In 2006, Norman Solomon wrote War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. His book detailed the information tactics the American government uses to launch wars.
I was able to attend a viewing of “War Made Easy” last Saturday night at the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis (NCMR2008). This crisply edited movie was narrated by Sean Penn. Much of what keeps this movie engaging are the dozens of carefully chosen news media clips generated during various American wars for the past 50 years, including large numbers of videos clips from the Vietnam war and the Iraq occupation. The magic of “War Made Easy” is that the directors carefully edited and arranged these clips to show us that nothing much has really changed: If an American president has decided that he wants to go to war, the watchdog American media is likely to become a lapdog and we will inevitably go to war.
Following the screening of “War Made Easy,” I attended a discussion of the movie led by media critic Norman Solomon and the co-director and producer of the movie, Loretta Alper. The following morning, Ms. Alper granted me the opportunity to interview her further regarding the making of “War Made Easy.”
Whenever we Americans go to war, we get there through a well-documented series of stages. As I watched “War Made Easy,” I saw better than ever that these stages are entirely predictable in the context of America’s warmongering ways.
Perhaps this characterization of America sounds too shrill, but just look around. The evidence is everywhere that war is a sport in America just as sports are warlike. Our TV shows and movies overflow with violence as a first-rate method of dealing with conflict. The toys we foist on our boys extol violence as the most obvious way of settling disputes. We challenge each other with statements like “support the troops,” no matter what those troops are doing (and see here ). We are all too ready to invoke the word “war,” because that word triggers a ready-made conceptual frame for freely and guiltlessly expressing ourselves with bullets, bombs and blood. In America, this frame of war is such an incredibly effective filter that we proceed to consider only the “benefits” of war and we ignore the massive damages inflicted on both war-zone civilians and upon millions of Americans (and see here).
For most Americans, it is difficult to see that we are truly a nation of warmongers. After all, we are so absolutely used to being the way we are that even the most obvious things have become difficult to see. As George Orwell once noted, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
Before seeing “War Made Easy,” I was already familiar with the FAIR study documenting the manner in which our media rolled over rather than risk being accused of being unpatriotic. How much does the media roll over? So much so, that Americans see only an extremely filtered set of images representing the war. We see pictures of happy soldiers shipping out to “do their duty.” Pictures of dismembered civilian children are much too inconvenient for American patriotism, however.
Yes, Americans have become warriors looking for wars. America is a place where the thinnest of excuses will get the whole war machine revved. It is one of the points made by “War Made Easy” that America is gasoline needing only a small spark of an excuse to get us exploding off to war. Almost any excuse will do, it seems, and it doesn’t matter whether that excuse entirely false. In the 1960s, all it would took was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, an incident which never actually happened at all (based upon a recently declassified NSA document and other evidence). Nonetheless, the claim of the Gulf of Tonkin incident opened the floodgates to the American military buildup in Vietnam.
In 1993, all it took was a few well-placed public officials to stir up worries about “weapons of mass destruction” that didn’t exist. At that point, the confirmation bias and the herd instinct take over. How warped has our national perspective become? Whatever any perceived outsider does, we will see in the worst possible light and we will make damned sure that every other American becomes equally xenophobic. When this level of dysfunction occurs in an individual, we call that individual mentally ill. When it occurs nationwide, we call it “patriotism.”
The above observations are necessary prelude to my understanding of “War Made Easy.” I needed to consider these issues because of a question I had trouble getting past: Why isn’t going to war easy for most countries other than the United States? One obvious answer is that most other countries have not invested in a massive military infrastructure. The U.S. is physically able go to war at the push of a button, while most other would first require a long-term military buildup. The next obvious question, though, is why most other countries have not invested in their military might to the same extent as the United States. My unfortunate conclusion is that the U.S. has a warmonger mentality. When the President of the U.S. says we need to go to war, the citizens are already half-primed to agree. This would not be the case with, for example, the Prime Minister of Norway.
“War Made Easy” is an illustration of the predictable steps that will occur as soon as the spark of a false threat hits the gasoline of American militaristic exceptionalism. We see this same pattern over and over. Here are some of the predictable steps that occur when an American president presses for war. All of these are well substantiated by “War Made Easy.”
I. Public dialogue becomes simplistic. Consider Pat Buchanan’s warning that “When the war begins, the debate ends.” The media clips offered by “War Made Easy” substantiate the claim that once war is under way, there is no more media coverage for the rationale for the war, but only for the progress of the war. Once war is under way, it is produced like a TV show. The information from the war zone is tightly controlled by the government. The media does not protest this tight control, because it desperately craves the access and the market share. Therefore, whatever labels the government gives to a battle or a war (e.g., “Shock and Awe”), the media readily embraces it.
II. The President’s case for war is always built upon deception; the official story is false or it omits numerous key facts. Instead, the case is made primarily upon spin.
III. Americans are portrayed as “reluctant fighters.” We’d rather not go to war, but circumstances are allegedly forcing our hand.
IV. Our government officials will exhort that Americans “want nothing for themselves,” but that we need to go to war in order to spread freedom/liberty/democracy.
V. The government and media never explain how the use of military violence will actually achieve the spread of freedom/liberty/democracy.
VI. The president of the United States inevitably asserts that he is taking the high moral ground and that Americans actually love peace.
VII. We are told that war becomes perpetual whenever it is used as a rationale for peace. As long as we seek peace, then, there must be war.
VIII. Public officials will lie without shame. “War Made Easy” presents a segment regarding Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations. It was incredible to watch the videos of numerous American pundits applauding Powell’s speech, dozens of them parroting the government claims that Powell had just made an overwhelming case, while the international press simultaneously raised sharp concerns that Powell had no evidence at all.
IX. The media wants nothing more than to look patriotic. A salient example was the cancellation of Phil Donahue’s talk show on MSNBC. Donahue’s show was canceled three weeks before the beginning of the Iraq invasion. Memos have since been leaked indicating that MSNBC was concerned that its competitors were “waving flags,” which led to increased advertiser pressure. By raising his concerns about the impending Iraq invasion, Donahue was purportedly giving MSNBC a “difficult public face.” By no means was Donahue’s show the only example of the media’s craving to look patriotic. In one video excerpt from Iraq, an excited Ted Koppel can be seen standing next to armored vehicles exclaiming that it was now time to “unleash the dogs of war.” CNN issued a directive reminding the reporters to remind their viewers why the United States was bombing Iraq.
X. There’s no need to worry about any of those civilian casualties, that “collateral damage.” In World War I, 10% of the casualties were civilians. In World War II, 50% of the casualties were civilians. In the amount, 70% of the casualties were civilians, while in Iraq, 90% of the casualties have been civilians. No problem, as long as the viewers and citizens are not reminded of these tragedies. In its effort to cover the government’s effort to “save” civilians, our media almost completely refuses to cover this “collateral damage.” Who in the hell wants to see the fresh corpse of a baby killed by an American bomb? That might make viewers wonder whether the war is a good idea.
XI. Instead of pictures of maimed civilians, the media will inevitably become obsessed with the technology of the war machine. What results is “an idolatry of bombs and weapons.” Anyone watching the coverage of the Iraq invasion will remember the intense American vitriol aimed at Al Jazeera. It should be clear by now, however, that Al Jazeera earned this wrath by daring to cover the results of American missiles pouring down into populated areas, whereas the American media preferred to show pictures of those magnificent sterile missiles being launched hundreds of miles from their targets.
XII. In its effort to maintain friendly news coverage, the American military has embraced the technique of embedding reporters, which inevitably causes the reporters to bond with American soldiers, which skews the coverage dramatically. No reasonable person could possibly expect any independent journalism from an embedded reporter. It is “a new version of propaganda.” Outside of the media, this technique would be whistled down as an obvious conflict of interest.
XIII. The Government stresses the need for unity over the need for truth. The media happily follows suit. In fact, an editor of the Washington Post recently admitted that there has never been any retraction of his paper’s reporting of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Why not? Because there’s no need to do this. He explained that the reporting regarding the Gulf of Tonkin was only as inaccurate as most of the reporting regarding the Vietnam War.
XIV. In times of war, the establishment encourages contempt for all those people who question the need for war. It accuses them of being “not interested in victory,” or “daring to call the President stupid,” or “defending a torturer [Saddam Hussein].”
XV. Wars drag on, of course, and eventually they become so expensive and so obviously bereft of benefits to Americans that the government needs to heave criticism upon those who would try to stop the American aggression. Therefore, special government venom is reserved for those people like Senator John Murtha, who dare to advocate that we “cut and run.” We are told that once you start a war, you can’t stop. After all, stopping the fighting would allegedly cause the need for more and bigger wars. And the media easily buys into this crazy rationale. “War Made Easy” presents a startling statistic. In 1968, no paper in any major city presented any editorial position for withdrawal from Vietnam.
“War Made Easy” was at its best when it attacked the concept of “quagmire” as a false critique. As though the question should be what the war is doing to the United States (rather than what the United States is doing to others through its military aggression). Norman Solomon argues that whether or not the United States can win a war has nothing to do with whether the war is right or wrong.
Toward the end of the film, viewers are offered video clips of Senator Wayne Morse, one of only two senators to challenge the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that launched major American involvement in Vietnam. Rather than attempt to summarize the rhetoric of this heroic man, I would suggest a viewing of this short video.
“War Made Easy” is a powerfully-edited illustration that there is no need for the government to change the way it uses propaganda to provoke war. The propaganda machine worked incredibly well in the 60s, just as it continues to function in modern times (BTW, United States has been at war for more than 80% of this young millennium).
As I write this post, I am thinking that some people might suspect that I am a liberal leftist knee-naive antiwar anti-American. That would be oversimplifying. I voted for Ronald Reagan twice. When I was younger, I trusted in the wisdom of leaders who looked American Citizens in the eye and promised peace while brandishing weapons. Somehow, I grew less naïve over the past two decades. It was a path of pain, disappointment and some lost friendships. What I learned, however, were many of the lessons now being taught much more coherently by “War Made Easy.”
Speaking of lessons, “War Made Easy” was created with the assistance of the Media Education Foundation, which provides a fact-filled website to supplement the film, including a study guide for teachers who would like to use War Made Easy in their classrooms.
For several years, there has been a lot of discussion on the topic of whether Iraq is another Vietnam. Much of that discussion centers on military strategy and tactics or on the simplistic political ramifications resulting from these adventures. Based on “War Made Easy,” the answer to this question would be “yes, Iraq is like Vietnam,” but the focus is on the sociology of information flow and group dynamics. Based on “War Made Easy,” whenever “war” is the question in modern day America, the answer is “probably yes.”
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
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