Howard Zinn, probably the most influential American historian ever, had an amazing sense of humor when he lectured or met people in person. He could make fun of himself and the audience in a way that exploded the guilt and ambivalence that so often paralyzes liberals, progressives, greens, socialists, anarchists, communists and everyone else on the more-or-less left. Only occasionally, however, did Zinn use his sense of humor in print. His masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, had no humor at all, as he himself pointed out, because he didn’t find anything funny about the Trail of Tears and all the other ghastly episodes he wove into a narrative that convinced millions of citizens the United States was something less than what they had believed.
What Zinn went for in his writing—always—was clarity. I’ve got most of his books, and there isn’t an obscure, academic, post-modern, high priestly syllable in them. Anyone of normal intelligence over the age of 12 could understand him. Which is not to say that Zinn wasn’t misunderstood. He was, of course. But it was always willful misunderstanding. Establishment historians always misunderstood him, because to admit the validity of the story Zinn chose to tell was to understand that the careers of establishment historians were pathetic, if well remunerated. So they never answered his arguments. They either ignored him or caricatured him and tried to demolish something that wasn’t there.
David Swanson writes in the tradition of Howard Zinn. He always goes for clarity, both in his relentless orchestration of the facts and his ethical vision. War Is A Lie is as clear as the title. Wars are all based on lies, could not be fought without lies, and would not be fought at all if people held their governments to any reasonable standard of honesty. The book is easy to understand, easy to read, if you have the will to face a vast array of facts that hold the United States government to a reasonable standard of honesty.
Also like Zinn in A People’s History, Swanson doesn’t let you off the hook with jokes. There are many passages of bitter irony, but when you consider the carnage and ruin that have have flowed from all the lies Swanson discusses, the main emotions are revulsion and anger. If you want laughs with your tragedy, read Gore Vidal.
I suspect that Swanson did have some fun writing chapter 10, “War Does Not Come From Disinterested Observers.” Co-founder of AfterDowningStreet.org (now WarIsACrime.org), he was press secretary for the Dennis Kucinich presidential campaign in 2004, which was either ridiculed or ignored completely in the New York Times (and again in 2008). If I were Swanson’s editor, I might have encouraged him to write some first person vituperation about the Times’ inveterately unfair coverage of anything to the left of Obama, but he keeps to his third person distance, opting for cold vengeance rather than hot. He exhumes one the great epiphanies in the history of journalism from a panel discussion on election reporting in 2004, which included Elisabeth Bumiller of the Times:
BUMILLER: That’s why it’s very hard to write those, because you can’t say George Bush is wrong here. There’s no way you can say that in the New York Times. So we contort ourselves up and say, “Actually”— I actually once wrote this sentence: “Mr. Bush’s statement did not exactly…“ It was some completely upside down statement that was basically saying he wasn’t telling the truth. And I got an email from somebody saying, “What’s wrong with you guys? Why can’t you just say it plainly?” But there’s just—
LOREN GHIGLIONE (Medill School of Journalism, Moderator): Why can’t you say it plainly?
BUMILLER: You can’t just say the president is lying. You don’t just say that in the…you just say—
GHIGLIONE: Well, why can’t you? [laughter from the audience]
Okay, Bumiller has been widely and justly ridiculed as a hack. That’s not the point. The point is that “Bumiller ought to have explained that calling the president a liar would cost you your job at the New York Times,” as Swanson says. I would add that she would also have lost her job if she explained that calling the president a liar would have cost her her job. She got the job in the first place by having an accurate eye for unstated rules and leaving them unstated. Her reporting is reliably contemptible because it stays so far within the unstated rules. The hilarity of her quote is that for a brief Freudian slip, she said that which cannot be said.
Unstated rules are a lot like unstated facts. They are unstated because they bring shame on the powerful. To state that which brings shame on the powerful places your career in jeopardy. It’s easier to lie, and easier still to go along with lies.
The New York Times is not unique in having unstated rules and refusing to state many, many difficult facts. All publications have their unstated rules, especially publications that take advertsing. Good reporters are more conscious of the unstated rules and think in terms of challenging and getting around them. Sometimes they quit or get fired rather than obey. Bad reporters are unconscious to the point of stupidity and are rewarded with prestige positions.
That’s the system, and that’s why the New York Times misses the story every time the United States starts a war. The president lies, the Times (and the rest of the corporate press) won’t say he’s a liar, and millions of people die.
What makes War Is A Lie such a useful book is that it presents an irrefutable case that this sort of behavior goes goes back to the Revolution, when the Founding Fathers set the precedent for all subsequent wars by lying to get people mad at the British. (Just imagine the terrible consequences if the Revolutionary War hadn’t been fought: We’d be like Canada and have national health insurance.) So lying is the system. It’s always been the system. Challenge it at your peril. But know that most people are decent and don’t enjoy killing, or the sociopaths of the American ruling class wouldn’t bother lying. So, in a way, all this lying isn’t just war. It’s proof that most of the human race isn’t rotten. Lying is hope.
I happened to finish reading War is Lie the same day that Wikileaks released its latest batch of diplomatic cables. With all respect and gratitude to Julian Assange for doing the job that corporate journalism willfully refuses, I did think, “I’ve read all this before.” And I had. Wikileaks and War Is Lie—read them and you’ll be armed for any political war with your relatives over Christmas dinner.
If war is a lie, it follows that telling the truth is peace. I note that Swanson, Chris Hedges, Medea Benjamin, Daniel Ellsberg, Ray McGovern and others will be telling the truth in a serious way on December 16 by chaining themselves to the White House fence. I don’t know if that’s the most effective tactic. But it’s something. Maybe it will be the beginning of a renewed anti-war movement. Maybe not. In either case, I would urge everyone to go and then write about it. When war is a lie, the peace movement has to make its own publicity.
CHARLES M. YOUNG is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent collectively-owned, journalist-run online alternative newspaper.