The noise before the storm

British propaganda from World War IGeorge Orwell once wrote that two facts should be made the centre of all anti-war agitation: “1. That war against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it. 2. That every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac.”

George Orwell knew what propaganda was all about, and he knew that successful propaganda does not necessarily have to be false. The critical point is getting the masses’ attention and getting people to think of those things that will serve the interests of the propagandist.

Similarly, G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1909: “Tennyson put it very feebly and inadequately when he said that the blackest of lies is the lie that is half a truth. The blackest of lies is the lie that is entirely a truth. Once give me the right to pick out anything and I shall not need to invent anything.”

He wrote: If I am free to report this planet to the Man on the Moon as being inhabited by scorpions and South African millionaires, I will undertake to leave the facts to speak for themselves. I will undertake to create a false impression solely by facts.”

Both of Orwell’s “two facts” are especially relevant to the US-led war against Iraq. There is no need to rehearse US President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney’s connections with Halliburton and the oil industry to look for a money-and-profit angle; by now most people have some awareness of these. Nor are our memories so short that we can’t remember the demonised pre-war image of Iraq President Saddam Hussein (imagery blurred by the subsequent portrayal of his haggard appearance in captivity).

But before using this information to sound the alarm against murmurings in support of another US war against Iran, some additional facts need to be taken into account. Orwell was writing about how pacifists should argue their case. He was not himself a pacifist. Furthermore, the looming threat of Hitler was a genuine threat to the world that required the full energy and commitment of democratic nations to defeat.

Sensitivity to propaganda doesn’t always move opinion in the right direction. In World War I the story was given credence by the Lord Northcliffe press (The Times, The Daily Mail) about the existence of supposed “corpse utilisation plants” whereby the Germans boiled down their own dead soldiers (in fact, animal carcasses) to make glycerine, bone meal and other useful items. The story served the purpose of projecting the image of Germans as ghouls, not fit to live in a civilised world, but after the war it was officially repudiated. When Adolf Hitler came, and stories of deaths camps circulated, people were sceptical. But as we now know, the stories were true.

The formula for a popular war

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad So what is a conscientious citizen in today’s highly propagandised world supposed to do? We know that people are easily led. One of the Nazi ringleaders, Hermann Goering, disputed the idea that leaders in a democracy would have more difficulty than in a dictatorship to get people to fight wars. It’s easy, he told an interviewer from his Nuremberg cell. “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” In the United States, the Bush administration has allies in the news media to pursue this line, such as Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.

What’s needed is for people to recognise how easily led they are, and to make sure that before the steps to war are taken, the possible outcomes are fully appreciated in all their horror. People can be made to fight if they believe they are fighting against evil and for good. When it is absolutely necessary to resort to bellicose solutions, such simplification may be justifiable.

But note that this simplified perspective is not justifiable in a democracy at the stage when war is being contemplated. The effects of war are so ghastly that every means should be taken to avoid it, and only the demonstrably probable avoidance of an even greater evil can justify it. People need to be fully apprised of all the relevant factors if they are to make a proper judgment about deciding in favour of war. Deceiving people into accepting war is unconscionable. As Carl von Clausewitz correctly observed, once war begins, new motives for continuing the war take over as the enemy is killing one’s own people and threatening one’s existence. The time to think carefully is before taking the first steps to war.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a gift to US administration hawks, who appear to be softening the way for public acceptance of military strikes against Iran. His widely quoted statement to a conference in Iran that the state of Israel should be “wiped off the map” and his pressing ahead for enrichment of uranium ostensibly to fuel reactors  -- but some fear to provide material for nuclear weapons -- combine to project him as a kind of Hitler figure. Just what the hawks need.

But before that image takes hold, we must ask how much do we really know about him and his intentions? Hitler spelled out his aims in Mein Kampf, and by 1939 his war machinery was already developed. His invasion first of Czechoslovakia and then of Poland left no doubt about his aggressive intentions.

In the case of Iran, we are talking about future, not existing nuclear weaponry. The desire for nuclear technology is not necessarily for military purposes. Oil is not a renewable resource, and nuclear power can extend the amount available for marketing, prolonging Iran’s source of wealth. What counts against Iran’s alleged benign intentions is its refusal to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, in light of the way inspections opened up targets for US bombings in Iraq, some reticence on Iran’s part may be understandable.

The UN Security Council, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency, not only should, but must be given a chance to find a way out of the impasse. The Bush administration no longer can be trusted in the light of its previous deceptive behaviour, most notably regarding Colin Powell’s presentation concerning weapons of mass destruction to the Security Council on February 5, 2003, but in many other instances as well.

What might happen

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Army Day ceremonies on April 18. (Mehr Photo)I do not have the knowledge to be confident about what kind of scenario is most likely, but I am scared by the following sort of possibility: The US, or a US coalition, or Israel, bombs selected targets in Iran. Iran responds by inflicting serious damage on US targets. This enables the US to portray itself as a victim of outrageous aggression. There is an escalation in the war, at which point China and Russia, not to mention the European Union, start to say, “wait a minute,” and engage in threats against the United States.

In a world where oil is power they no doubt would object to US dominance over Iran. Iranian oil also happens to be in their vital interests. The path toward nuclear Armageddon is under way. Some religious “Christian” fanatics reportedly are hoping for such an event, as in their view it would bring about the final rapture of believers like themselves into heaven. This mirrors beliefs among suicide bombers of a beckoning paradise.

In the middle of the last century, the prophetic French theorist Jacques Ellul warned about the hubristic attitude that gave to technology and technique features previously attributed to God. With the threat of nuclear war, we cannot assume that technical safeguards against malfunction will necessarily work. With centralised, efficient, computer-governed systems also comes lack of robustness and vulnerability to breakdown and sabotage. The powerful image of progress stands in the way of seeing this vulnerability, though the experience of power failures and 9/11 events has tended to lift this veil somewhat.

Today, safety and security are sought in gated communities and sturdier gas-guzzling SUVs. The former contribute to social divisiveness and the latter to the need for secure oil supplies, which contributes to US military involvement in the Middle East. Worried about attacks from “rogue states” the US administration has been pushing for a ballistic missile defence system. This again will involve huge costs and divert funds from social assistance, environmental initiatives, and other peace enhancing activities.

Common sense can easily make the link between unchecked consumption and the increased likelihood of war. We must also be on guard against any hate propaganda against whole peoples. Negative stereotyping of races, religions or cultures engenders fear among the targeted group and a likely backlash that can quickly escalate into an unstoppable spiral of violence. The majority of Christians and Muslims are genuinely peace-loving. They should not allow fanatics in their ranks to displace messages of love and peace through excessive preoccupation with fear and militancy.

The false glamour of war

We should be wary of any glamorisation of war, or the attempts to conceal the consequences of war-like behaviour. The military can protect us, but it can also provoke and extend conflict unnecessarily. Iraq is a good example of military action that sowed dragon’s teeth in the form of willing suicide bombers -- people full of bitterness and anger who see no future for themselves.

From my own fallible standpoint, I believe the following: the world should be working to prevent Iran’s attaining of nuclear weapons. But to achieve this, it should also be working for renewed commitment to non-proliferation and arms reduction among the existing nuclear powers. The US under George W. Bush has shown little regard for international cooperation and the rule of law. It has engaged in deceptive war propaganda in line with imperial designs set out in the neo-conservative “Project for the New American Century.” World peace under the US attitude of the Roman adage, oderint dum metuant (“Let them hate us so long as they fear us”), does not seem to me likely.

I conclude with the thought that truth, and reflection on the most important and relevant kinds of truths, are what’s most needed for peace in the world today. We are distracted by our individual concerns for glory, glamour, security, prosperity, group membership and standing, along with the usual petty vices related to sloth, gluttony and sex. We don’t want to risk unpopularity and reduced career prospects by countering mainstream thinking, however manipulated this may have been. Delusion can be comforting and appear desirable.

But we cannot afford to acquiesce in the simplistic imagery that is thrown at us from our political leadership, advertisers and mass media. This is too often skewed toward special and not public interests. Meditative thinking, looking for and supporting those forces that counter-act such things as reckless acquisitiveness, unchecked fears, hatreds and prejudices -- that’s the way to peace ahead. There are many sources in the Internet that give support for meditative thinking and the factual basis for resisting simplistic imagery. But it’s up to the individual to make use of those sources.

Randal Marlin is Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is a member of the boards of the International Jacques Ellul Society, the Peace and Environment Research Centre, and the Civil Liberties Association, National Capital Region, and is author of Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion (Broadview Press, Peterborough, Canada, K1S 2J6, 2002). A second edition of this book is planned for this summer.


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  • Randal Marlin