Dissent: Voices of Conscience Medical Apartheid and The Ethnic Cleansing of PalestineA Century of Media, A Century of War The Bush Agenda Cochabamba! Confessions of an Economic Hitman The Exception to the Rulers The Weapons of Mass Deception
I am so glad that this book has been written. It’s needed. A majority of Americans has now recognized that the Bush administration used a campaign of deception to promote the war in Iraq. This has resulted in the most searing spotlight on the media’s failure to adequately challenge government pronouncements since Vietnam. There has been no shortage of critiques of the media’s performance before and after the war from such illustrious critics as Danny Schecter, Amy Goodman, John Stauber, Norman Solomon and many others. Alternative media has enjoyed its biggest boom period ever, and there is now a growing Media Reform Movement. Even the New York Times admitted that it was remiss in uncritically printing the now infamous reports of WMD in Iraq by one of its “star” reporters, Judith Miller.
But there is something missing. There’s a gap and Professor Robin Andersen of Fordham University has attempted to fill it. Behind the media failure there is a long history that is essential to our understanding of the issue. The danger in focusing on the media’s failure to adequately cover the war in Iraq and the campaign leading up to it is that there is a temptation to believe that it was and is an aberration, that after the events of 9/11 the nation was gripped with such patriotic fervor that normal critical judgment was paralyzed. This is the impression one gets reading the apologists from the mainstream media who now acknowledge that their profession did a poor job in covering the war and offer a variety of anemic rationales. A CENTURY OF MEDIA, A CENTURY OF WAR is here to disabuse us of that notion and it does so in a style that is both passionate and analytical.
This is an ambitious book. Make no mistake about that. While the main trunk of the book’s architecture is a simple chronological account of journalistic coverage of all U.S. wars since World War I, it slowly becomes apparent that its thematic thrust is much broader and deeper as it gradually expands into an exploration of the multi faceted nature of the media and how as an ensemble of representations it creates our composite cultural sensibility towards the reality of war. The depiction of war in feature films and the ever growing fascination with the warlike simulations of the video game industry are examined and by the end of the book Andersen has woven together these different threads and very skillfully brought us to the place where we see what she sees. Journalism has merged with entertainment forms and military propaganda and formed a “military-entertainment-complex. She calls it “militainment”.
From the introduction:
“War is understood and interpreted, justified and judged through the images and narratives that tell the stories of war. Most civilians experience military conflict through the signs and symbols of its depiction, their impressions derived not from the battles in distant lands but from the manner they are rendered at home. This book retraces the history of struggle over war and its representations. …………… At the intersection of myth and memory fictional forms mingle with those of nonfiction, as news of war is understood through cultural tropes and media formats.” (pg. xvi)
Governments turn to propaganda to justify war. One of the fundamental techniques is the demonization of the enemy. In the United States institutionalized propaganda can be traced back to Woodrow Wilson and his establishment of the Committee of Public Information headed by the newspaper editor George Creel. Known as the Creel Commission, its purpose was to persuade the public of the necessity for America to enter World War I.
Andersen recounts an incredible story from France where a photo of a child without hands is published along with drawings showing German soldiers eating the hands. The whole story was only exposed and discredited after the war. It is a story that even though discredited, enters into our collective memory and can be recalled in multiple variations when useful. It resurfaces in the first Gulf War and the story of Iraqi soldiers tossing infants from their incubators to their death in a Kuwaiti hospital. That story too was eventually exposed and discredited, but only after the war was over and its purpose had been served. This time its dissemination was facilitated and coordinated by Hill & Knowlton a private Washington public relations firm retained by the Kuwaiti government.
The censorship which is much criticized today in the arguments against “embedded” journalists has really always been there even if less formalized. Whether it is through deliberate omissions of atrocities committed by “our side”, the unwillingness to question military and political decisions by leaders, the suppression of bad news, or the collaboration in spreading false stories, there has been no time in U.S. history that we could say that the press functioned totally independently and saw the objective search for truth as their supreme mandate. In example after example, in every war from World War I to Vietnam, the covert wars in Central America during the Reagan administration, and from the first Gulf War to the war now still going on in Iraq, Andersen demonstrates a consistent pattern of journalistic integrity being compromised. An abundance of examples is provided and one has to consider how much had to be left out of the book due to limitations of space. Vietnam was the first break with the traditional narrative of America fighting the “good fight” against evil, but if there has been any aberration, that was it.
As the book’s focus shifts to the cinema it demonstrates how feature films play an important role in shaping the way the public thinks about war and the moral questions war raises. It was out of World War II that the great narrative of “The Good Fight” and the grand battle between Good and Evil emerges. There was little if any moral ambiguity to World War II. America was fighting against an enemy that provided the certainty of who the “good guys” and “bad guys” were. It is not surprising then that a whole generation of war movies followed that reinforced the heroic narrative of the good fight fought for noble ideals. It was not until Vietnam that a school of war movies arose such as “Apocalypse Now”, “Full Metal jacket”, “Platoon”, “Born On The Fourth Of July” that would place the barbarity of war in the context of disillusionment in seeing noble ideals laid bare as hollow platitudes. Andersen goes on to examine the films “Courage Under Fire”, “Saving Private Ryan”, and a lengthy analysis of “Blackhawk Down”.
Given the power of the cinema it is not surprising that government would want not only to control it but also to copy its visual techniques. An example is president Bush’s landing on the aircraft carrier in San Diego Harbor to give his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech. Andersen reveals that the entire choreography of the event is identical to a scene in the 1980’s feature film “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise. Then there is Oliver North’s testimony before the congressional panel investigating the Iran Contra affair and how North seemed to morph into “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”. Or the fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, made to look like a spontaneous act of popular exultation when in fact it was completely staged by a special psy-ops unit. Or the phony rescue of Jessica Lynch to evoke a dangerous and heroic mission when in fact there was no danger at all.
“As news reporting looks and feels more like entertainment, that entertainment has a particular type of sensibility, a video-game feel and look. Such simulations are now seen across the media spectrum and have become fundamental to news representations of war.” (Pg. 244)
The mingling of fictional and non-fictional forms is further explored in the evolution of the video game industry and the interactive technology of combat simulation. Modern warfare uses more and more high technology of an incredibly sophisticated nature. The technology used by the military to train soldiers for actual combat is found in the video game industry. This industry also develops its own technology that the military may find attractive and use. It all gives the user the experience and actual thrill of combat but at the same time weakens the appreciation of the real consequences in terms of human life. The more high technology is used in real combat, the more this “desensitizing” to the reality of war is inevitably carried over.
In her research Andersen discovers a strange contradiction. Films have become ever more graphic in their depictions of violence, nurturing a voyeuristic sensibility towards death. At the same time the news coverage of real war has become more and more sanitized to the point of not even permitting the photos of soldiers returning in coffins. Death must disappear in real war but gets magnified in fiction.
“…. We are still left with the paradox that when death is real, it cannot be visually rendered. Depicting actual death, especially of American soldiers, in real time, in wars as they happen, has been deemed absolutely taboo in news footage. ……. It is now time to explore the differences between what is real and what is fiction, and what purpose is served by collapsing the two and denying the distinction”. (Pg.216)
The question is well put ‘what purpose is served?’. The process that brought us here has been gradual and may not have been meditated but nevertheless the author finds it alarming.
“There is little room for reflection, compassion or responsibility in the world created by American commercial media. The culture that creates militainment also creates an atmosphere devoid of real empathy, humanity or responsibility”. (pg. 317)
Academic writing, particularly in the field of aesthetic criticism, can be pretentious, trendy, and laden with jargon that conceals meager content. In this regard Andersen has been admirably restrained and uses professional jargon judiciously. The book is clearly written and accessible to a generally literate public. After reading it one is amazed at how much content is packed into its 317 pages. However it does make demands on the reader, there is so much here to absorb and reflect on. By far the best argument to make the effort is made by Andersen herself in the conclusion.
“If America is to live up to its democratic principles, the process of war must be made transparent. If seeing “war as it really is,” turns the public against war, then a democratic process will put an end to war. Those who wish to perpetuate war have also declared war on freedom of thought, expression, and emotional autonomy.” (pg.317)
Russell Branca –February 2007