This essay examines the 2003 war in Iraq and looks at how the nature of truth was manipulated to gain an outcome. The essay will provide a historical context for the way truth is used in war. It will then examine the case for fighting the war and how it was sold to the American public. The essay will examine the Western mass media complicity in the selling of the message and contrast it with oppositional readings from the Muslim world. The essay will touch on the matter of truth in the conduct of the war itself and will conclude with the unspoken truth of oil. It is the position of this essay that truth never stood a chance against the powerful twin weapons of government deception and media spin.
The 2003 US led invasion of Iraq polarised western opinion mainly along the left-right political divide. The British newspaper The Independent conveyed a typical left position when it condemned the conflict as an “illegal, immoral, meretricious war” while Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer touted the right wing warning when he said that failure to act against Saddam Hussein would result in a 21st century dominated by “dangerous and unaccountable dictators armed with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons”. Here clearly was a war whose truth was not obvious. But this is not new. There has long been a link between war and disinformation. 2,500 years ago, the Chinese military treatise, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, offered a fundamental maxim for laying war plans: “all warfare is based on deception".
Isolationist Senator Hiram Johnson (R-Cal) was aware of this maxim when cautioned against the US entry into the First World War in 1917. On the floor of the senate, he was the one to exclaim “the first casualty when war comes is truth”. Journalist Walter Lippmann saw that war’s propaganda at first hand. He knew how editorial conferences were a regular part of the business of war and how the generals met and argued over “the nouns, adjectives and verbs that were to be printed in the newspapers the next morning”. These were just as important matters for the decision makers as the battles themselves.
After the Second World War, Orwell’s dystopic satire 1984 defined a more sinister type of propaganda. He called it doublethink. Doublethink defined the mutability of history; a system of thought which demanded a continuous alteration of the past to safeguard the infallibility of the ruling party. Then in the 1980s Herman and Chomsky added a new layer of sophistication. They outlined a propaganda model for US mass media based on five factors: the concentrated ownership of media, advertising as the media’s primary source of income, over-reliance on sources from agents of power, negative responses to criticism, and anti-communism as a control mechanism (Herman & Chomsky 1994, p.2). While anti-communism has declined since the fall of the Soviet Union, anti-terrorism now roughly fills the same gap since the events of 11 September 2001 (9/11).
The push for regime change in Iraq predates 9/11 and can be traced to the formation of a group called the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) in 1997. The PNAC lobbied the Clinton administration for a harder line on Iraq and increased military spending. Many of the PNAC founders would end up with key roles in the Bush administration elected in 2000. In the wake of 9/11, the PNAC used the US media to dissemination their pro-Iraqi invasion views and their determination to bend the rules to make it happen. On 16 September 2001, US Vice President and PNAC member Dick Cheney went on to the US talk show Meet the Press. Although Cheney explicitly stated there was no evidence to link Iraq to 9/11, he outlined a future policy direction move to what he called “the dark side”. He told the reporter that “a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods available to our intelligence agencies”. The administration waited until after the invasion of Afghanistan to build a case for an invasion of Iraq.
In December 2001, Cheney went on Meet the Press again. This time he was no longer as explicit about Iraq’s non-involvement. He began the casus belli by stating that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attacks, met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. The story was investigated and found false by both the Czechs and the CIA who found that Atta was in the US at the time. But these results were dismissed by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz who told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in April 2002 that “we cannot afford to wait for proof beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Other elements of the plan came into play. The CIA produced a “National Intelligence Estimate” (NIE) on Iraq for a US Congress vote on the war in 2002. This white paper was a cautious statement of support for the war. While the document was classified, the CIA produced a second declassified version for public consumption in which many of the caveats and alternative viewpoints were removed. Bush quoted the NIE in detail in his critical January 2003 “State of the Union” speech saying “Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction”. Bush’s speech also made a controversial assertion that would become known as "the 16 words”. The words were “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”. However the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded the documents Bush’s allegation was based on were fakes.
Despite the thinness of Bush’s case, the American people by and large supported it. An October 2002 Pew Research poll reported that 66 per cent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks and a January 2003 Knight-Ridder poll reported that half those surveyed incorrectly thought that one or more of the highjackers were Iraqis. These poll results show the success of the narrow range of discourse pursued by the US. It also supports the second layer of propaganda in Arthur Siegel’s model which says “it doesn’t have to be the truth as long as it’s plausible. It also questions Irby’s argument that the American media’s principle is that citizens make their own best choices when armed with honest information.
The reality was that were very few official voices of dissent in the west prepared to provide honest information. While Australian intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie resigned in protest, the British scientists Kelly and Jones did not voice their concerns until after the war and any American dissent was swamped by those “in the team”. In any case, the official view was always likely to be more accepted by the media. The practical pressures of news production and professional demands of objectivity combine to produce a systematic over-accessing to the media of those in powerful institutions. The result was that the official pro-war message drowned out the opposition. The way to war was clear.
The strict media management of the truth continued in the war itself. The US military “embedded” journalists within army units on the condition that reports could be delayed and modified for reasons of “operational security” (Rampton & Stauber 2003, p.185). Some correspondents believed these safety concerns would act as a form of censorship but the real impact was to encourage reporters to identify with the units they were covering.
Fortunately worldwide audiences and journalists don’t necessarily support the theories of western news values. The US could not embed journalists from Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV station. During the war, the station’s website tripled its traffic. Al Jazeera received much American criticism when it broadcast footage of dead and bloodied coalition soldiers. The station responded by saying it had a responsibility to show the world casualties on both sides. The independence of Al Jazeera is a welcome counterpoint to the concentration of media ownership into the hands of transnational corporations which threatens the integrity of journalism.
News is a selective view of the world filtered through a mediating ideology. The biased nature of the prevailing ideology on both sides of the conflict caused many to turn to unofficial sources for information. Salam Pax was the pseudonym of a young Baghdad architect whose blog came to international attention during the war. His online diary captured the frightening reality of invasion and struck a dramatic emotional chord with tens of thousands of peoplearound the world with entries like this:
“4/4 4:30pm (Day 16) no sleep last night. If it is true that the US army is in the Saddam International Airport they would be a 30 minutes drive fro [sic] where Raed lives. No phones, and I am a bit too scared about driving down to his house.”
Here was a raw unmediated story dramatically different from the official “embedded” accounts. While the notion of authenticity of blogging is contested, the medium’s ‘everydayness’ grounds the practice in the world of the writer and legitimises it in terms of purchase. Here is hope that truth is not always lost in the midst of war.
But voices like Salam’s were isolated ones. The mainstream media mostly toed the official line. None of Rupert Murdoch’s 174 newspapers worldwide editorially opposed the war. Two major American newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post were forced to issue retrospective apologies for biased aspects of their coverage of the war which favoured the official view and supported the invasion. Such bias is not necessarily indicative of downright lies however as Allan Bell as found, problems with the truth in media are more likely to occur as inaccuracies, misquotations, omissions, exaggerations and distortions.
Why is truth important? One definition of truth is “that paradigm which conforms best with reality”. However the truth of situations is difficult to ascertain in a world of information overload, competing ideologies and vested interests. The representation of any event involves choices of many different kinds. One choice about the representation of the Iraq War was to avoid the rationale of oil. Yet the secure flow of Persian Gulf oil has been American policy since the 1980 Carter Doctrine designated it a “vital interest” of the US. And a fundamental theme of the George W. Bush administration’s energy policy is a 33 per cent increase in US oil consumption in the next twenty years. As of 2002, Iraq was the world’s second largest oil producer with 10.7% of the world’s total but its industry was hamstrung by the sanctions imposed since the first Gulf War.
Clearly the need to secure access to Iraqi oilfields and increase production was an important truth to a resource-hungry US economy. The strong links between the oil industry and senior members of the Bush administration, including the president and vice-president, are well documented. Yet this truth could never be uttered. The American Government has continuously denied that oil was one of the reasons they were pushing for regime change. Donald Rumsfeld went on 60 Minutes in December 2002 to state categorically “it has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with it”. The sensitive nature about this truth about oil was vividly captured this year by the worldwide media attention afforded to Australian defence minister Brendan Nelson. Nelson’s error was to publicly admit securing oilfields was a key factor behind the Australian military presence in Iraq. This led to the strenuous and speedy denials by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer this was the case. This truth about “literally nothing” remains a long-term casualty of the war.
In conclusion, the war on Iraq was successfully sold to the public in the US as a just overthrow of a dangerous tyrant with designs against America. Although many of the manipulative arguments for war were exposed as false after the war, it was by then too late to change the outcome. The mainstream media has played a major role in the successful promotion of the deceptions that led to the invasion. The preparation for war has shown that truth is indeed the first casualty and the major media are as culpable as government agencies in leading to its early demise.