March 24, 2008

The Lies in Your Head, More Powerful than All Facts

Michael Ledeen offers yet another of his many posts lauding the reports by Michael Yon, embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, and joyously greeting the news of impending victory that Yon provides the war propagandists, year after bloody year after carnage-drenched year. Ledeen, of course, is one of the most sickeningly awful of the war lovers, and let us never forget the Ledeen Doctrine: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." Many of the war lovers cite Yon's work frequently; Glenn Reynolds often does, encouraging readers to donate to support Yon's ongoing reporting, reminding us that Reynolds himself makes such contributions.

I find it close to impossible to read Yon's dispatches: they are frequently the length of novellas, they are overwhelmed by a level of detail and specificity that I find mind-numbing, and Yon's perspective is saturated with a reverence, even a celebration, of the chaos and murderous destructiveness of war that sickens me. But I don't want to focus on Yon's reports -- and at least he is willing to put his life on the line, which is considerably more than can be said of the propagandists who so eagerly use his work for their own ends. That is not to say that I view Yon's presence in Iraq as a "good" thing, which I most assuredly do not, since no American has ever had the right to be in Iraq at all. Yet from the perspective of the values that Yon and the war propagandists say they hold in common, I suppose it might be said that Yon's actions are "braver" in one sense.

Note what Ledeen excerpts from Yon's latest dispatch:
Combat is likely to heat up in Mosul and western Nineveh by about May. There likely will be some reports of increased US and Iraqi casualties up here, but this does not mean that we are losing ground or that al Qaeda is resurging – though clearly they are trying. If there is an increase in casualties here as we go into the summer of 2008, it is because our people and the Iraqi forces are closing in. We have seen just how deadly al Qaeda can be at the last steps. This enemy is desperate. They know they are losing. They are not likely to go out easy.
Any honest person over the age of eight realizes that this pattern has been repeated an endless number of times. A minimally decent person is horrified by that realization. How many times can we read about the capture or death of the second or third most important person in Al Qaeda -- twenty? thirty? -- before we understand that this is only another lie of the war machine? How many times can we hear about the "last throes" of the terrorists, before we grasp that something much more fundamental is grievously wrong with our actions? I rarely noted the "last throes" argument, since it was so obviously false -- but I did title one post, from July 2006, "Last Throes -- Part, 5,729."

The dishonesty only begins with reports such as those provided by Yon; the more important, and the much more dangerous, dishonesty occurs with the use that is made of them. People like Ledeen and Reynolds say, in effect: "This man is there! Since he is there, he must know the truth much better than most of us who are not there. We therefore should give much more weight to what he says. We should believe him!" And what we should believe is that victory is right around the corner. We are expected to disregard the monumental fact that this particular corner is one in an infinite series of such corners.

Beyond this problem, it used to be well-known -- and it is still well-known in other contexts (such as criminal law, and even on lousy television shows) -- that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. There are many causes of that unreliability: people often see what they expect to see and what most commonly occurs, not what actually happens; even people who rigorously attempt to be honest have memories that become jumbled and confused; and so on. But the first of those causes of the unreliability of firsthand reports is the most important: people see what they expect -- and often what they hope -- will happen. We are all familiar with the person who is so desperately wedded to a preexisting bias that he is willing to deny the indisputable evidence of his own eyes. This is what the United States did before the Iraq invasion and occupation began, it is what happened at each succeeding stage -- and it is what continues to happen day after bloody day.

We all have certain preexisting prejudices. Our honesty and integrity are measured by the diligence of our efforts in setting them aside and assessing the facts anew, by our willingness to challenge our own conclusions in a serious manner, and revise and even fundamentally alter those conclusions as required.

The American government, and most Americans, suffer from an almost complete ignorance of history, and of other countries and peoples and their cultures. Two essays of mine on this subject are of special relevance: "Sacred Ignorance," and an earlier related article, "Embracing Ignorance on Principle: And Still, We Will Not See."

I earlier wrote:
This determined refusal to look at and understand the relevant facts, including the crucially relevant history, is a significant part of the reason why Bush's repeated mantra that "everyone wants freedom," and moreover that everyone wants freedom in roughly the same form that we enjoy it, is so hollow and so unconvincing. It was not true in Vietnam, and it is not true in Iraq. Peoples' attitudes, objectives, alliances and enmities are uniquely shaped by their particular history -- not by ours, or by no history at all. And it is the latter that is unavoidably implied by the attitude revealed by Bennet in his [NYT] article, and by the Bush administration: they seem to believe that "freedom" and "democracy" are abstractions that are plucked by people from the sky overhead -- and then applied by everyone in precisely the same manner, regardless of history, geography, culture and every other aspect of their specific lives.


[T]his is yet another reason why I maintain, as I explained yesterday, that we should leave immediately, or as close to immediately as we can -- and set a time limit of six months at the outside, for example, for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Not only are we a significant source of the ongoing violence, but we continue to refuse to learn about the nature of the Iraqis themselves, and what their perspectives and their aims are.

Because we are determined to remain ignorant of the actual nature and consequences of our own actions, and because this state of ignorance appears to be ongoing and unchangeable, the degree of the disaster will only increase. This is why we must leave now. The longer our withdrawal is delayed, the greater the devastation will be.

Ignorance is never bliss -- and it is especially not bliss when a huge military force is deployed against another nation, one which never seriously threatened us, and when we engage in torture, murder and devastation on a huge and unforgivable scale. Our actions are only made worse when they are supposedly "justified" by the indiscriminate use of terms such as "liberation" and "freedom," when those otherwise laudable and even glorious goals are used in a manner devoid of context and lacking in any specific meaning.
I also wrote:
Added to this militant interventionism is our national narcissism, which springs from our belief in our own "exceptionalism," while we simultaneously believe that all of humanity wants exactly what we want. As I have discussed, the proponents of this view never reconcile these contradictory ideas, just as they do not want to face the obvious question: if everyone wants what we want, why then do we have to impose our "ideals" on them by bombing, murder, invasion and occupation? Our narcissism has the additional result noted in my earlier essay: if we are the model for the world, and if everyone wants what we want, then the histories, cultures, and aspirations of other peoples are of no consequence. We need not ever direct our glance outward -- to determine the goals and desires of those we subjugate. Why, they really want exactly what we propose to give them, at the end of a gun if necessary. If they don't, it is only because they are ignorant. And that is, in fact, what the foreign policy establishment believes, although it will rarely admit it honestly and unambiguously: to the extent other peoples resist our efforts to improve them, they are "less than," they are not as "civilized" as we are, they are not fully human. So if we kill thousands or even millions of them, what does it matter? It's not as if it is Americans who are being killed.
In those earlier essays, I discussed the very valuable work of Patrick Cockburn, who also has done much reporting from Iraq. Just as Cockburn is not embedded with American troops, so he is not entangled in the Western myths that so distort reports such as those provided by Yon. Cockburn has extensive familiarity with the history and culture of the Middle East, and he sees very clearly what is in front of him, as well as the causes that have led to the current reality. You would not think this represents a notable achievement, but in a culture saturated with lies, propaganda and myths, it is.

In contrast to the distortions provided by Yon, which are then amplified by the war lovers in our midst, consider Cockburn's latest column:
It has been a war of lies from the start. All governments lie in wartime but American and British propaganda in Iraq over the past five years has been more untruthful than in any conflict since the First World War.

The outcome has been an official picture of Iraq akin to fantasy and an inability to learn from mistakes because of a refusal to admit that any occurred.


Mr Cheney was back in Baghdad this week, five years later almost to the day, to announce that there has been "phenomenal" improvements in Iraqi security. Within hours, a woman suicide bomber blew herself up in the Shia holy city of Kerbala, killing at least 40 and wounding 50 people. Often it is difficult to know where the self-deception ends and the deliberate mendacity begins.

The most notorious lie of all was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But critics of the war may have focused too much on WMD and not enough on later distortions.

The event which has done most to shape the present Iraqi political landscape was the savage civil war between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad and central Iraq in 2006-07 when 3,000 civilians a month were being butchered and which was won by the Shia.

The White House and Downing Street blithely denied a civil war was happening – and forced Iraq politicians who said so to recant – to pretend the crisis was less serious than it was.

More often, the lies have been small, designed to make a propaganda point for a day even if they are exposed as untrue a few weeks later. One example of this [...] shows in detail how propaganda distorts day-to-day reporting in Iraq, but, if the propagandist knows his job, is very difficult to disprove.


Few people in Baghdad now care about the exact circumstances of the bird market bombings apart from Dr Aboub, who is still in jail, and the mentally disturbed beggars who were incarcerated. Unfortunately, it is all too clear that al-Qa'ida is not running out of suicide bombers. But it is pieces of propaganda such as this small example, often swallowed whole by the media and a thousand times repeated, which cumulatively mask the terrible reality of Iraq.
Stop the lies, recognize the nightmare reality of the war crime the U.S. government has committed and which continues every day, and get out.

Once more: "Stop the Lies, Stop the Funding, Stop the Genocide: STOP IT."