- Propaganda has accompanied the majority of wars, as a
precursor, during the war, and then as official history after the dust
has settled and the conquerors (aka peacekeepers) move in. From Cato and
Carthage down to Kuwaiti incubator babies, truth is indeed the first casualty.
Arguably, the first defeat for the US military in the propaganda war was
Vietnam. Being in the business of winning wars, the U.S. military concocted
new ways to control the media, and has adapted new strategies for an increasingly
connected world. The first test, and so far greatest victory for the New
World Order spin-masters, was the Persian Gulf War. We saw the daily press
briefing evolve into its current form as a carefully crafted propaganda
session designed to give the media the good news about how well the war
is going, and how the evil-doers are being punished. We saw the media assigned
to specific press liaison officers, and trucked around from location to
location under constant supervision. The press, as usual, ate it up.
- The military employs multiple strategies (and a PR firm
or two) to shape public perception of the news by controlling the information
released to the media. Jared Israel wrote an excellent article describing
how these techniques are used in print (and sometimes on TV). Words are
chosen carefully based on the emotional response they elicit. Certain facts
are referred to again and again, while others are completely ignored. Other
"facts" are manufactured out of whole cloth, usually with the
tag "unsubstantiated" attached to allow weasel room later. All
events are scripted into a master storyline designed to paint the conflict
as one of good against evil. The side of righteous America is pitted against
the twisted Taliban, or Milosevic, or Iraq, or Noriega, etc.
- Luckily (ha ha!), we have a very recent military engagement
to compare to our current situation. The "humanitarian intervention"
in Kosovo gives us something to compare the selective use of images, interviews,
and facts to understand how the military and the media shape opinion. Let
me restate: the government and military use the media to shape your opinion,
and they are very good at it. The current bombing of Afghanistan and the
1999 bombing of Kosovo have a common element that exposes the hypocrisy
and selective reporting endemic to any war effort. In both situations,
military activity caused a massive refugee crisis, but the way the refugees
are portrayed is vastly different between the two wars.
- Set aside whether the refugees were the result of ethnic
cleansing or people fleeing a bombing zone. In Kosovo, close to two million
refugees fled the province after the Nato bombing campaign started. The
media broadcast the suffering of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the
camps setup in neighboring Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro. Countless
interviews, non-stop coverage of refugee columns, and an appeal to send
food and money to help the innocents driven out by war were the common
themes across all networks. Endless coverage of the refugees on TV made
the war for "humanitarian intervention" seem like a noble goal.
Americans were told that Slobodan Milosevic was carrying out his "final
solution" on Kosovo Albanians. Never mind that the refugees started
leaving Kosovo AFTER the bombs started falling.
- During the bombing, the talking heads in the media chattered
about how the evil Serbs had caused such misery. It was assumed that there
was a deliberate program of ethnic cleansing. This was easy to do with
CIA trained KLA fighters providing all the translation services, which
invariably sounded like "They rounded us up and told us to leave.
They took our papers." These reports were taken at face value. So,
blame for the refugee crisis was placed squarely on the Serbs. There's
plenty of evidence that the refugee crisis in Kosovo was the result of
bombing, and scant little that it was an organized program. The Germans
admitted as much when a top general came clean about how his spies faked
"Operation Horseshoe". That and the fact that the body count
on all sides has amounted to 3,200 instead of the 100,000 that James Rubin
claimed. That's after the bombing, and includes military and civilian casualties
on both sides. That's a forensics debate for another day, however. For
this article, we can even assume (for the sake of all the Serb haters out
there) that there was a program of ethnic cleansing.
- Compare the non-stop coverage of the Kosovo refugee crisis
to the coverage of Afghan refugees. It's estimated that over 80,000 refugees
have made it into Pakistan since the bombing started. The Red Cross states
that over 2 million refugees are inside Afghanistan, mostly headed for
friendly Pakistan, but many have been turned away. Two million Afghan refugees
already live in Pakistani refugee camps. Where are the camera crews in
Pakistani refugee camps? I had to dig to turn up this Reuters photo. You
won't find the same kind of non-stop film coverage of an even larger refugee
crisis in Pakistan than the Kosovo refugees. Where is the non-stop CNNBCBSMSNBCABC
coverage, complete with clucking tongue commentary on the cruelty of war?
When the families of the dead are interviewed, or give accounts of being
bombed in their sleep, the Pentagon instructed media flacks are quick to
chime in with "those numbers of civilian casualties can't be independently
verified," a phrase seldom heard in the Kosovo conflict.
- Let's compare the government's handling of refugees in
the Kosovo war with the current bombing of Afghanistan. When the refugees
started leaving Kosovo, the U.S. government asked Macedonia, Montenegro,
and (obviously) Albania to allow them across the border. In this war, the
U.S. has aided a willing Pakistani regime in keeping the borders closed,
and the refugees out. If too many refugees enter Pakistan, the U.S. will
be unable to convince the world, and more importantly, the Pakistani government
will be unable to convince their people, that this is a war of "targeted
strikes against terrorists, and not a humanitarian catastrophe in the making.
The war planners knew this and started dropping food packages early on.
The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and the UNHCR agree that the food
is more for public relations than relieving hunger. We are scattering water
drops on a raging inferno of starvation, while blocking the fire trucks.
- So, my question for the mass media is this. Where are
the CNN camera crews, pressed in around the refugees? Where is Christiane
Amanpore with her righteous indignation? Images are powerful things. Americans
see people suffering on TV, and they don't like it. The military knows
this. When it suited their purpose in Kosovo, they made sure to pack the
airwaves with images of the displaced and hungry. "See. We're fighting
to help save these people from oppression." When the story is obviously
one of suffering CAUSED by our military, the story gets reported in print,
if at all, and camera coverage is downplayed or outright spiked. No spin
in the world can hide that fact that our military has caused a massive
refugee crisis in Afghanistan. Will George W. Bush sit in the Hague kangaroo
court with Slobodan Milosevic to answer charges of genocide and ethnic
cleansing? Not very damn likely.
- As I finish proofreading this article, CNN manages to
illustrate my point perfectly by calling for more "balance" in
reporting. Stop and think for a moment if you heard a call to limit the
amount of coverage given to civilian casualties in the Kosovo war? Not
for a second, because the Nato spin masters could pin it on the Hitler
de Jour, Mr. Milosevic.
- This war isn't going all that well. Americans are watching
it while sitting in comfortable living rooms a few feet from the refrigerator.
If they see enough images of Afghan refugees fleeing U.S. cluster bombs
or digging for dead relatives in the remains of a hospital hit by a "Bunker
Buster" bomb, they might realize that this war is not just. Don't
be fooled by the media spin. Read for fact, verify facts, avoid the biased
words, and draw your own conclusions.
- Copyright © 2001