Propagandizing for Perpetual War

According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States has appropriated $806 billion for the direct cost of invading and occupying Iraq. Including debt service since 2003, that sum rises to approximately $1 trillion. The White House estimates the number of U.S. military wounded at 30,000; the web site icasualties.org states that U.S. military fatalities from the Iraq war now stand at 4484. It is impossible to estimate precisely the numbers of Iraqi civilian deaths, but they are frequently cited as being in excess of 100,000. There are now around two million internally displaced Iraqis in a country of 30 million inhabitants. As United States armed forces (but not up to 17,000 State Department employees, contractors and mercenaries) leave the country, Iraq is plunging into a sectarian and ethnically-fueled political crisis. Even if it survives that crisis and remains a unitary state, it will almost certainly be pulled closer to the orbit of Iran, our bogeyman du jour.

In view of the crippling costs both human and financial as well as the strategic and moral disaster the invasion of Iraq precipitated, what sort of verdict do you think our leaders – leaders representing a presidential administration ostensibly opposed to the invasion and promising hope and change – bother to offer us? While junketing in Turkey on December 17, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the press the following:

As difficult as [the Iraq war] was, I think the price has been worth it, to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world.

One’s only reaction to this statement is to blink in disbelief and wonder: is Panetta that stupid, or does he think that we, the supposedly self-governing citizens of this country, are that stupid? The kindest thing one can conclude is that this is some sort of throw-away line intended to provide solace to the families of those killed, or consolation to survivors who were maimed. But that is pretty thin gruel; one imagines those people, and their kin, have formed their own opinions about what happened and do not require a patronizing justification. And, in any case, if it was “worth it,” why shouldn’t we keep doing it, not only in Iraq but all over the world? Perpetual war for stable government, one might call it.

Another explanation that comes to mind is the propaganda aspect of it: some government hacks really do believe if they repeat something over and over, no matter threadbare or false, a large number of people will believe it. Republicans have used this technique for years, and it appears Democrats are well on their way to equaling them in mastering it. It seems to be at least a partially successful tactic: after all the bloodshed and the waste, a plurality of 48 percent of Americans still believes invading Iraq was the right decision, according to a Pew Research survey.

But, as Honest Abe said, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. That same survey showed 46 percent, almost as many, believed it was the wrong decision. But even here, Panetta’s statement, and countless other ridiculous statements by government officials, are not without their utility. Most of us think of propaganda as brainwashing – as convincing people to believe something they would otherwise disbelieve. But we may underrate another, more subtle, utility of political propaganda.

In one of his wartime essays, George Orwell remarked on some of the patently ridiculous claims of totalitarian propaganda. In his view, the point wasn’t whether it was believable or not; in fact, the more ridiculous the better. The point was that government functionaries got to make the statement knowing full well it was ludicrous; news organizations dutifully printed it as if it were fact; and the public sphere was blanketed with the absurd propagandistic claim. As Orwell said about the goosestep march of totalitarian armies: yes, it looks ridiculous, but you dare not laugh.

That is the underrated objective of false government claims: even when they do not convince, they demoralize. Panetta’s statement will receive respectful coverage in the mainstream media; satraps of the establishment like David Gregory or Bob Schieffer will not argue with him on the Sunday morning talk shows beyond at most a very polite demurral; for all intents and purposes he will get away with it. And no ordinary citizen will ever be in a position to get in his face and tell him he’s shilling for destructive policies that are bankrupting us.

Because that’s how democracy, and truth, work in the United States these days.

MIKE LOFGREN retired in June 2011 after 28 years as a Congressional staffer. He served 16 years as a professional staff member on the Republican staff of the House and Senate Budget Committees.


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