National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

Four myths drive spin about U.S. military action

How the media and administration frighten us into 'patriotic silence'


Most Americans believe these four propositions to be true.

1) America won the Afghanistan war. We have been rebuilding that country, and, thanks to our invasion, its citizens now share the blessings of democracy.

2) We waged a preemptive war against Iraq in March because we could not wait for the U.N. inspectors to complete their search for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

We knew Iraq had them and where they were, and Saddam Hussein, in league with al-Qaeda, was ready and able to use them against our Homeland again.

3) POW Pfc. Jessica Lynch was both a victim of Iraqi cruelty and a genuine American hero.

4) America is morally superior to other nations. It fights its wars with profound respect for international law and innocent human life.

Or we did believe all this until very recently. But the media have faithfully told us the facts, so we could make informed judgments on where our leaders were taking us. Right?

Wrong. Though in a limited sense, right -- if we have read the back pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, followed the BBC radio and TV news, read The Nation, Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, and the Manchester Guardian. Then it would not be “news” that Bush misled us with those 16 words about Iraq getting uranium from Africa in the State of the Union Message.

When do the buried stories become “news”? When the late-night comedians grasp the stories’ incongruity and when Time and Newsweek simultaneously put them on the cover.

But why has most of the American public been living in a dream world for the last two years? A familiar answer: Most media outlets are owned by corporations more dedicated to their short-term profits than to informing the public. For them, news is simply a commodity to stick between the ads. To increase profits, they cut international and national coverage and instead print celebrity profiles and Harry Potter puff pieces.

But two other reasons make sense.

First, editors -- like politicians, doctors and priests -- may be reluctant to tell us something they think we are unable to absorb. Perhaps they think we have not yet integrated into our psyches the trauma of the World Trade Center’s destruction and the loss of 2,000 lives in one day. The media went into a mourning mode and bought into the Bush administration’s simplistic interpretation of the event: The world was divided into Terrorists and Heroes.

Then Bush pointed to Iraq. As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh told a September 2002 audience in Minneapolis, “They’ve got to keep us scared and they’ve got to keep us jacked up on Iraq.” Question their line and someone will call you a traitor.

Second, the administration, by setting the agenda and limiting access to decision makers, can control the flow of information. The vice president’s office still refuses to tell us which energy company CEOs, including Enron, drew up our energy policy. The Pentagon and the Justice Department have declined to cooperate with the national commission investigating 9/11. President Bush’s last major news conference, in March, was completely scripted; and when he travels he limits questions to two.

Meanwhile, what has happened to these four mighty myths? They remind me of the news phenomenon that I call “the give-it-a-week syndrome.” The first accounts of a “great,” particularly a sensational, story often don’t hold up.

1) According to recent articles on The New York Times op-ed page (July 1) and in the Sunday Magazine (June 1), outside Kabul, Afghanistan once again belongs to the warlords. The Taliban shoot foreigners; those roads, schools and hospitals that The Times’ Nicholas Kristof once wrote would justify the 2,000 civilian casualties have not been built, and the main export industry is again heroin.

2) Since the weapons of mass destruction have not been found, pundits have scrambled to invent post-facto justification for the war -- like mass graves, many dug when Saddam Hussein was our ally.

The best TV commentary on the Mystery of the Missing Uranium and Why War? was Jon Stewart’s on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” where he replayed excerpts from Donald Rumsfeld’s relentless babble on the June 13 “Meet the Press” and paused to let his studio audience grasp the “logic” of the Defense Secretary’s presentation. We did go to war against Iraq, which didn’t have nuclear weapons. We don’t go to war against North Korea, which does have nukes and brags about them. (Pause. Laughter.)

I watched Rumsfeld that morning on both ABC’s “This Week” and “Meet the Press,” and perhaps laughter is a more appropriate response than awe at his refusals to talk straight. The administration’s latest spin on the “16 words”: That line should not have been in the speech; the CIA, not the president, is responsible for the mistake (though CIA Director George Tenet did not read the speech); the intelligence is good; “technically,” we didn’t say it was true, we were only citing the British; anyway, it’s only 16 words and that’s not the reason we went to war.

It’s true that we did not go to war because of a uranium shipment. We went to war because we wanted to beat someone up. The country, as Bush reads it, was hankering for some kind of victory. Iraq, unlike North Korea, was weak. Afghanistan showed we could whup Arabs. Let’s do it again.

That line, however, was the most important line in the speech because it strummed the strings of fear. Act now or Saddam Hussein will nuke us. Bush frightened most of the Democratic leadership into a false patriotic silence -- and most of the media as well.

3) How many have read the recent rewrites of the Jessica Lynch “heroic” saga? The Washington Post (June 18) now reports, months after BBC debunked the story, that basically her convoy got lost, made a wrong turn, got attacked, and her legs were broken when her truck, hit, went off the road. Contrary to the tabloids, she did not go down shooting, was not tortured, not slapped around by a hospital orderly, and not really “rescued” in a firefight.

Iraqi troops had already left the hospital and the staff was looking for a way to return her to us. Bob Woodward told Larry King on CNN that the true story still isn’t out. It may take 10 or 15 years.

Meanwhile, CBS embarrassed itself by offering her a “deal” to appear on TV: Viacom, the conglomerate that owns CBS, would throw in a book deal and a movie deal. All to a woman who has no recollection of what happened to her and thus has no “story” to tell.

As Christopher Hanson wrote in the July/August issue of Columbia Journalism Review, the media, by emotionalizing her story when the war was going badly, ironically made her a symbol of why we were in Iraq. “Her liberation almost seemed to affirm the intervention itself.”

We were in Iraq to rescue this poor helpless hero-woman.

4) Whom did we kill in that mysterious battle at the Syrian border? Does it matter? On June 18, Special Operations helicopters, gunships and land forces attacked a village and a convoy that might have been linked to Iraqi leaders or might have been oil or cigarette smugglers.

Gen. Tommy Franks told Congress on July 8 that it was a “really good mission” -- though he still didn’t know whether fugitives or innocent people were killed.

Thomas Powers wrote in the July 13 Times that frontier justice has taken the place of foreign policy. The campaign to find and kill Saddam Hussein has leveled the moral playing field, invited retaliation in kind, and committed the United States to “open-ended warfare in the classic mode of Middle Eastern violence -- an eye for an eye, a life for a life.”

Meanwhile, according to the Web site, the civilian death toll for our quickie war has climbed to 7,000.

How many Americans know that we, too, are responsible for mass graves?

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit Community Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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