were stitched onto the military machine to sell its war, and perhaps unwittingly they became part of the machine. As Tony Jenkins, President of the UN Correspondents Association, recently remarked about the embedded journalists: “But boy were they played like a musical instrument by the Pentagon.” Or Kenneth Bacon, a former Pentagon spokesman, wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently that: “You couldn’t hire actors to do as good a job as the press has done” from the Pentagon’s point of view. [13]

There is an issue of guilt by association. Some of the embeds were dubious reporters to begin with. Alexander Cockburn has recently analyzed the pathetic role played by the permanently embedded Judith Miller of the New York Times [14]. Similarly, an embedded journalist from the Jerusalem Post spewed pernicious propaganda, e.g., the March 23rd “chemical weapons factory discovery”. Some other so-called journalists even participated in the looting spree. Unfortunately, there were many other such examples of dubious reporters. The key question is if any legitimate reporting can take place when so many are implicated in dubious and uncritical reporting.

The modus operandi of the embeds was to be busy reporting on some of the action directly in front of the units they were attached to; but they never asked any of the obvious questions. Often embedded journalists would “interview” one of the military officers who would utter dubious statements. The journalists usually played along, and didn’t question the previous statements that by then had proven to be false. For example, “there is an uprising in Basra” was repeated several times by British officers, regurgitated by the embedded journalists, but then no questions were posed when this proved to be a deception. Journalists cannot play along with so much deceit without tarnishing their credibility.

Several journalists pointed out targets to the soldiers they were traveling with. No sooner had the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt pointed out an enemy truck than it was shot to pieces and several Iraqis were killed. One CNN crew had an armed escort who shot some Iraqis. Once journalists start taking part in a war in this fashion their objectivity and purported neutrality is compromised, and they become legitimate targets too.
Some of the embeds reported from the field as if they were the main attraction of the story. ITN’s Juliet Bremner posed in front of the camera to report a story, and it seemed that her presence was more important than the scene behind her–often there was nothing else to report. She was copying the “I am the story” style of CNN’s Christian Ananpour. When the journalist becomes the story and not the one who puts images and stories into context, then again, journalism is diminished.
The embedded journalists didn’t direct the military where to go, and the military only showed the embeds what it wanted them to see. The troops seldom passed the areas that already had been laid waste by B52s or artillery, and thus the embeds didn’t see much blood and gore. One also wonders if the embeds would broadcast any blood and gore scene even if they were given the opportunity. Most of these so-called journalists manage to conjure dozens of justifications on why not to broadcast such images. In the process, the image of this war is kept antiseptically clean, and the horrors of war aren’t apparent to the TV-viewing public. Painting such a clean image makes war more palatable, doesn’t raise awkward questions, and makes future wars even more likely.

Besides the publicized embedded journalists there were “other” reporters. When the army crossed the “red line”, unidentified reporters shot the video footage of a Colonel talking about the “level two chemical weapons alert”, but the reporter didn’t appear on the video footage. Similarly, an unidentified camera team filmed the “suicide-belt” factory. It is therefore highly likely that there were dedicated propagandists among the embedded reporters. It was very easy to hide some propagandists among the 810 embedded reporters. The propagandists’ reportage or deception gained credibility because an impression was given that it was the embedded journalists doing the reporting. It is an old game played anew: the wolf masqueraded in the journalist’s clothing.
In total, the role of the embedded journalists in this war was a disgrace. It is clear that the participation in this Pentagon propaganda program will have deleterious effects on journalism in general, and the media’s role in reporting during the next war in particular. Journalists have a clear choice: to retain their independence and objectivity, or to drag the second oldest profession into the realms of the oldest one.

The British experience

After the hot war started, the British troops stationed in the Gulf complained that the BBC coverage of the war was not getting them into the festive mood. They wanted to have bloody red meat, but instead they got porridge. To instill a bellicose spirit required switching to CNN or Fox News.

By any standard, the BBC coverage of the war was more subdued than CNN’s, and another characteristic is that it restricted its output over time. That is, while CNN devoted almost all its programming to the war, the BBC reduced its output to the extent that at the beginning of April the war coverage amounted to about an hour per day on the major BBC channels. To understand this one must remember that the opposition to this war in the UK was overwhelming. Polls before the war suggested that around 70-80% of the population opposed a war without a UN mandate. The BBC could hardly beat the war drums like Fox News in the US because of domestic sensibilities. Instead, it opted for a toned down CNN formula, and it sought to make it bland–a BBC specialty. And just like CNN, dissenting voices were entirely squeezed out of TV programming.

Differences and innovations

Jacques Ellul has analyzed propaganda extensively, and has distilled some key points for it to be effective. Some of those points are relevant when analyzing the current propaganda campaign.

Ellul postulates that propaganda must have a monopoly and drown out everything else. In the current context, it is remarkable that the major media are nearly homogenous and with no critical edge. So, although there are thousands of independent channels and newspapers, it is remarkable how uniform they were in the message conveyed, and this is especially noticeable in the US. To obtain such uniformity must be deemed a clear victory in this propaganda campaign. The same cannot be said for the UK, where some media remained critical throughout. It also indicates that although the propagandists have sold the war to the American people, spreading the message elsewhere has been a less than stellar job.

Propaganda is usually thought to make a population act in a certain manner, whereas the current campaign seems to have had passivity as its main goal. Its major challenge was to shut out the dissident voice, and to stifle criticism. This seems also to have been a great success since the peace movement seems to have gone mostly into hibernation during the war.
Finally, propaganda has moved from a big lie repeated often enough to one where a barrage of deception is put forth. The credibility of the propaganda media has been tarnished in the process. The US-Iraq war strained the propaganda campaign because it lasted longer than expected. Everyone assumed it would be over in a matter of days, and we believed the propaganda on this issue. When this didn’t happen the propaganda mill required pushing more deception, and it is likely that this cannot be sustained for a protracted duration [15]. It is also likely that this formula cannot be repeated often.


There are lessons for all in the current experience. For those seeking to avert future wars, there must be a realization that organizing marches or using the political process is not enough. Besides these means, it is essential to obtain independent media outlets, so that the power of the established media conglomerates may be challenged. This war exposed the corporate media networks as adopting a unified role in selling this war by shutting out dissent and beating the war drums. Such a media structure will not in itself challenge the new American Imperial role, and it has equally disturbing implications for democracy everywhere.

We must realize that we are dealing with extremely cynical people who think that entire populations can be herded and cajoled. They think journalists can be used for their own ends. Their success, at least in the US, is a dark omen. It is a very dangerous development that such people have joined forces with the mean-spirited neocons. Democracy, freedom of speech and peace are under threat if these groups are not challenged vigorously now.

For the first time, the US military has fully integrated the media into its wars; this integrated propaganda is seen as part of its arsenal–this is the “force multiplier”. It is also evident that the propaganda weapon in this war has been highly sophisticated and effective. After all, it managed to sell the war in very difficult circumstances. Part of their success entailed commandeering most media channels and journalists to sing their tune.

The Hydra has acquired a new head.


[1] Jerry Broeckert, Loose Lips Float Ships!: How the military uses the media today, April 2003. Good account of the history of “military media relations” and how it has evolved in the. It contains some discussion of the US-Iraq War.

[2] Propaganda also determined the name of this war. “Gulf War II” is deceptive because it conveys the impression that the attack was part of an internationally sanctioned coalition–just like the 1991 Gulf War. In the current war, it is only the US and the UK that are clearly involved, the main components of the meager “coalition”. However, the UK’s contribution to the war is less than 10%, and after the recent US troop increases, the UK’s contribution to the force is closer to 7%. It is therefore clear that this is an American war; thus the “US-Iraq War” is the most appropriate name. How can a war be “in Iraq” and then be called “Gulf War”?

[3] See War: It’s Already Started,

[4] The US has engineered other such diplomatic traps, e.g., the Rambouillet Agreement that sought to impose onerous conditions on Serbia. Its rejection provided the desired trigger for war. US diplomacy doesn’t seek to avert war, but on the contrary, it seems to engineer wars even where they could be avoided.

[5] Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace [CCMEP] has an excellent website. It has a sizeable record of US-uk bombings of Iraq. The graph only refers to the incidents that were confirmed by the US. A date when there was one or more bombings is classed as a one, and zero otherwise. NB: this is an underestimate of the bombing activity since the US military sometimes refused to confirm or deny an action. From independent accounts by activists in the area, two other incidents were added. Some confirmations were obtained from the BBC (unfortunately, online BBC reports scroll and disappear as a record).

Although CCMEP’s data is very useful, it excludes some important features. It doesn’t reflect the number of flights over Iraq. These flights may not have damaged anything, but they are part of the same provocation campaign. The level of over flights went from dozens per day earlier in the year to several hundred. The data available is spotty, but on two occasions, the US acknowledged up to 500 over flights on a given day in February 2003. Even one over flight over the US would be considered a serious hostile act.

[6] Jerry Broeckert, ibid. The Nov. 2002 date cited stems from: “the move of Jim Wilkinson was sent from the White House Office of Communications to head strategic communications at the Pentagon’s U. S. Central Command with General Tommy Franks.”

[7] Jerry Broeckert, ibid.

[8] It is remarkable that censors are embedded. NB: CNN deny such a setup except on their text services.

[9] Gavin Hewitt talking at a conference “Journalists at War”, City Univ., May 2, 2003.

[10] In Brazil some sports fans were found cheering the opposing team in the supporters’ benches. They were set upon and one was killed. Moral of the story: supporting a team in the middle of a hostile crowd is dangerous.

[11] Robert Steinback, Did Our Leaders Lie to Us? Do We Even Care? CommonDreams, April 29, 2003.

[11.5] David MacMichael and Ray McGovern, Ex-CIA Professionals: Weapons of Mass Distraction: Where? Find? Plant?, CommonDreams, April 25, 2003.

[12] A few days after president Allende was killed in 1973 soldiers exposed stashes of whiskey and other things that suggested Allende was a closet bourgeois. Similarly, Noriega’s house was raided after the US invasion of Panama to reveal stashes of pornography and cocaine. Both incidents were staged. Sources: Veja magazine in the 1980s ran a story about a Brazilian intelligence officer involved in the operation in Chile. About the action against Noriega, his lawyer has stated as much. Even the furniture of his house was changed and “frogs” were introduced everywhere–supposedly one cannot respect a person who loves frogs.

[13] Tony Jenkins speech transcript and audio: ; Kenneth Bacon reference comes from the same source.

[14] Alexander Cockburn, The Decline and Fall of American Journalism (Part LXV): the Case of Judy Miller, CounterPunch, April 25, 2003,

[14.5] Broeckert, ibid.

[15] See my Arrogant Propaganda.

This article is refinement of Arrogant Propaganda, and the Glossary of Warmongering.

PAUL de ROOIJ is an economist living in London and can be reached at (NB: All attachments will be deleted automatically)


PAUL de ROOIJ is a writer living in London. He can be reached at (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)