When I stepped off an Army 0130 military transport in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to cover the Persian Gulf War, I was escorted to a room with several dozen other reporters and photographers. I was told to sign a paper that said I would abide by the severe restrictions placed on the press by the U.S. military. The restrictions authorized "pool reporters" to be escorted by the military on field trips. The rest of the press would sit in hotel rooms and rewrite the bland copy filed by the pool or use the pool video and photos.
This was an agreement I violated the next morning, when I went into the field without authorization. The rest of the war, during which I spent more than half my time dodging military police and trying to talk my way into units, was a forlorn and lonely struggle against the heavy press control.
The Gulf War made war fashionable again. It was a cause the nation willingly embraced. It gave us media-manufactured heroes and a heady pride in our military superiority and technology. It made war fun. And the blame, as in many conflicts, lay not with the military but the press. Television reporters happily disseminated the spoon-fed images that served the propaganda effort of the military and the state. These images did little to convey the reality of war. Pool reporters, those guided around in groups by the military, wrote about "our boys" eating packaged army food, practicing for chemical weapons attacks and bathing out of buckets in the desert. It was war as spectacle, war as entertainment. The images and stories made us feel good about our nation, about ourselves. The Iraqi families and soldiers being blown to bits by huge iron fragmentation bombs just over the border in Iraq were faceless and nameless phantoms.
The notion that the press was used in the war is incorrect. The press wanted to be used. It saw itself as part of the war effort. Most reporters sent to cover a war don't really want to go near the fighting. They do not tell this to their editors and indeed will moan and complain about restrictions. The handful who actually head out into the field have a bitter enmity with the hotel-room warriors.
But even those who do go out are guilty of distortion. For we not only believe the myth of war and feed recklessly off of the drug but also embrace the cause. We may do it with more skepticism. We certainly expose more lies and misconceptions. But we believe. We all believe. When you stop believing you stop going to war.
The record of the press as mythmaker stretches at least from William Howard Russell's romantic account of the 1854 charge of Light Brigade — he called the event "the pride and splendour of war" - to Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. [Note: this book was written before the US invasion of Iraq.] The true victims of war, because we rarely see or hear them (as is usual in most war reporting), faintly exist. I boycotted the pool system, but my reports did not puncture the myth or question the grand crusade to free Kuwait. I allowed soldiers to grumble. I shed a little light on the lies spread to make the war look like a coalition, but I did not challenge in any real way the patriotism and jingoism that enthused the crowds back home. We all used the same phrases. We all looked at Iraq through the same lens. And at night, when the huge bombers dropped tons of high explosives on Iraqi positions, lighting up the night sky with red fireballs, I felt immeasurable reassurance along with the soldiers.
. . .
War finds its meaning in death. The cause is built on the backs of victims, portrayed always as innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or the group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. These dead become the standard-bearers of the cause and all causes feed off a steady supply of corpses.
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, it was widely disseminated that Iraqi soldiers removed hundreds of Kuwaiti babies from incubators and left them to die on hospital floors. The story, when we arrived in Kuwait and were able to check with doctors at the hospitals, turned out to be false. But by then the tale had served its purpose. The story came from a fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti who identified herself only as "Nayi she tearfully testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990. She said she had watched infants being taken from incubators in the Al-Adan Hospital in Kuwait City by Iraqi soldiers who "left the babies on the cold floor to die." Nayirah turned out later to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, Saud Nasir al-Sabah. She did not grant interviews after the war and it established whether she was actually in the country invasion took place.
Elias Canetti wrote, "It is the first death which infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened. It is impossible to overrate the part played by the first dead man in the wars. Rulers who want to unleash war know very we must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death; and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one: his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself."
The cause, sanctified by the dead, cannot be without dishonoring those who gave up their lives. We become enmeshed in the imposed language. When any contradiction is raised or there is a sense that the cause is not just in an absolute sense, the doubts are attacked as apostasy.
. . .
It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort. The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. . . .
Edmund Dene Morel, the British crusader against Belgian atrocities in the Congo, denounced World War I as madness. He argued that through a series of treaties kept secret from Parliament and the public, Britain had become caught up in the senseless and tragic debacle. His fight against the war saw mobs break up his meetings with stink bombs and his banners ripped down. He finally could not rent a hall. His friends deserted him. Police raided his office and his home. The wartime censor banned some of his writings. He was flooded with hate mail. The government finally jailed him in 1917.
It was only after 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded that he was proven correct — the treaties did indeed exist. The war indeed was a needless waste. But by then the myth of war was no longer needed, since the fighting had ended.
I've been thinking a lot about that "first death". Hedges writes that people must perceive themselves as threatened in order to support war. How could the people of the US possibly perceive themselves as threatened? On the one hand, they live at the centre of a mighty military empire; on the other, they are mostly oblivious to the rest of the world. How could a perception as Americans as victims be achieved?