Reading the Flypapers (April 8, 2003)

So the last units of American troops have finally pulled out of Iraq (leaving thousands of trigger-happy mercenaries to protect U.S. citizens still in the country). Hard to believe this absurd nightmare of a miliary adventure has lasted for more than eight years. The cost in Iraqi lives (over 100,000, according to almost all estimates) has been appalling, to say nothing of American and allied troop casualties. I thought I’d dust off and re-publish an essay I originally posted to my Geocities site shortly after the invasion, reflecting the frustration I think many of us felt about the unreliability of the information we were getting. It was obvious to anyone with half a brain at the time that the official justifications for the invasion were completely made up, which made the disinclination of mainstream journalists to question anything coming out of the Pentagon all the more maddening.

Most of the links in the original essay were of course dead now, so I’ve removed them, but hopefully you can still get the drift.

As a professional geographer with over ten years of field research in Honduras, my brother Mark was understandably ticked off by an AP reporter’s description of Honduras’s Mosquito coast — recognized as a World Heritage Site for its unique biodiversity and indigenous cultures — as “a deserted, bug-infested swamp.” “Nothing like well-researched journalism,” Mark adds sarcastically.

But the sloppy reporting starts right with the headline, “Honduran Riot Displays Gangs’ Brutality.” If 61 out of the 69 people killed were gang members — most of them herded & locked into a cell, then killed by hand grenades or burnt alive, according to another report I saw — doesn’t this actually suggest the brutality of the NON-gang-affiliated prisoners? True, one does have to wonder at the depth of hatred demonstrated by such brutality. And if these articles are correct in saying that the Mara 18 gang members initiated the battle by trying to seize control, it’s possible to interpret the horrific outcome as a rather extreme form of self-defense, partially excused by the perpetrators’ own desperate condition.

But then, that’s just what the sleep-deprived, under-nourished, sun-struck British and American soldiers in Iraq are claiming as justification for their targeting of apparent non-combatants. Gotta get them before they get us, and the sooner the job’s done, the sooner we can all go home!

In any case, I can’t help thinking that, in Iraq especially, it’s not so much that “truth is the first casualty of war.” Rather, truth seems never to have been considered as an option. What’s important is to select events and interpretations that happen to conform to a pre-selected story line (in the Honduran story, internecine gang violence in a hellhole of a prison located in a hellhole of a country). The fact that these pieces are sometimes a poor fit with the overall story line probably reflects a combination of rudimentary writing skills and the sort of casual contempt for their audience so common among working reporters, especially those of the embedded variety.

Meanwhile, those journalists stalwart enough to remain in Baghdad and rash enough to refuse the suffocating embrace of the Pentagon were targeted by our increasingly impatient troops yesterday in three separate “accidents.” In the most serious incident, the Palestine Hotel, where over 100 foreign journalists are based, was hit by a mortar at close range, supposedly in response to sniping from the roof. None of the reporters gathered on the roof were able to see this sniper in their midst; they must’ve all been looking in the wrong direction. Casualties included a Reuters correspondent and a Spanish cameraman; several more were injured. U.S. bombs also took out two different command centers for Arab TV stations yesterday, one a station from Abu Dhabi (no casualty reports so far) and the other the infamous Al-Jezeera (one cameraman killed).

It’s not like the unembedded reporters hadn’t been warned. And besides, three such “accidents” in one day may reflect nothing more than the overall intensity of bombing and strafing in day two (or was it day three?) of the Battle of Baghdad. Besides, what’s a couple dead bodies more or less, in the grand scheme of things? Don’t get so hung up on accuracy, the generals told Daily Mirror reporter Bob Roberts.

Let’s not even mention the pillorying of Peter Arnett for telling the truth to the wrong audience, or the repeated, deliberate bombing of the “propagandistic” Iraqi TV — a direct violation of the Geneva Convention. And let’s especially not mention those journalists like Robert Fisk, who so irresponsibly insist on covering the shockingly unaesthetic and potentially demoralizing consequences of war. Let’s stay focused, if you please, on the clinical precision of “smart bombs,” on our leaders’ repeated insistence that they seek to minimize “collateral damage” and “friendly fire incidents,” and especially on whether the Great Satan — uh, Saddam — is alive or dead. Only such a tight and resolute focus, the neo-con pundits proclaim, can provide us with the requisite “moral clarity” of vision necessary to triumph over Evil.

One other thought: it seems dishonest to speak, as so many do these days, of “the fog of war.” As if all the confusion were just a fact of nature, an unavoidable occurrence. The Pentagon has in fact been rather forthright about its use of disinformation and innuendo as a part of psychological operations. Therefore, it seems to me, it’s not just fog that obscures the vision, but smoke and mirrors. Like the clouds of smoke from Baghdad’s ring of fire, a kind of massive smudge pot designed to keep all manner of biting insects at bay.

And if all else fails, crack out the poison gas… whoops, I mean the insecticide. Hit ’em with clouds of “calmatives“! How else to subdue “a deserted, bug-infested swamp”?

One Reply to “Reading the Flypapers (April 8, 2003)”

  1. Oh yes, the truth is out there somewhere, hidden behind the fog and smoke and mirrors.
    And the Bushes and Blairs and Co. smile their white-toothed smiles through it all, not even a little bit sorry, not at all. Sure of their righteousness. And Bradley Manning has the full force of Justice thrown at him for ‘endangering lives’.

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