The current Bush administration has sometimes been very frank about the need to sell the ‘war on terror’, and many of the elements used to sell that attack on Iraq–the intelligence dossiers, the unsourced revelations, the denigration of hard evidence, the cosying-up to prominent exiles–are now being used to sell an attack on Iran. With some 22 minutes out of every hour on US TV given over to advertising, the public is accustomed to being sold things on the promise of nirvana if they only succumb. If the Iraq debacle is anything to go by, the process can be extended–remarkably smoothly, in many ways–to selling (and buying) a war.
Andy Card, George W. Bush’s chief of staff, said Congress had not been asked in August 2002 to authorise military force in Iraq because “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” When Colin Powell appointed a Madison Avenue advertising star, Charlotte Beers, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, he explained on 6 September 2001: “I wanted one of the world’s greatest advertising experts, because what are we doing? We’re selling. We’re selling a product democracy the free enterprise system, the American value system.” This was less direct than Andy Card, but one could easily add ‘war’ to this list of goodies since war–particularly after the cataclysm of five days later – was the chosen way of achieving these benefits. Rampton and Stauber commented: “Rather than changing the way we actually relate to the people of the Middle East, [US officials] still dream of fixing their image through some new marketing campaign cooked up in Hollywood or Madison Avenue.”
But how, exactly, do you sell a war? The usual rules of advertising seem to serve just fine. The first rule is: repeat your message often enough and people will believe it. Adolph Hitler had already taken this insight into the political sphere: “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous [Propaganda] must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Hitler, in fact, made the connection with commercial advertising explicit: “All advertising, whether in the field of business or politics, achieves success through the continuity and sustained uniformity of its application.” In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt noted the reliance of Soviet and Nazi leaders on repeating lies.
After 9/11, US government officials repeatedly stressed the links between Iraq and 9/11. Bush frequently linked bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the same breath, though he was pretty tricky in the exact wording, suggesting he knew it was an artful lie. In an October 2002 opinion poll, 66 per cent of Americans said they believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and 79 per cent said he possessed, or was close to possessing, nuclear weapons. As late as July 2006, 64 per cent of US respondents still believed Saddam had maintained strong links to al-Qaida and 50 per cent believed he had harboured weapons of mass destruction. Reporters who interviewed US soldiers in Kuwait on the eve of the war in Iraq were shocked to find them convinced they were going to fight ‘terrorists’, a misconception that–as Max Rodenbeck points out – surely fed into the frequent instances of overly aggressive behaviour.
Now the official focus has switched to Iran, whose government, according to Bush, is “belligerent, loud, noisy, threatening”. There were no less than five mentions of Iran in Bush’s January 2007 State of the Union address and Iran is constantly in the news.
A second rule of advertising is: find some memorable catch-phrases. After Bush introduced the phrase “axis of evil” in a January 2002 speech, Woodward reported, “[Deputy Defence Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz saw once again how important it was to grab the headlines, and he was reminded that academics didn’t get it. Oversimplification was required in a sound-bite culture.” When Rumsfeld mentioned the concept of “shock and awe”, Bush said it was a catchy notion. Another common sound-bite was the “smoking gun”–as when Bush said of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, “we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a nuclear cloud.” More recent catch-phrases suggest a shifting definition of the enemy and an intensifying spotlight on Iran. Bush noted in August 2006 that the US was “at war with Islamic fascists”, while Blair (echoing the “axis of evil”) has invoked an “arc of extremism” in the Middle East and beyond, adding that expansion of Iranian power calls for an “arc of moderation” to pin it back.
A third rule of advertising is to promise big benefits from your product. This is common-sense but it may be done quite subtly. Advertising has a strong strain of wish-fulfilment–it appeals to a pervasive and powerful kind of magical thinking. Typically, the product is portrayed as possessing magical qualities that will bring you love, sex, respect, security, or some combination of these. Raymond Williams argued that the problem with consumer society is not that we are too materialistic, but that we are not materialistic enough; if we were sensibly materialistic, if we confined our interest to the usefulness of objects, we would find most advertising to be of insane irrelevance.
The magical thinking behind the ‘war on terror’ is what allows such a radical disconnect between problem and solution–most glaringly, between 9/11 and attacking Iraq. Arendt noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism that it can be very attractive when leaders offer solutions with a degree of certainty; the illogical nature of the proposed ‘solution’ (for example, eliminating the Jews as a remedy for Germany’s military and economic problems) does not necessarily make it any less attractive. Arendt also noted that the need for certainty may be particularly intense in circumstances where people’s own economic and social circumstances are precarious; she suggested that part of the appeal of fascism was that the identification of a clearly-identified enemy–whilst frightening–was less frightening and less disorienting than a world in which the source of insecurity remained obscure.
That analysis resonates today. In his book What’s the matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank provides a revealing case-study of how economic insecurity has fed into support for Bush and for right-wing politicians more generally. Frank argues that in Kansas (and, by extension, much of middle America), a longstanding hostility towards big corporations has been displaced into a ‘backlash’ politics that includes hostility towards foreign enemies, towards a range of ‘outgroups’, and towards the forces (like science, evolution, secularism and pluralism) that seem to undermine old and comfortable certainties.
Whilst the Bush administration has significantly exacerbated domestic inequality and insecurity, the search for scapegoats precedes his regime. In her 1999 book Stiffed, Susan Faludi considered how economic security in the US had corroded traditional masculine roles centred on on protecting and providing. She wrote of “the search for someone to blame for the premature death of masculine promise”, and she elaborated:
What began in the 1950s as an intemperate pursuit of Communists in the government bureaucracy, in the defence industries, in labor unions, the schools, the media, and Hollywood, would eventually become a hunt for a shape-shifting enemy who could take the form of women at the office, or gays in the military, or young black men on the street, or illegal aliens on the border, and from there become a surreal ‘combat’ with nonexistent black helicopters, one-world government, and goose-stepping UN peacekeeping thugs massing on imaginary horizons.
The desire to find some kind of an enemy was already in place, in other words. It seems that the terrorist – perhaps the ultimate shape-shifter with his civilian garb, his fluctuating ‘state backers’, and his tendency to disintegrate at the moment of his greatest crime–has stepped into an existing template.
Much earlier instances of scapegoating were illuminated in Keith Thomas’s classic study Religion and the Decline of Magic. Thomas noted that when suffering is not explicable within existing frameworks, human beings have tended to resort to magical thinking–in other words, to turn to solutions with no logical or scientific connection to the problem. The limits of medical knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, created a powerful impulse to explain illness through ‘witchcraft’.
Today, in the face of the ‘disease’ of contemporary terrorism and the increased disorientation and anxiety after 9/11, severe shortcomings in state-based and economics-based explanatory frameworks have helped to create political and intellectual space for explanations and prescriptions that are once more leading us into the realms of the superstitious and the persecutory. In many ways, we are witnessing a return to magical thinking–the belief and hope that we can re-order the world to our liking by mere force of will or by actions that have no logical connection to the problem we are addressing. And as the old witch-hunts, it is the weakness of the victim that attracts the persecutor–the lack of weapons-of-mass-destruction, the inability to hit the US.
The personalities of both George W. Bush and Tony Blair have apparently contributed to this latest wave of magical thinking. US analyst Joe Klein said of Bush, “The President seems to believe that wishing will make it so.” Novelist Doris Lessing said of Blair “He believes in magic. That if you say a thing, it is true.” Commenting on Blair and the supposed Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’, Polly Toynbee observed that the British Prime Minister “is so easily carried away by the persuasiveness of his own words and the force of his own arguments that you can hear him mesmerise himself There is an almost childish blurring between the wish and the fact: if he says something strongly enough, his words can magic it into truth” Perhaps the the most convincing salesmen actually do believe in their products (or at least have persuaded themselves to believe); but believing and cajoling have increasingly been revealed as insufficient. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Blair argues that confronting ‘Islamist terrorism’ means not only using force but also “telling them that their attitude toward the United States is absurd, that their concept of governance is pre-feudal, that their positions on women and other faiths are reactionary.” It also means rejecting “their false sense of grievance against the West”. These words may have magical powers that only Blair is aware of; the rest of us may wonder how helpful or persuasive it is to be told that your attitudes are ‘absurd’ or your grievances are ‘false’.
In the ‘war on terror’, key policy-makers have adopted (and sometimes openly expressed) the idea that you do not need evidence on which to base something as serious (and incendiary) as a war. Rumsfeld came close to acknowledging this with his statement that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of weapons of mass destruction”. Notoriously, M16 chief Sir Richard Dearlove told a Downing Street meeting in July 2002 that in the US “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. More recently, in January 2007, Richard Perle noted that when it came to assessing the nuclear threat from Iran, “You can’t afford to wait for all the evidence”.
There are some indications that, for the Bush administration, the aim has not been to study reality (and then base behaviour on it) but to create reality. In the summer of 2002, journalist and author Ron Suskind met with one of Bush’s senior advisers, who was unhappy with an article Suskind had written about the administration’s media relations. The adviser commented that:
guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
A fourth rule of advertising is that you are selling not only the product but also the problem or threat that the product is alleged to address. To sell the toilet-cleaner, in other words, you have to sell the germs. By extension, to sell the ‘war on terror’, you have to sell the terror. Of course, 9/11 was a horrifying fact, as were the bombings in Madrid and London that followed the invasion of Iraq. But we now know that the threat from Iraq was systematically exaggerated. Moreover, for all the fears being whipped up in relation to Iran, the threat of a direct attack on the US by Iran is small, particularly when compared with the threat of total obliteration by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Of 42 terrorist organisations listed by the US State Department, only a handful (all linked to al-Qaida) have ever attacked the US or indicated that they wish to do so.
A fifth rule in advertising is another very basic one: you stress that the product will not cost much. Selling the attack on Iraq was like selling a dodgy mortgage: the cost looked reasonable but after a certain period–surprise!–the rates went up dramatically. Just before the Iraq war, the Pentagon estimated that it would cost about $50 billion. Wolfowitz told Congress, “There is a lot of money to pay for this [the Iraq war]. It doesn’t have to be US taxpayer money. We are talking about a country that can finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon.” Bush underlined the promise in the case of the ‘war on terror’ by pushing through tax-cuts in the run-up to war. (Indeed, the belief that major foreign and domestic problems can be magically solved without raising significant new taxes is something that seems to have united the Republican Bush and Labour’s Blair.)
The impression that war would be relatively costless was reinforced by the incitement to a spending spree in the tough-talking aftermath of 9/11. Whilst the US intervention in World War Two had led to a concerted recycling effort and to rationing of gasoline and food, 9/11 led only to calls to US consumers to maintain their spending as a patriotic duty: there was to be a veritable feast at the wake. On 17 October 2001, Bush declared, “They want us to stop flying and they want us to stop buying, but this great nation will not be intimidated by the evildoers.” Yet somehow, sometime, the costs of war will have to be met.
US Congressional Budget Office figures reveal that the Iraq war is currently absorbing some 200 million dollars a day. The total bill so far: $400 billion–a sum that economist Linda Bilmes says could provide health insurance for all the uninsured Americans. Assuming a gradual withdrawal of US troops that will be complete by 2015, Bilmes and renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz calculate the war could end up costing almost $2.5 trillion.
Before the Iraq invasion, promising low costs also included promising low troop commitments and low casualties – the latter reflecting, in part, an emphasis on technological ‘advances’ like Cruise missiles. Rumsfeld in particular promoted the idea of quick and relatively costless military solutions. Once again, this deceptive brand of magic has hardly borne scrutiny. Death and war are blood brothers who do not wish to be separated, and what was supposed to be ‘a new kind of war’ has turned out to be a pretty old kind in many ways. As of April 5th 2007, a total of 3,259 American soldiers had been confirmed as killed in Iraq. More than 50,000 US soldiers have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the cost of looking after them could eventually run to some $536 billion. An October 2006 study in The Lancet suggested that some 655,000 had died as a result of the US-led invasion–a careful calculation made by a team from Johns Hopkins university.
The increasingly obvious costs of the ‘war on terror’ potentially present a problem that is familiar to consumer society more generally: the problem of dealing with broken promises. Consumerism has to sustain itself in the face of a reasonably consistent and persistent failure to bring happiness by means of a new skirt, car, deodorant, floor-cleaner or whatever. The trump card is that the dissatisfaction arising from the false promises of advertising is not so much a problem as a solution: it creates continued demand! This is the perverse genius of capitalism, and it was implicitly celebrated in an unusually frank in-store 2004 campaign by London’s department store Selfridges, which reminded its customers, “You want it, you buy it, you forget it”. If skillfully manipulated, frustrated desires can be encouraged to home in on some new product, some new promise that is also unlikely to be fulfilled. The process can be remarkably seamless and shameless.
US officials have an impressive CV when it comes to selling the useless and expensive wars that sustain the country’s vast armaments industry, and the ‘war on terror’ is only the latest in a long line. Served either hot or Cold, these serial wars have never quite delivered what they promised–either to the ordinary citizens of America or to the wider world. After the stand-off with the Soviet Union (with its huge financial costs and horrendous human costs in the developing world) came the ‘war on drugs’ (which fuelled paramilitary abuses in Colombia, for example), and the US stand-off with ‘rogue states’.
The ‘war on terror’ has itself mutated with great speed. In 1996, the Taliban was welcomed by Western diplomats as a relatively palatable and pliable alternative to the warlords terrorising Afghanistan. But this was soon forgotten as al-Qaida moved centre-stage and the Taliban was increasingly seen as a key backer. The toppling of Taliban was not an initial aim of the US-led war; the stated purpose was to bring justice to those responsible for 9/11 and eliminate their bases. But again this was quickly forgotten. The 2001 attacks on Afghanistan did not bring peace, either there or in the wider world. Again, this was not necessarily a problem so long as the TV crews disappeared and some new crisis could be brought to western TV screens.
A key way that you make people forget their dissatisfaction with what they have been offered is precisely by offering them something new. A small child has started crying and the minder picks up a rattle, saying “Here, take a look at this!” Suddenly, the child is not crying any more. At a meeting of the National Security Council on 25 September 2001, Donald Rumsfeld said, “Look, as part of the war on terrorism, should we be getting something going in another area, other than Afghanistan, so that success or failure and progress isn’t measured just by Afghanistan?” The debacle in Iraq has itself produced an urge for some new distraction, perhaps a war that will focus on aerial bombing and will not be so costly in terms of American lives. This “new, improved” product–seriously entertained in relation to Iran – has already been road-tested in Lebanon and Somalia.
Meanwhile, the bizarre ‘beauty’ of the ‘war on terror’ is not only that it fails to remove the security deficit; it actively creates demand! First, it fosters a general sense of dread within the West: since we are ‘at war’, it is logical to conclude that the enemy must be powerful and pervasive. Second, the ‘war on terror’ predictably produces new terrorists. Over time, the exaggeration of threats is made more plausible by the creation of enemies. Iraq was labeled a source of terror, and it has obligingly become so. The whole fiasco is almost a copybook case of Hannah Arendt’s ‘action-as-propaganda’, a concept she explained by pointing to “the advantages of a propaganda that constantly ‘adds the power of organization’ to the feeble and unreliable voice of argument, and thereby realizes, so to speak, on the spur of the moment, whatever it says.”
The idea that strengthening the enemy is actually functional may sound bizarre, but it all depends on your goals. Winning is not everything. Making money and winning elections are also important. Being seen to be winning may sometimes be paramount. During the attack on Afghanistan in 2001, US officials “admitted privately that they would soon be running out of things to bomb–and running short of the videos that help keep public support for the war afloat”. (As with music sales, a short video can do wonders.) Woodward noted, “[Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul] Wolfowitz said that the Taliban were getting reinforcements but [General Tommy] Franks [head of US Central Command] thought that had a good news side–it would create more targets.”
The predictably counterproductive effects of attacking Iraq also throw doubt on whether defeating terror is really a core aim. Certainly, the war has been counterproductive. An assessment by 16 US intelligence agencies found that the invasion and occupation of Iraq had helped to create a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat had grown since 9/11. One study found a sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks when comparing the period between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq invasion and the following period up to end-September 2006. When “terrorist attacks” inside Iraq and Afghanistan were excluded, there was still a rise of more than one-third. The probably of terror attacks in a particular country rose if the country had troops in Iraq, was close to Iraq, had a significant degree of identification with the Iraqi people and exchanged ideas or personnel with Iraqi jihadist groups.
Some products have an inherently limited demand: there are only so many potatoes you can eat until you feel full. Some have a level of demand that can be increased through advertising: whilst a person only needs a limited number of sweaters: the dictates of fashion can overcome this awkward fact. Still other products have an intrinsically magical quality: the more you have, the more you seem to need. This may be because the products are addictive, or because they help to create a world in which they seem more and more ‘essential’. Drugs and guns have both these happy qualities, and so does the ‘war on terror’. (Note that the warmongers are not simply selling war but also the instruments of war: each new instalment of perpetual warfare–not least in the ‘war on terror’ – brings a chance to advertise your high-tech killing wares; in this sense, as Jean Baudrillard noted, war is advertising. )
We know that selling something frequently represents an opportunity to sell something else: would you like a nice stand for that TV, sir, or some shoes to go with that suit? Moreover, if a product is unreliable, this is not so much a problem as an opportunity to sell insurance. Finally, if after a while the product becomes useless of even downright dangerous, this conveniently creates demand for a replacement. Indeed, this process may have an element of design: they used to call it ‘built-in obsolescence’, a technique that works best when the manufacturer has a monopoly of what is being sold. (This need for a monopoly makes it doubly unfortunate that in the US the Democrats have, until recently, tended to fall in line with the solutions peddled by the Republican administration).
In the quasi-monopolistic conditions of American politics, it seems the frustrated desire for security can always be harnessed to some new promise, some new war, some new threat: whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Syria, Iran or North Korea. For those in search of safety and certainty, war has both the advantages and limitations of a drug or a spot of ‘retail therapy’: each new war we buy into can bring some temporary relief in the context of a general free-floating powerlessness; but this inevitably wears off and before long you may need another hit to make you feel better. All it requires, to keep the dysfunctional system going, is that we quickly and obligingly forget how badly the last ‘solution’ worked, that we erase how soon the good trip turned to bad, that we subscribe to the new definition of evil as readily as the media-drenched ‘proles’ of George Orwell’s 1984, that we choke off our disillusion through some new fever; in short, that we take the Selfridges slogan and let it seduce us into supporting whatever war is currently on offer: “You want it, you buy it, you forget it”.
Gore Vidal had much earlier referred to the “United States of Amnesia”, and Rumsfeld himself happily observed of journalists, “they’ve got the attention-span of gnats”. TV seems to be the perfect medium here. A survey in the US by a team at the University of Massachusetts during the 1991 Iraq war found: “The more TV people watched, the less they knew Despite months of coverage, most people do not know basic facts about the political situation in the Middle East, or about the recent history of US policy towards Iraq.”
With no sense of history, it is easy to portray the actions of ‘the other side’ as naked, unprovoked aggression; the element of retaliation is obscured. A good example may be the much-publicised capture of 15 British sailors by Iranian authorities. How many people realize that this is quite likely to represent retaliation for the capture by US officials in northern Iraq of five Iranian officials, a raid apparently aimed at two very high-ranking Iranian security officials?
Capitalism and the ‘war on terror’ not only help to sustain one another but they also have this in common: they worship success but are nourished by failure. As dutiful consumers, we must pat ourselves on the back for our high standards of living, and yet we can never admit that we have enough. We celebrate our economic victory (as individuals, as ‘the West’, as ‘developed’ nations) – and America’s particularly high levels of consumption are sometimes taken as attaching a special, other-worldly seal of approval to ‘God’s own country’. But at the same time we are constantly reminded, every hour of every day, of what we do not have and of all the material and physical desires (often re-defined as’needs’) that remain unfulfilled. The ‘war on terror’ works in something of the same way. We celebrate each (fleeting) military victory (which some see, again, as attaching God’s approval to this endeavour). But we are constantly reminded–by the government, by the police, by journalists – of what we do not have, and all the ways in which our need for security and certainty remain chronically unfulfilled. We are forever winning the ‘war on terror’, in other words, but there is always so much more to do. One day Bush is standing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln after the fall of Saddam and declaring under a banner proclaiming ‘Mission Accomplished’: “We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.” Twelve days later, there are bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and in a special on the ‘war on terror’, Time magazine has to break the news to its readers: “No, it’s not over.” Each terror attack serves to remind us that we remain chronically in need of those whom we know (but somehow keep forgetting) are making the problem worse.
In this macabre dance of officialdom and the media, victory and failure are simultaneously glorified, and each failure–in a pattern that has long characterised humanitarian relief, for example – is redefined as both ‘need’ and ‘opportunity’. Is the doctrine of deterrence increasingly redundant in the face of suicide attacks? Then we must renew our commitment to it by deterring states from supporting terrorists that they do not, in any case, support! Has the technology of the West been turned against itself on 9/11 by attackers armed with no more than knives, box-cutters and a willingness to die? Then we must have more technology: more high-tech weapons, more smart weapons and drones! Are terrorists angry at our meddling in the Middle East? Then we must meddle some more! Is Iraq falling apart? Then we must attack Iran!
Apparently confident of our capacity to forget, the official response to dissatisfaction with the ‘war on terror’ seems to be that we have not been trying–or buying–hard enough. Referring to the battle with “Islamist extremism”, Tony Blair asks, “Why are we not yet succeeding?” His answer: “Because we are not being bold enough, consistent enough, thorough enough in fighting for the values we believe in.”
When Meyrav Wurmser, a prominent neo-con and director of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute, said of the Iraq situation, “It’s a mess, isn’t it?”, there were promising hints of a neo-con rethink. But as with many neo-cons, her plea has been for more of the same: “My argument has always been that this war is senseless if you don’t give it a regional context.” Wurmser explains further: “The objective was to change the face of the Middle East. But it was impossible to create a mini-democracy amidst a sea of dictatorships looking to destroy this poor democracy, and thus, where do insurgents in Iraq come from? From Iran and Syria.” She adds that “many parts of the American administration” wanted Israel to attack Syria rather than Hizbollah, seeing the former course as likely to weaken Iran and weaken rebellion in Iraq. Of course, the forcible ending of Sunni dominance in Iraq under Saddam Hussain has itself boosted Iranian influence in Iraq, where the Shi’a majority has gained in power through democratization.
Evidence from witch-hunts past and present suggests that they operate within closed systems of thought that make them difficult to challenge. When the killing or banishment of a witch does not eliminate a particular problem, the conclusion is usually not that the witch-hunt was ill-conceived but that more witches must be found.
Even as the number of chosen enemy shifts with Orwellian rapidity, this is disguised with the insistence that “they are all the same, really”–an essentially racist discourse that angers and belittles those on the receiving end. Tony Blair recently came up with a typical example of this ‘lumping’:
The struggle against terrorism in Madrid, or London, or Paris is the same as the struggle against the terrorist acts of Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, or rejectionist groups in Iraq. The murder of the innocent in Beslan is part of the same ideology that takes innocent lives in Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen. And when Iran gives support to such terrorism, it becomes part of the same battle, with the same ideology at its heart.
Blair says that what these groups have in common is that they hate “us”, a formulation that panders to his audience’s sense of self-importance. But not everyone is buying either the reckless, mutating definitions of the enemy or the policy of endless war as a route to peace. For all the mind-numbing influence of sound-bites and ‘real-time’ TV, lies may not be forgotten overnight, and the false promise of a quick and easy solution to the desire for security have been increasingly exposed as such. Many US soldiers and relatives had the impression that taking Baghdad would be the soldiers’ ticket home. But as early as July 2003, Julian Borger noted of the home-base of the US’s Third Infantry Division in the state of Georgia, “Hinesville feels the pain of a war that is refusing to end as neatly as was advertised.”
In relation to Iraq, the warmongers’ plan (again in line with Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism) was that action would serve as the most effective propaganda. Thus, the late Robin Cook recalled of Blair, “In the many conversations we had in the run-up to the war, he always assumed that the war would end in victory, and that military triumph would silence the critics.” Prior to the attack on Iraq, Bush’s close adviser Karl Rove proclaimed: “Everything will be measured by results. The victor is always right. History ascribes to the victor qualities that may not actually have been there. And similarly to the defeated.” Another statement was very similar to Rove’s: “The victor will not be asked afterwards whether he told the truth or not. When starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory.” That last statement was from Adolf Hitler in 1939.
Part of the problem, for Bush and Blair, is that relying on ‘victory’ to generate legitimacy is clearly a double-edged sword. Moreover, those who claim that God is on their side may be particularly vulnerable to a loss of popularity and prestige when defeat or stalemate implies that God is more ambivalent.
Meanwhile, although the salesmen of war have shaped and manipulated the debate, dissent can never be stifled completely. Noam Chomsky has suggested that effective propaganda tends to involve slogans that nobody is going to oppose and that will not encourage people to think. Thus, ‘Support our troops!’ works well; ‘Support our policy!’ does not work so well. The official mantra has been that opposing the ‘war on terror’ is disloyal to ‘our soldiers’. But now we find old slogans neatly subverted, as in this American banner: “Support our troops–bring them home.” Take a look at www.freewayblogger.com, and you can see how part of the problem (the American love affair with the car and the accompanying thirst for oil) is being turned into part of the solution: those stuck in traffic can now read a range of improvised banners on bridges and roadsides with slogans like “Nobody died when Clinton lied”, “A nation of sheep soon begets a government of wolves”, and “655,000 Dead Iraqis and I’m still paying $2.69 for unleaded.” It seems peace, too, can be advertised with skill and ingenuity.
The Swedish diplomat and arms inspector Hans Blix summed up the Iraq debacle well. Noting that US and UK governments presumably claimed their certainty that weapons existed in order to get endorsement by their legislatures and by the UN Security Council, he added that governments “are not just vendors of merchandise but leaders from whom some sincerity should be asked when they exercise their responsibility for war and peace in the world.” But sincerity is not top of the salesman’s list of qualities. Perhaps those who peddle false certainties are half aware that their audience (like those witnessing a magic trick) may actually want, at some level, to be fooled: certainly, any feeling of temporary reassurance would depend on this mechanism. In any event, the shrewd vendor seems to know something that many of us do not: his products will not bring us the promised benefits; yet if our frustrated desires can be managed successfully, we may want these products all the more for that.
DAVID KEEN teaches at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Endless War? Hidden Functions of the ‘War on Terror’ (Pluto, 2006).