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Issue Date:  October 28, 2005

By Norman Solomon
John Wiley & Sons,
320 pages, $24.95
Critique of America's war-making doesn't go far enough


Reading media critic Norman Solomon’s new book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, as massive cracks in America’s façade of can-do competence are on display along the Gulf Coast, it is easy to cheer Mr. Solomon on -- but also to wish that he’d gone further. The book is basically a primer on how successive administrations, starting with Lyndon Johnson, have used the press -- indeed, how the press has been at times actively complicit -- in selling the nation on wars big and small, and more important on the dubious notion of America’s altruism and righteousness in waging those wars. And though it is worthwhile to be reminded of this history and entertaining to revisit some of the press’ more humiliating moments in this regard, such as CNN executive Eason Jordan’s straight-faced admission that he had cleared on-air commentators with the Pentagon before the first Gulf War, or Cokie Roberts’ telling David Letterman that she is “a total sucker for the guys who stand up with all the ribbons on and stuff, and they say it’s true and I’m ready to believe it,” much of War Made Easy feels like a rehash of things we already know in this age of wall-to-wall media criticism.

Here again, for example, is the Tonkin Gulf charade that was swallowed whole by the press and launched a deepening of our involvement in Vietnam; the skewed coverage of the murderous contra “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua and the similarly “noble” mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s; the simplistic portrayal of the Balkan wars, with the “evil” Serbs and their ethnic cleansing in the 1990s; and, of course, the unchallenged assurances of Iraq’s WMD and ties to the attacks of Sept. 11.

Hurricane Katrina is a touchstone here because while Mr. Solomon’s focus is America’s wars, what he is really talking about, what undergirds the entire book, is our national mythology. More important, how that mythology makes Americans -- and their press -- perpetually willing to believe that their government is acting in good faith despite evidence to the contrary. Mr. Solomon’s strategy is to deconstruct the basic template for selling military intervention abroad: Vilify the enemy (often with comparisons to Hitler), remind the public of America’s inherent nobility and its special role in keeping the world safe and free, emphasize our technological and military prowess, and give assurances that nothing we do is about greed or self-interest and that anyone who says otherwise is a traitor. More specifically, his strategy is compare how this template was used by the Johnson and Nixon administrations in Vietnam with how the Bush administration employed it to wage war in Iraq.

But what we are left with at the end is somehow less than satisfying -- a bunch of cocktail party nuggets to elicit a knowing shake of the head from liberal friends, but very little in the way of constructive analysis of what to do about these systemic shortcomings of our press and our politicians, or about how to start building a more perfect union. In press criticism, as in most things, identifying the problem is the easy part. Deciding what to do about it is another matter entirely.

While Mr. Solomon touches on the issue of the press’ increasingly corporate nature and how that limits its ability to rethink its approach to coverage, he mostly ignores issues of class that blind journalism to the very assumptions Mr. Solomon wants them to challenge. What’s more, he hurries by the conventions of U.S. journalism, such as our unwieldy definition of “objectivity” and the passivity and false balance it produces in stories, which make it easy for the press to be manipulated. This is unfortunate because therein lie the beginnings of a fix.

Mr. Solomon is better when discussing the illusion that technology has somehow made distant wars more “real” to us -- that TV and the evolving range of digital technology is “bringing the war into our living room.” At issue is more than just the deep censoring of war’s horrors that goes on in our press, but the fact that what is presented as insightful, like that grossly inadequate embedded TV coverage at the start of Iraq II, is really just more advanced theater.

His most original point concerns the notion, pushed aggressively by the Bush administration and covered without much skepticism, that what is needed to improve the swiftly deteriorating image of the United States around the world is better PR. Our refusal as a nation to consider the many legitimate grievances people around the world have with U.S. policies is both evidence of the power of our national myths and a devastating indictment of them.

War Made Easy is a solid, if often predictable, critique of how a corporate and cautious press facilitates America’s war- making. And by broaching the complicated and rarely examined subject of national mythology, Mr. Solomon had an opportunity -- and the crucial space, in a book-length piece of analysis -- to expand the parameters of discussion about how to begin addressing the problems he identifies. In the coming months there will be much written and said about where the system failed in the run-up to and wake of Katrina. Much, indeed most, of that will be shaped by government officials who are actively engaged in leaving unexamined the myths that serve them well. But there will be precious little discussion of the fundamental assumptions on which American society is built, about the kind of society we’ve created and what its real values are versus what we tell ourselves they are. There is so much that is wonderful about American society, and yet a more nuanced understanding of ourselves and our country -- on a mass scale -- would go a long way toward beginning to address the real and unavoidable problems on our horizon.

Brent Cunningham is managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

National Catholic Reporter, October 28, 2005

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