Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Military Industrial Media Complex

March 19, 2008, 9:00 a.m.; March 22, 2008, 12:30 p.m.

Why Did the Media Take Us to War?

On the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War -- a war that has already lasted longer than, and is projected to cost ten times as much as, World War II -- it is appropriate that we try to understand how and why America's mass media (contrary to that of other nations) were so willing to support this Administration's rush to start an unprovoked war.

March 22: "On the Media" -- a "must listen" public radio program from WNYC for anyone interested in media issues -- devoted its program this weekend to "5 Years of Covering Iraq," an effort to at least describe in some detail, even if it fails to fully explain, the media's devastating failure to serve its audience during the build-up to, initiation, and continuation of this war. And the failure continues: OTM points out that whereas 24% of "the news" involved the war some months ago, it is now 1% of "the news," and there has been little to no effort by the media, on this fifth anniversary, to discuss and explain its failures. (The program is available for listening from the site linked above.)
The Press-Citizen (like, hopefully, other papers this morning) does a bit of an editorial mea culpa that "we were wrong."

But "opps, sorry; we were wrong" is not enough, as Norman Solomon documents in the film, "War Made Easy." It's commendable that the media is willing to do a post mortem -- literally in this case with 4000 U.S. military dead, and estimates of 70,000 to 700,000 Iraqi dead. Confession is good for the soul. But, as Solomon notes, it does little to bring back those dead souls, or the estimated $3 trillion of our grandchildren's money it's going to take to pay for this folly.

So we're left with the question of how and why the media could have got it so wrong.

Were there no red flags, no warning signs, no voices of dissent?

No, that can't be the answer. As the Press-Citizen notes this morning "there were voices arguing against the military option" -- including that of Senator Barack Obama.

Two months earlier there was also my own voice in the form of an op ed column in the Press-Citizen.

Nor we were the only two. Numerous individuals with far more impressive military credentials than Senator Obama or I were making similar points.

I've reproduced all of these below, starting with this morning's Press-Citizen editorial:

Five years ago, we -- like many others in the American media and the broader American population -- bought the Bush Administration's arguments for toppling Saddam Hussein. After watching Colin Powell address the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, we editorialized that the then U.S. secretary of state had "laid out in clear and unequivocal terms how Iraq is connected to terrorists, how it is building weapons of mass destruction and how it is deliberately deceiving U.N. inspectors." . . . [Editorial, "Powell finally offers proof against Iraq," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 6, 2003].

The past five years have shown that Powell was wrong, that we were wrong, that the majority of the U.S. media was wrong and that U.S. intelligence was wrong. . . .

In the build up to the invasion of Iraq that began on March 19, 2003, there were voices arguing against the military option. . . .

Five years later, those dire predictions have proven all too true.
Editorial, "Draw Down U.S. Troops Before Next Anniversary," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 19, 2008, p. A12.

Here is a part of Senator Obama's eloquent speech opposing the war that he delivered in October 2002. (The entire text, linked below, is worth reading as much for its stirring literary quality as its sound analysis.)

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.
Barack Obama, "Remarks of Illinois State Senator Barack Obama Against Going to War With Iraq," October 2, 2002.

I did a good bit of early writing about terrorism and the War. Here is a sample of my own warning, two months earlier than Senator Obama's, in August of 2002, published in the Press-Citizen (along with the Omaha World-Herald and possibly other papers):

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Nicholas Johnson

Guest Opinion, Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 17, 2002, p. 11A

Good citizenship demands every American choose a position on a major issue: the proposed war on Iraq.

In our overcrowded lives, obligations of citizenship tend to slide. This one can’t.

Some in the Bush Administration advocate we unilaterally attack a nation that has not attacked us, because President Bush would like “a change in the regime.”

Is that OK? Can any country overthrow another nation’s regime just to better serve its corporate and other interests? Hitler thought so. Clearly Bush is no Hitler. But he has, so far, given us the same rationale for our proposed invasion as Hitler provided the Germans for theirs.

Can nations be attacked just because they have “weapons of mass destruction”? If so, watch out. We have more than the rest of the world combined.

Are “pre-emptive wars” legitimate? If so, we have less justification for attacking Iraq than they would have for attacking us (we’ve announced we’re considering attacking them).

Reverse the roles. What if Iraq wanted “a change in the regime” in the U.S.? The equivalent of 250,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq would be three million Iraqi soldiers here (with 12 times their population).

Would you then back Iraq’s choice for U.S. president? If not, why should they back our choice for Iraq?

We have often tried to change other nations’ regimes: Chile, Cuba, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and now Afghanistan. The complete list is long. We sometimes use our military, sometimes encourage coups by those of other countries, or funnel money and arms through third countries, or use a clandestine CIA.

Whatever means we choose, regime changes aren’t easy. Our man in Kabul, with our military’s support, never controlled much of Afghanistan beyond the capital. Now he’s even under attack there. Why will our man in Baghdad have it easier?

Moreover, precedent doesn’t make it right. Such aggression is not only immoral it also violates international law (admittedly of little concern to Washington).

Finally, it’s “un-American.”

Hitler invaded Poland. But he didn’t pretend to be a cheerleader for democracy. We do.

Have we abandoned that role? If not, promoting our interests by overturning regimes in other countries is both the rankest hypocrisy and self-defeating.

You don’t care that it is illegal, immoral and contrary to our world role? OK, then consider the pragmatic reasons why it won’t work. Why it will further anger our enemies, alienate our allies, and decrease rather than increase our “homeland security.” Merely proposing war has already done that.

Could that be why the State Department, CIA, U.S. Army, and the Republican House majority leader, Dick Armey, oppose the war?

No, an unprovoked big Iraq attack, over near-unanimous Muslim nations’ opposition, isn’t likely to decrease terrorists’ hostility.

The President’s father left Saddam in office for a reason: balance of power in the Middle East. Why do we now want a dominant Saudi Arabia -- the source of the September 11 terrorists and their financing?

Another practical downside is that 250,000 soldiers need to be based somewhere in the region. Right now most all the bases we’ve formerly used are being denied us for this war.

We have no articulated plan for getting into Iraq, or getting out. Knowledge of why we’re there, what we’ll do once we are, or of Saddam’s probable countermoves (here as well as there). The definition of “win,” what we’d do if we did, and how long we’ll stay. What it will cost in our soldiers’ blood, taxpayers’ treasure, and the Iraqi civilian casualties from urban war. Or why the unknown “new regime” will be better.

All we know for certain is that it will add more multi-billion-dollar debt to our already weakened economy, increase the burden we’re bequeathing our grandchildren, and possibly improve the Republicans’ odds in November.

You may disagree. Whatever your analysis, this is one time you must let your elected officials hear from you.

Nicholas Johnson is the former director of the War Shipping Authority and now teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law. His Web page is at
Over five years later we're still left to wonder: How and why could the media have ignored such analyses and warnings -- especially when published in their own pages?

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