The media spectacle that John McCain made of himself in Baghdad on Sunday was yet another reprise of a ghastly ritual. Senator McCain expressed “very cautious optimism” and told reporters that the latest version of the U.S. war effort in Iraq is “making progress.”
Three years ago, in early April 2004, when an insurrection exploded in numerous Iraqi cities, U.S. occupation spokesman Dan Senor informed journalists: “We have isolated pockets where we are encountering problems.” Nine days later, President Bush declared: “It’s not a popular uprising. Most of Iraq is relatively stable.”
For government officials committed to a war based on lies, such claims are in the wiring.
When Defense Secretary Robert McNamara visited Vietnam for the first time, in May 1962, he came back saying that he’d seen “nothing but progress and hopeful indications of further progress in the future.”
In October 1966, when McNamara held a press conference at Andrews Air Force Base after returning from a trip to Vietnam, he spoke of the progress he’d seen there. Daniel Ellsberg recalls that McNamara made that presentation “minutes after telling me that everything was much worse than the year before.”
Despite the recent “surge” in the kind of media hype that McCain was trying to boost last weekend in Baghdad, this spring has begun with most news coverage still indicating that the war is going badly for American forces in Iraq. Some pundits say that U.S. military fortunes there during the next few months will determine the war’s political future in Washington. And opponents of the war often focus their arguments on evidence that an American victory is not possible.
But shifts in the U.S. military role on the ground in Iraq, coupled with the Pentagon’s air war escalating largely out of media sight, could enable the war’s promoters to claim a notable reduction of “violence.” And the American death toll could fall due to reconfiguration or reduction of U.S. troop levels inside Iraq.
Such a combination of developments would appeal to the fervent nationalism of U.S. news media. But the antiwar movement shouldn’t pander to jingo-narcissism. If we argue that the war is bad mainly because of what it is doing to Americans, then what happens when the Pentagon finds ways to cut American losses — while continuing to inflict massive destruction on Iraqi people?
American news outlets will be inclined to depict the Iraq war as winding down when fewer Americans are dying in it. That happened during the last several years of the Vietnam War, while massive U.S. bombing — and Vietnamese deaths — continued unabated.
The vast bulk of the U.S. media is in the habit of defining events around the world largely in terms of what’s good for the U.S. government — through the eyes of top officials in Washington. Routinely, the real lives of people are noted only as shorthand for American agendas. The political spin of the moment keeps obscuring the human moment.
Awakening from a 40-year nap, an observer might wonder how much has changed since the last war that the United States stumbled over because it could not win. The Congressional Record is filled with insistence that the lessons of Vietnam must not be forgotten. But they cannot be truly remembered if they were never learned in the first place.
NORMAN SOLOMON is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.