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Spinning Us to Death


January 30, 2006

In the months preceding the invasion of Iraq, Norman Solomon invited actor Sean Penn along with him on a trip to Baghdad. A syndicated columnist and Executive Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, Solomon went to Iraq three times during this period—with members of Congress, NGO executives, and former UN officials—but it was the trip with Penn that got the public’s attention; and Penn alone who got both the resulting credit and scorn. But a lot of the impetus for their trip was Solomon’s notion about war, detailed in his last two books. Solomon argues that we weren’t being told the real reasons for the invasion; and that, despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, war would be costly to Iraqi civilians and could certainly be avoided. But in his most recent book Solomon takes this argument further—arguing that the American war machine has been rolling over the truth for many decades.

Solomon’s columns have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and USA Today. His book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us To Death, appeared in 2005 and is due out in paperback in summer 2006. Detailing a process firmly entrenched since the Vietnam War, War Made Easy examines why it’s easier for a president to attack a foreign country than to launch virtually any other major policy initiative you could imagine. It is a primer on how presidents from Johnson to George W. Bush keep getting away with enormous lies about war; and how the media act as their enablers, often even their cheerleaders. Jim Hightower writes, “If you want to help prevent another war (Iran? Syria?), read War Made Easy now.”

[Interview by Joel Whitney]

Guernica: What are the main forces that make it so easy to go to war?

Norman Solomon: We can talk about the drive for geopolitical advantage in various parts of the world; we can talk about the desire to open up or expand markets to gain stable access to raw materials, to line the pockets of huge military contracting corporations; the role of lobbyists in Washington, on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue; and the way in which the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned about almost half a century ago is now a military-industrial-media complex.

Guernica: What is the military-industrial-media complex?

Norman Solomon: This refers to the corporatization of mass media, which has meant that the profit-driven apparatus of disseminating news and information is largely drinking from the same corporatized trough as the governmental war-makers in Washington.

So I don’t think it’s an easy question that you’ve asked. I think that war has been made easy in the current era for reasons that keep accelerating each other. Once an attack starts—this is one of the key dynamics—once the president gets over the hump and the U.S. is at war, stopping the war becomes extremely difficult. This so-called “War on Terror” is a dream-come-true for those who believe that the U.S. should be at perpetual war.

The media send a very powerful message to people in the United States that, when it comes right down to it, these world events are really about us.

Guernica: There are a number of myths you look at in your book—myths that we as Americans tell ourselves, largely through big media, which make it easier to go to war. The first—that “America is a fair and noble superpower”—is surely the most difficult myth to navigate. Isn’t this a core American belief, that our experiment is a good one and that our motives are for the greater good?

Norman Solomon: Frequently we’ll see statements in a reportorial voice, without attribution, just matter-of-factly on the front pages, that go something like this: “In its effort to promote democracy in the Middle East, the Bush Administration….” You know, fill in the blank. Well, if we accept the premise, there’s not much left to talk about except the tactics. Any untoward or ugly motivation is filtered out; since the desire, we’re told, is to fulfill that mission, as a fair and noble superpower. What could be more noble than trying to create democracy in the Middle East? And this is a very common thread of news coverage, more effective probably than the Op-Ed pages—how the front pages convey a framework through which we’re encouraged to see the world.

I think related to the myth of America as a fair and noble superpower is the tacit assumption that, when you come right down to it, the United States is really the center of the world. I sometimes think of it as “jingo-narcissism.” That assumption is very psychological. Unless you’re Anne Coulter or something, you’re not gonna say it point blank. The contempt for the rest of the world is much more blatant and extreme coming from the current White House. But it’s always been fairly implicit and infuses a lot of the punditry that we get. So it’s the combination that the U.S. is so noble and the maybe kind of sheepish belief that, when push comes to shove, we’re the ones who matter most.

Guernica: So what are the effects of this myth?

Norman Solomon: I think a kind of manifestation is, when we hear about civilians being killed by U.S. firepower in Iraq or other actions that make the U.S. “look bad,” the emphasis in U.S. media accounts is so often on what it means for our image. I’ll give you an example. Just a day or so ago, here in late December, 2005, I heard an NPR news account of the U.S. earthquake relief effort in Pakistan. And the emphasis of the report was that the supplies and the mass units that the Pentagon had set up in Pakistan after the devastating earthquake there were important because it was improving the poll numbers for Uncle Sam in Pakistan. So, the people who were suffering from the aftermath of the earthquake, they become like abstractions or widgets or poll numbers. The media send a very powerful message to people in the United States that, when it comes right down to it, these world events are really about us.

You would think that the law of averages would mean that we would have some wars lately that weren’t just based on lies.

Guernica: Another myth you expose is the assumption that American leaders don’t lie directly to the public.

Norman Solomon: The most powerful lies are often omissions. So, we don’t hear about the cluster bombs that the U.S. misused in its last wars, totally gratuitous even from a military standpoint, in terms of possibilities for a U.S. “victory;” the depleted uranium; the now widely discussed deceptions, driven by the White House, about the supposed weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda of the Hussein regime. Going back, there was the incubator story leading up to the Gulf War, where tremendous impact came from this lie basically about the occupying Iraqi troops reportedly throwing large numbers of babies out of their incubators in Kuwait City.

There was also the bait and switch lie where President George Herbert Walker Bush claimed that the Iraqi troops in Kuwait were being positioned to invade Saudi Arabia. And, when you look back, you see that the media coverage in August, September and October of 1990 was that these quarter-million U.S. troops were being sent to the Persian Gulf region to defend Saudi Arabia. That prevented a lot of opposition that might have otherwise materialized in the United States to deployment, since it seemed to be a defensive move. The U.S. news media parroted fairly uncritically—in the case of the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the 1989 invasion of Panama—the White House’s claims that these actions were necessary to protect U.S. citizens in those countries. Looking at the last 50 years of U.S. wars, every single one of them was based on lies pushed by the president and largely echoed by the U.S. news media. You would think that the law of averages would mean that we would have some wars lately that weren’t just based on lies.

Guernica: What about, say, Somalia? What do you say to those who say we wanted to prevent another Rwanda?

Norman Solomon: If we assume there were some real positive motivations for the intervention, we also need to look at the actual disaster that occurred—for Somalis—as a result of that intervention. The U.S. chose up sides among warlords and gave support to the warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed, but ended up making war on him and his militia. American forces got into a mode of killing Somali people, including civilians in residential areas. The figures I’ve seen indicate that the U.S. intervention may have killed about the same number of Somali people as it saved with humanitarian aid. And, in the process, the U.S. belief that problems could be solved with military force actually exacerbated the clan warfare that was plaguing Somalia. The U.S. intervention was touted as being a solution but it became part of the problem. We could plausibly conclude that, from the standpoint of Somali people, the motivations that led to the U.S. military intervention were ultimately irrelevant.

Guernica: The rampant government lying that you detail—is it a process endemic to one political party over another? Somalia of course was one of Clinton’s wars.

Norman Solomon: This is definitely a bipartisan phenomenon. The scams are, I think, more subtle or intricate from Democrats. The Bush administration has been more flagrant. There’s more contempt for anything that approximates intellectual coherence from this administration. So it’s more jaw dropping. This is reflected in the claim made to a New York Times magazine writer a couple of years back by a Bush Administration official that they don’t have to be so concerned with “reality-based politics”—that they rearrange reality on the ground, presumably with their bombs as well as their economic and geopolitical leverage. I think this is part of a trend. All of this has been jacked up to such an extent that these phenomena, including deceptions—which were at play from Vietnam and the Dominican Republic through the less direct interventions in Central America in the 1980s, to the bombing of Yugoslavia and the present-day—this has all become greatly accelerated and become more shameless; and I think now we’re experiencing a kind of backlash to some degree (that was always present on the left and among some libertarians). In the last year or so, it has moved into the mainstream of media and politics where you now have war enthusiasts like Chuck Hagel or John McCain making somewhat strong statements against the Bush administration.

I’m not saying it’s in any way dependable. But still it reflects this backlash. So I think the breathtakingly mendacious arrogance of this White House to wage war on Iraq is both continuity and exponential magnification of something that all of us have seen time and again in our own lifetimes going back many decades.

Guernica: Since Vietnam, have the U.S. media ever come close to slowing or preventing a drive toward war?

Norman Solomon: I don’t think that, in the last 50 years, any president who was determined to start a war has been thwarted, whether by Congress or the news media.

Guernica: Are the reputations of presidents made on the battlefield? Are the “minor” presidents generally those presidents who were unable or disinterested in making a war?

Norman Solomon: Oh, definitely. You know, it’s difficult to enact landmark domestic legislation—overhauling the national healthcare system, for instance. It’s really tough to do, whether in a progressive or reactionary direction. But, you know (laughing), when it comes to a war…you know, Ford just wasn’t in the White House long enough to start a new one. But this has been a benchmark of purported greatness. And media outlets who, according to Phil Graham of the Washington Post a few decades ago, are propagating “the first draft of history.” They set the tone. There are many examples in War Made Easy of the media actually goading presidents into war. The invasion of Panama was preceded by a lot of derision, not only from people on Capitol Hill, but from media outlets [which wrote things like] “The President Blinked.” A lot of goading comes from people like George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Cohen—these are the syndicated columnists who mocked President Clinton for not “punching out Saddam Hussein’s lights.” That’s an important dynamic. And then you get the acclamation when a war takes place, or a missile strike. Soon after Clinton moved into office there were missiles launched into Baghdad, and Time magazine called it one of his finest moments.

Guernica: What are the motives for this cheerleading?

Norman Solomon: You have the individual reporters who are part of the adrenaline rush that a move toward war brings. It’s good for careers. We can list many reporters—Neal Conan, for example, a host on Talk of the Nation—their careers, their visibility is enhanced by covering a war. NPR news, as an institution, gained a lot of traction and stature from the Gulf War. That’s just a reality. I’m not saying it’s a motivation; I’m just saying it’s a dynamic. And I think attitudes toward the powerful really infuse the process. Journalists who are players in media outlets that are significant in Washington are in synch with the move towards war.

Let’s flip it over. In the so-called “War on Terror,” what if there was a major questioning by the news media of the fundamentals? I wrote a column a couple of years ago on a question that I also deal with in the book: the double standards of the term terrorism. And I urged that there should be a single standard for what is called terrorism. As Colin Powell said on the day of September 11th, “If people are going to blow up buildings and kill people for political purposes, then that’s to be condemned as terrorism.” Well, what if we apply a single standard? Then U.S. military actions could come under that description as well.

Guernica: By our own definition.

Norman Solomon: Yeah. But since a significant degree of Orwellian haze envelopes our daily media discourse in this country, there’s never really any sharp point put on that. When I raised that point in my column I got an email from a columnist, who wrote, “I agree with you but if our paper were to adopt that single standard of language about terrorism in our daily reporting, the repercussions would be immediate and massive in terms of economic effect. Advertisers would cancel; there would be outrage from readers.” And I think he was right. Can you imagine front-page stories that refer to Pentagon terrorism, and the helicopter gun-ships and cruise missiles that are attacking residential areas in Iraq? I mean, it’s just not gonna fly. And that’s kind of the flip side to your question about what are the motivations. I think there’s also a lot of fear in the newsroom. And after a while people don’t even think about it.

Guernica: The questioning ceases?

Norman Solomon: No individual journalist, or, for that matter, media outlet, is apt to want to be too far out on a limb. They wanna be a little bit ahead of the curve, but they also want to be within shouting distance of what is considered to be professionalism and good news judgment. Well, professionalism and good news judgment, whether it’s covering economic issues or U.S. military policy, is all about what other professionals consider to be quality journalism; and so it’s self-imitation that parallels self-censorship.

Guernica: Tell me about your trips to Iraq. I know you went with Sean Penn on one of them. Tell me, what were your reasons for those trips? Was it to remedy this notion you mentioned earlier, that people in other places are widgets or abstractions in U.S. media handling?

Norman Solomon: That was key, as far as I was concerned. At the governmental level, in the fall of 2002, I thought that it was really important to shatter the assumption that “you can’t talk to these people.” There was no governmental communication between Washington and Baghdad. There were just threats and rhetoric being spewed from each direction. When [Congressman] Nick Rahall went, he was the first member of U.S. Congress to visit Iraq during the presidency of George W. Bush. So I thought that sort of communication was important. And, also, exactly what you said: when people who live in other countries are abstractions—unseen, unheard—then it is easier to say, “Oh, what the heck, they’re unfortunately going to have to suffer a bit,” because of this overarching profound need to engage in military action. You’re reminding me that, as I quote in War Made Easy, Christopher Hitchens wrote, “It can now be proposed as a practical matter that one is able to fight against a regime and not a people or a nation.” And this is just a preposterous claim, belied by what we know—

Guernica: Didn’t Bush just admit to 30,000 civilian casualties in Iraq? That’s an enormous civilian toll.

Norman Solomon: Oh yeah, and it’s probably a low figure. If you look at the Lancet study (October 2004), when they estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths as a result of the invasion and occupation, they attribute a large proportion of it to the U.S. air war—which is directly contrary to the mythology of these so-called “smart bombs.” As we speak, the U.S. is taking lives essentially every day, with an air war that goes largely unreported. And it’s easier to keep doing that because of its abstraction quality. So, whether it’s before an invasion or during this ongoing war, the psychological invasion—the emotional numbing of war propaganda—is, I think, really important. If you look at the quotes of what Sean Penn said when he was in Baghdad, he talked a lot about how, if his country was going to attack Iraq, then he wanted to see the people there beforehand; and he acknowledged that blood would be on our hands, as Americans, if that took place.

Guernica: Your book gives the impression that, as horrifying as it is to think that we’re killing and dying for lies, it’s a pretty well entrenched process, with little room for redress. Is there anything you’re hopeful about? If this is really how it works, can it be stopped?

Norman Solomon: Just as there’s no one cause for this enormous undertow of American militarism, I think that stopping it would require a multi-faceted groundswell. In media terms, that involves sustaining and building independent media outlets at the same time that we challenge the very dominant mainstream media. So, whether it’s community radio, community-access television, pod-casting, web sites, independent print newspapers and magazines, film projects, all sorts of multi-media efforts that are not tethered to the corporate pole, there’s a real synergy going on; and I think that it’s tremendously promising.

Guernica: Do you think an attack on Iran is likely?

Norman Solomon: I believe that a U.S. (or Israeli) air strike against Iran is quite likely in the next year, [which] would be counterproductive, strengthening the hold that extreme hardliners have over Iranian institutions and public life. There is still a political struggle underway in Iran, and although reformers suffered a serious setback in the presidential election last summer, the struggle continues. The more aggressive that the U.S. government gets, the worse it is for human-rights advocates inside Iran.

Guernica: Tehran’s WMD program is pretty well documented. The Iranian leader has made some pretty strong statements lately about wiping Israel off the map. Shouldn’t our government be concerned?

Norman Solomon: The U.S. can’t bomb its way out of this problem. An attack is likely to backfire and make the situation much worse – and even more dangerous. Overall, “do as we say, not as we do” has never been very convincing. With U.S. support continuing for Israel and its nuclear arsenal estimated at 200 bombs, the fact is that Israel has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has never submitted to international inspections.

Guernica: If your theory from War Made Easy holds true, we’re likely to hear a number of lies in the buildup to an attack on Iran. What are some lies you anticipate?

Norman Solomon: We’re very likely to hear that Iran’s leaders are: sure to destroy Israel if we don’t stop them; certainly developing nuclear weapons; only X number of years or months away from the point of no return for developing nuclear weapons; trying to engage in diplomacy only to stall; have no legitimate right to develop nuclear energy because they were dishonest in the past; sure to prevail against grassroots efforts for reform inside Iran.

A lot of the lies we’re going to hear will be in the form of omissions. What goes unmentioned. Such as: Iran has been much more open to inspection (to put it mildly) than the nuclear powers of Israel, Pakistan and India, none of which have signed the NPT. Hostile rhetoric from Washington strengthens the Iranian hardliners. The U.S. government had a historic role in promoting nuclear power under the Shah. The U.S. government made itself the enemy of Iranian democracy through its coup in 1953 and its subsequent support for the torturing regime of the Shah until he was overthrown in 1979. History matters, including the long history of U.S. efforts to suppress democratic possibilities in Iran. Iran is a U.S. target largely because of its enormous reserves of oil and natural gas. If Iran had no oil or natural gas, this “crisis” would not be nearly so hyped by Washington.

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