In his book ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’, William Brinkley described the hilarious adventures of a US Navy public relations unit in the Pacific towards the end of the Second World War. The unit was led (if one can use the word) by Lt-Commander Clinton T (‘Marblehead’) Nash, who “had been commissioned directly from his brokerage office without the corrupting influence of any intervening naval training”. But Marblehead had his moments, as when he conjured up the idea of sending hometown newspapers lots of pieces about sailors in the enormous Pacific Fleet.
With fiery enthusiasm he planned that “We get up a story on [an] event, mimeograph it off, then simply fill in the man’s name from the ship’s roster, like ‘Blank Blank of Blank was aboard the USS Missouri recently when that ship’s sixteen-inchers disabled Yokahama’, and fire it back to the guy’s home-town paper. Visualize it! The Missouri alone has 2700 men aboard, anytime she did anything, just anything atall, this would automatically mean 2700 stories in papers all over the States . . . millions of stories . . . From us to the thousands of tanktown papers in the US . . . Thinking big! . . . It’s Joe Blow of Kokomo people want to hear about!”
In fact it wasn’t that bad an idea (although things did get a bit out of hand for Marblehead and his merry men), and the technique has attractions. The problem is that there is a distinct dividing line between news and propaganda and it is fatal to truth to try to merge one with the other. But the line has been crossed — leapt across, indeed — by the mind-benders of US forces in Iraq. They are not content with having “Blank Blank of Blank” being home-town news because of something his unit had done. Far from it, because it seems they want to convince home-town folks all over America that US policy in Iraq is fine and dandy and – by implication, at least – that it’s only a bunch of sour-faced left wing liberal peacenik internationalists who say things are catastrophic. So the new Marbleheads had a great idea: that it would be splendid for it to be made known by Joe Blow of Kokomo that “The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored and we are a large part of why that has happened” in the area of Kirkuk occupied by the Second Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment.
Now : nobody should have any objection to a letter containing such positive sentiments being sent to a hometown newspaper — providing, of course, it was composed by the person who signed it. The Joe Blow letter continued that “The fruits of our soldiers’ efforts are clearly visible in the streets of Kirkuk today . . . I am proud of the work we’re doing here in Iraq and I hope all of your readers are as well.” Great stuff. Freedom of speech means that Joe Blow of the 503rd can write to the Kokomo local paper to say things are working out in Iraq just as Bush says they are.
This sort of thing isn’t quite what I wrote home from Cyprus, Borneo or Vietnam when I was on active service in these troubled places. Reflecting on such letters as have survived I find the main themes were that Brigade HQ was staffed by a bunch of incompetent dickwits, the local authorities were corrupt, the food was lousy, our equipment was inferior to that possessed by a poorly-endowed boy scout troop, the enemy was fighting quite well, all generals and politicians (ours, not theirs) were certifiable cretins, and the local population (except in Borneo where we were welcomed by delightful people), thought we were a damn pest or worse. We would have roared with laughter if any of us Joe Blows had written to a newspaper at home saying “we’re proud of the work we’re doing here”. What a joke that would have been. Perhaps things have changed.
But the problem with the enthusiastic Joe Blow letter from the 503rd was not so much its content as its origin, as was revealed when the Gannet News Service investigated the appearance of identical Joe Blow letters in eleven (so far) local newspapers around the US.
Some editors sniffed a rat and refused to publish what they regarded as a form letter, which undoubtedly it was, but others were happy to do so or took it at face value. According to Gannett (which deserves an award for exposing this tawdry little scheme), “[one] soldier didn’t know about the letter until his father congratulated him for getting it published in the local newspaper in Beckley, West Virginia. ‘When I told him he wrote such a good letter, he said ‘What letter?’ Timothy Deaconson said Friday, recalling the phone conversation he had with his son, Nick . . . at a hospital where he was recovering from a grenade explosion that left shrapnel in both legs.” Now if ever there was shabby practice, this is an example. The letter from Pfc Nick Deaconson didn’t mention any injuries to anyone. The reason, of course, is that Nick hadn’t written the letter. Sergeant Christopher Shelton whose identical letter was published in the Snohomish Herald was surprised too, but when he was interviewed he said although he didn’t write the letter he agreed with it because “We’ve done a really good job.” Fair enough; but would Sergeant Shelton have sent the letter to Snohomish voters without being prodded to do so? It was, after all, written by his commanding officer, Lt-Colonel Dominic Caraccilo, who boasted about it to ABC news after the whole affair blew up.
The facts are there and can’t be denied : a sheet of propaganda was given to soldiers of the 503rd and they signed it and 500 were sent to hometown papers which reach thousands of voters. (Home town folks tend to revere the president — any president — and rarely question his doings because to their minds that would be unpatriotic. We are talking Flag, here, as well as votes. Norman Rockwell country loves First Family.) The soldiers who signed the propaganda sheet may well have agreed with the information they were provided, but they could neither add to it nor subtract from it. They could not give their own views about the casualties their unit had taken. We are, in fact, getting dangerously close to propaganda by omission of dissent ; the lowest form of obscurantism.
After the letters were placed before the soldiers and they added their signatures they were taken away and posted (at public expense?) to be read by recipients who were not their friends, neighbours or relatives, save by coincidence. The recipients were voters who may, in spite of instinctive respect for the White House, have formed their own opinions about the war on Iraq and its outcome. But through the medium of their trusty local newspaper they could be influenced by official propaganda disguised as personal — Joe Blow — opinion to alter their views. If you live in Kokomo, which do you trust : The New York Times? (the whut?) or the Kokomo Courier Despatch that carries letters from hometown boys serving their courageous commander-in-chief in Iraq?
Which brings us to the latest Bush initiative of appointing a task force to supervise “Communications” concerning Iraq in his new anti-Pentagon ‘Iraq Stabilization Group’. This bunch of propaganda apparatchiks will control the media approach of the White House in election mode. As reported by Associated Press, Bush declared “There’s a sense that people in America aren’t getting the truth . . . I’m mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people.” Just like Lt-Colonel Caraccilo, who is obviously destined for higher things, Bush is determined to show that his war worked. In their different ways, both are deceitful, but at least Caraccilo probably believed in what he was doing. But Joe Blow of Kokomo doesn’t benefit one bit from this affair — and he won’t, either, from the Bush assault on truth that is only just about to begin.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website: www.briancloughley.com.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org