Silencing War Criticism

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Grisly photos that show war as it is, in this case a dead Iraqi from Desert Storm, are not shown by the U.S. media

Silencing War Criticism: The Iraq Invasion of 2003

W.J. Astore

Update (7/19/17): I posted this article at HuffPost, and the site added a video that shows the mainstream media gushing over Trump’s strike against Syria.  The video is well worth watching.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/596df7a3e4b07f87578e6bd7 or follow this link.

Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota (1999-2003), was a hot media commodity as the Bush/Cheney administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Ventura, a U.S. Navy veteran who gained notoriety as a professional wrestler before he entered politics, was both popular and outspoken.  MSNBC won the bidding war for his services in 2003, signing him to a lucrative three-year contract to create his own show – until, that is, the network learned he was against the Iraq war.  Ventura’s show quickly went away, even as the network paid him for three years to do nothing.

I heard this revealing story from a new podcast, the TARFU Report, hosted by Matt Taibbi and Alex Pareene.  By his own account, Jesse Ventura was bought off by the network, which back then was owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor that was due to make billions of dollars off the war.

Of course, Ventura was hardly the only war critic to run afoul of GE/NBC.  Phil Donahue, the famous talk show host, saw his highly rated show cancelled when he gave dissenters and anti-war voices a fair hearing.  Ashleigh Banfield, a reporter who covered the Iraq war, gave a speech in late April 2003 that criticized the antiseptic coverage of the war (extracts to follow below).  For her perceptiveness and her honesty, she was reassigned and marginalized, demoted and silenced.

So much for freedom of speech, as well as the press.

As Phil Donahue said, his show “wasn’t good for business.”  NBC didn’t want to lose ratings by being associated with “unpatriotic” elements when the other networks were waving the flag in support of the Iraq war.  In sidelining Ventura and Donahue, NBC acted to squelch any serious dissent from the push for war, and punished Ashleigh Banfield in the immediate aftermath of the war for her honesty in criticizing the coverage shown (and constructed) by the mainstream media, coverage that was facilitated by the U.S. military and rubber-stamped by corporate ownership.

Speaking of Banfield’s critique, here are some excerpts from her speech on Iraq war coverage in April 2003.  Note that her critique remains telling for all U.S. media war coverage since then:

That said, what didn’t you see [in U.S. media coverage of the Iraq war]? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.

I can’t tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you’ve got to be on both sides.

….

Some of the soldiers, according to our embeds had never seen a dead body throughout the entire three-week campaign. It was like Game Boy. I think that’s amazing in two different ways. It makes you a far more successful warrior because you can just barrel right along but it takes away a lot of what war is all about, which is what I mentioned earlier. The TV technology took that away too. We couldn’t see where the bullets landed. Nobody could see the horrors of this so that we seriously revisit the concept of warfare the next time we have to deal with it.

I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I’m very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people’s opinions. It was very sanitized. [emphasis added]

….

This TV show [Iraq invasion coverage] that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there’s nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do. [emphasis added]

War is ugly and it’s dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It’s a dangerous thing to propagate.

….

I’m hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.

Nothing has changed since Banfield’s powerful critique.  Indeed, the networks have only hired more retired generals and admirals to give “unbiased” coverage of America’s military actions.  And reporters and “journalists” like Brian Williams have learned too.  Recall how Williams cheered the “beautiful” U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles as they were launched against Syria earlier this year.

It’s not just that U.S. media coverage actively suppresses dissent of America’s wars: it passively does so as well, which is arguably more insidious.  Any young journalist with smarts recognizes the way to get ahead is to be a cheerleader for U.S. military action, a stenographer to the powerful.  Being a critic leads to getting fired (like Donahue); demoted and exiled (like Banfield); and, in Ventura’s case, if you can’t be fired or demoted or otherwise punished, you can simply be denied air time.

When you consider that billions and billions of dollars are at stake, whether in weapons sales or in advertising revenue tied to ratings, none of this is that surprising.  What’s surprising is that so few Americans know about how pro-authority and uncritical U.S. media coverage of war and its makers is.  If anything, the narrative is often that the U.S. media is too critical of the military to the detriment of the generals.  Talk about false narratives and alternative facts!

America’s greed-wars persist for many reasons, but certainly a big one is the lack of critical voices in the mainstream media.  Today’s journalists, thinking about their career prospects and their salaries (and who is ultimately their boss at corporate HQ), learn to censor themselves, assuming they have any radical thoughts to begin with. Some, like Brian Williams, even learn how to stop worrying and love the beautiful bombs.

And so it goes …

Military Dissent and the Need to Save Democracy from Perpetual War

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A true hero because he spoke up

W.J. Astore

My latest article at TomDispatch.com focuses on the need for military dissent in an age of creeping militarism and perpetual war.  In my article, I identify some of the key reasons why such dissent is tightly constrained and often severely limited.  This is especially problematic for at least two reasons.  The first is that Americans say they trust the military more than any other societal institution.  If the military censors itself, it misses an invaluable opportunity to educate an attentive public about the disastrous path of America’s wars.

The second reason is that a democracy’s health depends on dissent.  A country in which dissent is suppressed, a country that finds itself engaged in perpetual war, is a country that cannot sustain democratic institutions.  We’re already witnessing the withering away of democracy in America.  That it’s happening in slow motion doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.

A Marine Corps sergeant and Vietnam War veteran wrote to me in “salty” language that “his damn war [was] fucked up,” but that while he was still in uniform he “spoke little [against the war] and only then about how it was being run.”  We need more honesty from today’s veterans about how America’s damn wars are fucked up.  Maybe then we’ll finally get off our duffs and work to put a stop to them.

Here are a few excerpts from my article; I invite you to read all of it at TomDispatch.com.

The Pentagon has, in a very real sense, become America’s national cathedral.  If we’re going to continue to worship at it, we should at least ask for some minimal level of honesty from its priests.  In militarized America, the question of the moment is how to encourage such honesty.

Call it patriotic dissent.  By “dissent” I mean honest talk from those who should know best about the hazards and horrors of perpetual war, about how poorly those conflicts have gone and are going.  We desperately need to encourage informed critics and skeptics within the military and the [Military-Industrial] Complex to speak their minds in a way that moves the national needle away from incessant bombing and perpetual war.

Yet to do so, we must first understand the obstacles involved.  It’s obvious, for example, that a government which has launched a war against whistleblowers, wielding the World War I-era Espionage Act against them and locking away Chelsea Manning for a veritable lifetime in a maximum security prison, isn’t likely to suddenly encourage more critical thinking and public expression inside the national security state. But much else stands in the way of the rest of us hearing a little critical speech from the “fourth branch” of government …

Leaving military insularity, unit loyalty, and the pressure of combat aside, however, here are seven other factors I’ve witnessed, which combine to inhibit dissent within military circles.

1. Careerism and ambition: The U.S. military no longer has potentially recalcitrant draftees — it has “volunteers.”  Yesteryear’s draftees were sometimes skeptics; many just wanted to endure their years in the military and get out.  Today’s volunteers are usually believers; most want to excel.  Getting a reputation for critical comments or other forms of outspokenness generally means not being rewarded with fast promotions and plum assignments.  Career-oriented troops quickly learn that it’s better to fail upwards quietly than to impale yourself on your sword while expressing honest opinions.  If you don’t believe me, ask all those overly decorated generals of our failed wars you see on TV.

2. Future careerism and ambition: What to do when you leave the military?  Civilian job options are often quite limited. Many troops realize that they will be able to double or triple their pay, however, if they go to work for a defense contractor, serving as a military consultant or adviser overseas.  Why endanger lucrative prospects (or even your security clearance, which could be worth tens of thousands of dollars to you and firms looking to hire you) by earning a reputation for being “difficult”?

3. Lack of diversity: The U.S. military is not blue and red and purple America writ small; it’s a selective sampling of the country that has already winnowed out most of the doubters and rebels.  This is, of course, by design.  After Vietnam, the high command was determined never to have such a wave of dissent within the ranks again and in this (unlike so much else) they succeeded.  Think about it: between “warriors” and citizen-soldiers, who is more likely to be tractable and remain silent?

4. A belief that you can effect change by working quietly from within the system: Call it the Harold K. Johnson effect.  Johnson was an Army general during the Vietnam War who considered resigning in protest over what he saw as a lost cause.  He decided against it, wagering that he could better effect change while still wearing four stars, a decision he later came deeply to regret.  The truth is that the system has time-tested ways of neutralizing internal dissent, burying it, or channeling it and so rendering it harmless.

5. The constant valorization of the military: Ever since 9/11, the gushing pro-military rhetoric of presidents and other politicians has undoubtedly served to quiet honest doubts within the military.  If the president and Congress think you’re the best military ever, a force for human liberation, America’s greatest national treasure, who are you to disagree, Private Schmuckatelli?

America used to think differently.  Our founders considered a standing army to be a pernicious threat to democracy.  Until World War II, they generally preferred isolationism to imperialism, though of course many were eager to take land from Native Americans and Mexicans while double-crossing Cubans, Filipinos, and other peoples when it came to their independence.  If you doubt that, just read War is a Racket by Smedley Butler, a Marine general in the early decades of the last century and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. In the present context, think of it this way: democracies should see a standing military as a necessary evil, and military spending as a regressive tax on civilization — as President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously did when he compared such spending to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron.

Chanting constant hosannas to the troops and telling them they’re the greatest ever — remember the outcry against Muhammad Ali when, with significantly more cause, he boasted that he was the greatest? — may make our military feel good, but it won’t help them see their flaws, nor us as a nation see ours.

6. Loss of the respect of peers: Dissent is lonely.  It’s been more than a decade since my retirement and I still hesitate to write articles like this.  (It’s never fun getting hate mail from people who think you’re un-American for daring to criticize any aspect of the military.)  Small wonder that critics choose to keep their own counsel while they’re in the service.

7.  Even when you leave the military, you never truly leave: I haven’t been on a military base in years.  I haven’t donned a uniform since my retirement ceremony in 2005.  Yet occasionally someone will call me “colonel.”  It’s always a reminder that I’m still “in.” I may have left the military behind, but it never left me behind.  I can still snap to attention, render a proper salute, recite my officer’s oath from memory.

In short, I’m not a former but a retired officer.  My uniform may be gathering dust in the basement, but I haven’t forgotten how it made me feel when I wore it.  I don’t think any of us who have served ever do.  That strong sense of belonging, that emotional bond, makes you think twice before speaking out.  Or at least that’s been my experience.  Even as I call for more honesty within our military, more bracing dissent, I have to admit that I still feel a residual sense of hesitation.  Make of that what you will.

Bonus Reason: Troops are sometimes reluctant to speak out because they doubt Americans will listen, or if they do, empathize and understand.  It’s one thing to vent your frustrations in private among friends on your military base or at the local VFW hall among other veterans.  It’s quite another to talk to outsiders.  War’s sacrifices and horrors are especially difficult to convey and often traumatic to relive.  Nevertheless, as a country, we need to find ways to encourage veterans to speak out and we also need to teach ourselves how to listen — truly listen — no matter the harshness of what they describe or how disturbed what they actually have to say may make us feel …

And I conclude my article in this way:

Some will doubtless claim that encouraging patriotic dissent within the military can only weaken its combat effectiveness, endangering our national security.  But when, I wonder, did it become wise for a democracy to emulate Sparta?  And when is it ever possible to be perfectly secure?

Dissent and Democracies

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W.J. Astore

Dissent is fundamental to democracy.  Or so we claim.  Until such dissent makes us angry or uncomfortable.  Then we yell at the dissenter to shut up; better yet, we denounce him or her as a traitor to … well, whatever fits.

But responsible criticism of the actions of one’s government is not disloyalty; rather, it’s often a form of higher loyalty, a loyalty to the ideal of freedom of speech as well as the ideal of organized political action.  The alternative is “My government, right or wrong.”  And who wants that, except for government leaders and their lackeys?

The USA and Israel claim to be democracies.  Yet in difficult times, dissent is often suppressed, and dissenters painted as disloyal.  Recall the aftermath of 9/11 in the USA, when those who questioned the rush to war against Iraq were painted as naive peaceniks (at best) or as dupes of Saddam Hussein or even (at worst) as supporters of Al Qaeda.  That was the mentality of Bush and Company, a Manichean “you’re either for us or against us.”  And look where that got us.

Sorry, I’m not “for” a government and its leaders.  I’m “for” the US Constitution and our essential rights and liberties, including the right to dissent from my government when I believe it is wrong.

Today, the debate on Israel and Gaza is similarly heated.  Those who risk expressing sympathy for the Palestinians often get painted as supporters of Hamas and terrorism.  Jon Stewart showcased this mentality on The Daily Show here.  Similarly, David Harris-Gershon wrote a telling article with the meaningful title, “Empathizing with Gaza does NOT make me anti-Semitic, nor pro-Hamas or anti-Israel.  It makes me human.”

It almost goes without saying that Stewart and Harris-Gershon are Jewish. Indeed, Harris-Gershon’s wife was seriously injured by a terrorist bomb in Israel, an ordeal he wrote about in his book, “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?  A Memoir of Jerusalem.”  That they have to fight against the charge of being “self-hating Jews” or enemy sympathizers says much about the suppression of dissent by authoritarian elements in Israel as well as the USA.

Look: The situation in Gaza is highly inflammatory.  As an organization, Hamas is quite obviously dedicated to launching rockets against innocents and building tunnels to launch terrorist attacks.  Few people can blame Israel for wanting to stop the rocket attacks and destroy the tunnels.  But honest people in good faith can definitely disagree with how the Israeli government is going about it.

Let me close with a comment from a Jewish friend.  He wrote to me with grave concern about Israel’s actions in Gaza.  What he said resonated with me.  He said that the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza were betraying a fundamental core value of Jewish identity.

That value?  Compassion.

You may agree or disagree with him.  But is it too much to ask that we take his concern seriously, without denouncing him as naive or misguided or calling him a self-hating Jew or even a traitor?

Update (8/4/14): Call it “dissent” or call it “gumption” (the word Andrew Bacevich uses below): We need it when the experts are marching in lockstep in the pursuit of bad policies, as they did with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964 that enabled the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War.  But let Bacevich tell it:

“It takes gumption to question truths that everyone “knows” to be true. In the summer of 1964, gumption was in short supply. As a direct consequence, 58,000 Americans died, along with a vastly larger number of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.

“After 9/11, similar mistakes — deference to the official line and to the conventional wisdom (“terrorism” standing in for communism) — recurred, this time with even less justification. The misbegotten Iraq war was one result. Yet even today, events in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere elicit an urge to ‘do something,’ accompanied by the conviction that unless troops are moving or bombs dropping the United States is somehow evading its assigned responsibilities. The question must be asked: Are Americans incapable of learning?”

We’re especially incapable of learning when those few who dare to question the wrongheaded policies of our government are painted as malcontents or traitors.

Check out Bacevich’s article here.