Vol II no. 8 April 15, 2003  
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Working Against the Grain

Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. His other commentaries are also available online.


Public opinion seems to practically forbid talking about the evil and dangerous consequences of war, especially of a war that ends in victory. So people are all the more ready to listen to those pundits who, regarding public opinion as the last word, compete with each other in their enthusiastic praise of the war, and who inquire jubilantly into its triumphant influence on morality, culture, and art.

As you may have guessed from the last line, the previous paragraph was written in an earlier age; today the concepts of morality, culture and art are likely to be found in the same sentence only in a rant of the Religious Right. In my loose translation I dropped the third and fourth words "in Germany," and substituted the modern "pundits" for "writers," but the rest is essentially as intended by its original author, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, who died in 1900, would have made a lousy Nazi. He was an outspoken anti-anti-Semite, and he deplored the militarism that was overtaking his national culture in the wake of Prussian success on the battlefield. He wrote that paragraph 130 years ago this week, as his countrymen were still high-fiving one another following the destruction of the so-called "Second Empire" of yet another strutting dictator, Napoleon III.

Nietzsche's next sentences were equally germane: "It must be confessed that a great victory is a great danger. It is more difficult for human nature to endure victory than to endure defeat. Indeed, it might even be urged that it is simpler to gain a victory of this sort than to turn it to such account that it may not ultimately prove a serious rout."

Now we are in a similar triumphant moment in our history. This week's newspapers glitter with full-color photos of grinning young Americans lounging in liberated palaces. Polls tell us that U.S. public opinion is jubilantly enthusiastic about our victory in Iraq – even should we discover that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. Muslim Iraqis are overjoyed to receive U.S. Christian invaders as liberators, we are told. Casualties were very light – at most 68 U.S. battlefield deaths so far (plus another 40 or so which were not combat-related, according to a Washington Post report.) Our righteous prayers were answered, our president informed us, and so American prisoners of war have been safely returned to their families. All's well that ends well!

On a lighter note, a New York Times article on "stress" advises "Avoid overexposure – don't spend hours reading, listening to or watching coverage of the war. Get the bare facts and move on to something else, lest you become overwhelmed, numbed or both." You have to turn the page to find the photo of the Arab boy with stubs where his legs are supposed to be.

Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush deployed a full repertoire of rationales for their war; they came a long way from the original pretext, which was that Saddam Hussein was behind the terrorist attack of 9-11. The next number was the "Axis of Evil," which would have implied that the mortal enemies Iraq and Iran – along with the distant North Korea – were in cahoots to do us in. I say "would have implied," meaning if logic or truth had any bearing whatsoever.

They finally landed on "liberation" – something of a reprise, since one of their earlier numbers was "regime change," which also involved deposing Hussein. But a war of aggression to unseat a head of state would be an impossibly indefensible violation of international law, so "weapons of mass destruction" became the mantra, and evidence was conjured to support additional allegations of Saddam's vicious plans. That notwithstanding, the war was actually commenced a little ahead of the schedule advertised in our ultimatum, in a sudden gambit to murder a head of state with bombs.

Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush also promised that the war would be waged by an international coalition, and you and I thought that meant the United Nations Security Council, and the individual concurrence of other Arab states as in the 1991 Gulf war, plus NATO, plus China and Russia. It turned out otherwise, but no matter, because President Bush had the chutzpah to claim he was leading a "coalition of the willing" that included 49 states, among them Micronesia and the Solomon Islands (although, following Bush's announcement, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands disputed that claim.)

The Bush administration's spectacularly successful propaganda campaign is an integral dimension of the continuing war. "Embedded" reporters serve as war publicists, not because they're dependent on "their" military units for meals, for a place to sleep, for transportation across hostile wastelands, for the means of transmitting their stories, and for protection from our new enemies. They have turned into PR flacks because, inevitably, their news reports cast each story from the perspective of forward-moving American protagonists, who came only to liberate, endangered by obstinate, alien-looking, shape-shifting antagonists, now maddened fedayeen and now desperate refugee families who might be packing explosives. It is in the nature of story-telling under these circumstances to create good guys and bad guys.

These colorful stories have created an audience for the reality-TV entertainment provided by the networks and the cable news outlets. We also have "analysis" presented by former generals, now lobbyists within the military-industrial complex, who perform the function that color commentators provide at sporting events. Between them the embedded reporters and retired officers have displaced coverage of the effect of our military actions, as well as real analytical discussion of the war and its implications. These war stories also set the bar for "patriotic" coverage – Lucky Strike goes to war – which has had a chilling effect on negative stories, and has meant that Americans have had to watch foreign broadcasts to see what is really happening in the war they're paying for.

The Chicago Tribune reports that "The Office of Global Communications, a controversial agency created by President Bush in January, has blossomed into a huge production company, issuing daily scripts on the Iraq war to U.S. spokesmen around the world, auditioning generals to give media briefings and booking administration stars on foreign news shows. The office – a sort of global public-relations firm for the Bush administration and the U.S. war effort – tightly coordinates the message of the Pentagon, the State Department and the military command in the Persian Gulf, ensuring that any war commentary by a U.S. official is approved in advance by the White House...."

"The communications office helps devise and coordinate each day's talking points on the war," writes Bob Kemper of the Tribune's Washington Bureau. "Civilian and military personnel, for example, are told to refer to the invasion of Iraq as a 'war of liberation.' Iraqi paramilitary forces are to be called 'death squads.' The effects of that discipline are evident almost daily. When questions arose recently about whether the United States could find Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. spokesmen and spokeswomen – from the White House to the Pentagon to the Central Command in Qatar – simultaneously insisted that the war was 'not about one man.'"

The American propaganda campaign was directed, of course, not at the enemy but at public opinion in the United States. As in the 1960s, Americans will have to make sacrifices for Bush's war, but they will never be asked, in plain language, to impose those sacrifices on themselves. They will instead be told that the budget squeeze is necessary to meet the costs of our continuing and perpetual war on terrorism – back to the original rationale – a war to which they will have given their patriotic support.

I wrote in an earlier piece that public relations, properly understood, will save the world. The corollary is that this perversion of PR endangers the world. It is no wonder that half the U.S. population still believes that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9-11. And Americans who managed stress by sampling the bare facts and moving on to something else will profess surprise that there was any appreciable "collateral damage" resulting from our assault on Iraqi cities. PR – publicity, propaganda – works. The press has testified endlessly to the care and concern for avoiding civilian deaths and destruction of property. The coverage on Canadian TV, just across the border, conveys some of the horror of war – including what we like to call the "aftermath," which is in reality part and parcel of the conflict – but for most Americans the news of calamity has been blacked out by uncensored American media.

Not a drop of blood was spilled, Christian or Muslim; not a limb was severed, not an eye was lost, not a mosque was shattered, not a drop of water tainted by war, except as a direct consequence of an avoidable choice made by an American. The war on Iraq was never inevitable, and it did not just happen. Saddam and his thugs can be blamed for a long list of crimes, but we are the ones responsible for every act of the continuing destruction, since March 20, 2003.

In the same essay from "Unfashionable Observations," Nietzsche grumpily asserted that the spirit that produced Kant and Kepler and Beethoven and Bach had nothing to do with fostering the qualities that brought victory on the battlefield. He held out some hope that a revived German spirit, "a truly genuine German cultivation," was viable. However, military discipline, "natural courage," superiority of leadership, "obedience among the led," were all qualities of a lethal alternative "culture" which, if victorious, might finally "extirpate the German spirit" – as, arguably, it did, over the course of two world wars.

Nietzsche's hopes lay in the possibility that his countrymen could "mobilize that calm and tenacious courage, which they opposed to the pathetic and sudden impetuosity of the French, against their own inner enemy." In that historic moment of military hubris, Nietzsche wrote that "for me it becomes ever more doubtful – and since the war, more improbable with each passing day – that it will be possible to channel German courageousness in this new direction, for I see how everyone is convinced that such a battle and such a courage are no longer necessary." Most people are happy that things are going so well, he wrote – "I perceive this delirium and joy in the incomparably confident behavior both of German journalists and of our fabricators of novels, tragedies, poems and histories." Today he would no doubt also speak of films and TV entertainment, including the shows that attract advertisers with their logos and theme music ballyhooing continuous "news" coverage of the war.

He wrote: "They obviously constitute a homogeneous group of people who seem to have conspired to take control of the modern human being's hours of idleness and meditation – that is, of his 'cultured' moments – and to drug him by means of the printed word. Ever since the war, this group of people has been rife with joy, dignity and self-assurance; in the wake of such 'successes of German culture,' they believe not only that they have been confirmed and sanctioned, but even ordained almost sacrosanct; hence they speak all the more pompously [and] delight in addressing the German people..." – in their efforts to refashion the American consciousness into one that embraces their ideal of Pax Americana. Oops, I seem to have shifted nationalities and centuries there.

I borrow from Nietzsche not only to relay the alarm, but to evoke the ultimate optimism in what he wrote. There was nothing inevitable about the Prussian ascendency. Despite what we are experiencing, there is nothing inevitable in the designs of the new imperialists in Washington.

We live in an age where our hodge-podge "culture" is proudly that of Wal-Mart and the raucous "marketplace of ideas" on radio and television... of Hollywood and Madison Avenue... of brand-name apparel designed by Europeans and fabricated in Third World sweatshops but indelibly identified by advertising and literature as the essence of American consumerism... the culture of Coca-Cola and McDonald's... of Disneyland and Times Square. Not only are we free citizens who are allowed to thumb our noses at our political leaders – thumbing our noses is as far as most of us ever progress in our political activity. We know the world laughs at these symbols of our apolitical, unserious affluence, even as they covet them, and seek to acquire them. We laugh at them ourselves, and if some French intellectual wants to call these values "philistine," as Nietzsche also did, somebody hand them a bar of soap and clippers for their nose hair.

But even as we go along with the joke, there's a sense of shame in our laughter. We're better than this parody of America, and we know it.

We remember the story we heard as children, the story with all its subplots, about the principles that define us – we, the intrepid colonists who went to the ends of the earth for the freedom to worship; who wrestled ourselves free from tyranny, brave little Davids to the red-coated Goliath; the buckskin-fringed pioneers who tamed the wilderness; the wagon train families who wheeled all their worldly possessions in a simple cart into a new land; the victimized but victorious dark-skinned survivors of slavery; the despised but undaunted immigrants of a hundred tongues who broke their bonds and breathed free; the working men and women who organized unions to reform capitalism from the inside; the Yanks who rescued Europe, twice, and who stared down the global threat of Soviet totalitarianism without permanently forfeiting our own civil liberties; the outspoken and indomitably cheerful world-changers, who each in their own cause are still challenging the received wisdom of authority and tradition and putting the original principles to work for the improvement of the common weal, the public good.

The American story has been given its voice through the stirring rhetoric of presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, by civic leaders like Martin Luther King, by our many poets and writers. Even when Ronald Reagan told the story (too often as a method of misdirection) it resonated and made us proud. Now it's being "updated" and rewritten by the likes of Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush, who are already telling the media about weapons of mass destruction in Syria, and other imagined menaces in Iran.

These men of war are attempting to hijack the American spirit. We can prevent it only by reviving the authentic American spirit and giving it voice. But we must be clear that we are working against the grain.

© 2003 Alton Miller
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