At the height of the First World War Lloyd George, the prime minister,
confided to C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian: "If
people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course
they don't know , and they can't know."
His words may soon apply to a modern equivalent of that slaughter.
Like events in the Gulf, current and beckoning, the First World War
was distinguished by a "drift to war" - a specious notion that allowed
for war preparation - and by an inferno of which there was little public
comprehension or warning, and by the theatrical distortions and lies of
the warlords and their mouthpieces in the press.
"There is no need for censorship," wrote Philip Gibbs, a leading
journalist of the time, later knighted for his services. "We were our own
censors... some of us wrote the truth... apart from the naked realism
of horrors and losses, and criticism of the facts which did not come
within the liberty of our pen." Max Hastings, a former Falklands War
correspondent and now editor-in-chief of the Daily and Sunday
Telegraph, said something strikingly similar on BBC Radio the other
day: that it was the duty of a journalist in effect to gloss over during
wartime, because "one should recognise the national interests of the
nation of which one is part... "
That "national interests" include going to war when one's nation is not
in any way threatened is rarely mentioned these days. Hastings's view
is widely shared: if not openly, then subliminally. My own experience
of war reporting is that journalists - bar the few 'mavericks' - seldom
question the assumptions behind 'our wars'. An almost secular myth
about the Vietnam War was that the media was against it. This was
never the case; most were against the fact that the war was fought
innefficiently, and that the Americans were losing it. Equally, some of
the journalists in the Falklands who had previously defended their
objectivity were unabashed in praising their own subjectivity in the
cause of Queen and country. Their main complaint was about access,
being denied the facility to be on 'our side' and help win the
If war breaks out in the Gulf the British media - which, unlike Iraq's,
said to be 'free' - will bear much of the responsibility for a 'patriotic' and
culpable silence that had ensured that people don't know and can't
It is as if the very notion of the journalist as a teller of truths
unpalatable to ruling elites, as whistle-blower in the public interest,
has been fatally eroded. This is in part the result of the
'communications revolution' or 'total television', in which vast amounts
of repetitive information are confined to a narrow spectrum of 'thinkable
thought', and the vocabulary of state and vested-interest manipulation
is elevated above that of free journalism. In the Gulf coverage, the
effect is that many people are overwhelmed and immobilised, their
misgivings not reflected in the opinion polls, only their compliance.
From tabloids to television, radio to 'qualities', the war drums are
heard, their beat perhaps made all the more acceptable by the work of
honourable sceptics, humanitarians and professionals, journalists like
John Simpson and Robert Fisk. Otherwise we have the "ugly
momentum that is driving Bush steadily towards war" (Observer); a
war that is "necessary to protect civilised values" (The Times); a war
for which "no price is too heavy to pay" (Bush, reported uncritically
almost everywhere). And anyone who gets in the way is a
"yellow-belly" (Sun); or "an eccentric witha lust for publicity... a very
British kind of nut" (The Times on Tam Dalyell); or using "weasal
And, of course, war is fun! Every night there is Peter Snow's bloodless
sandpit to play in, and sexy shots of Hornets and Tornadoes, with a
camel left of frame and the sun rising over the cockpit. Cue the
bagpipes; cue the British major who wants to "get in there now!"
Military minders attatched to the Joint Information Bureau manipulate
most of what you see from the Gulf. A well-known broadcaster, who
does not wish to be named, says: "The cocoon is such that you end
up being gung-ho and unquestioning. It's a bit much when you know
things that you can't say: for instance, that many of our lads will
almost certainly be killed by friendly fire, from the Allied side."
The military's ability to distort and the media's malleability were
demonstrated in August when television showed images of what
appeared to be a highly efficient US military machine moving into the
desert. This was a bluff: many aircraft arrived half full, the 'machine'
was unprepared. Most of the media accepted what they were told.
We are told the use of nuclear weapons has "not been ruled out". Yet
a study on the effects of a nuclear war in the Gulf has been virtually
ignored. Nik Gowing, diplomatic editor of Channel 4 News, describes
the narrowness of the debate thus: "It's quite shocking. I am
thunderstruck that the British public know so little about the potential
nightmare of this war. Naively, people are unaware that even if Iraq is
defeated, the war may come to them: in acts of reprisal and terrorism
in the centre of London, as the director of the CIA has warned."
Stewart Purvis, editor of ITN, gives an interesting reply to this issue:
"The line which the Opposition takes in Parliament is important to the
level of news coverage of political debate. On the Gulf, Labour is
synchronised with Government policy, so there is less news arising
from the political debate." Few other broadcasters and senior press
reporters will go on the record. "My access to the MoD and the
Foreign Office is a lifeline," said one of them. "I can't jeopardise it."
The Independent's correspondent in the Gulf has written, "Second
guessing Pesident Saddam's intentions has not proved a precise
science. Who predicted that he would invade Kuwait on August 2?"
The answer is that the United States predicted it; and it is in this area
of America's war aims and strategic purpose that the suppression of
vital facts has been most evident.
According to George Bush, John Major, Douglas Hurd et al., the sole
aim of the war is "the liberation of Kuwait". The truth is to be found in
events notably excluded from the present 'coverage'. In May 1990 the
president's most senior advisory body, the National Security Council,
submitted to Bush a White Paper in which Iraq and Saddam Hussein
are described as "the optimum contenders to replace the Warsaw
Pact" as the rationale for continued Cold War military spending and for
putting an end to the 'peace dividend'.
On July 25 - a week before the Iraqi invasion - the US ambassador to
Iraq, April Glaspie, told Saddam Hussein that she had "instructions
from the President" that the United States would have "no opinion on
your border conflicts with Kuwait". She repeated this several times,
adding, "Secretary of State James Baker has directed our official
spokesman to emphasise this instruction from the President." It was
clear, wrote the syndicated American columnist James McCartney,
one of the few journalist to study the leaked transcript, that the United
States had given Saddam Hussein "a green light for invasion".
Moreover, two days before the invasion, Assistant Secretary of State
John Kelly told a Congressional hearing that the United States was
not committed to defend Kuwait. Four days before the invasion,
according to the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the
CIA predicted that the invasion would happen when it did. And did the
CIA tip off the Kuwaitis?
Then there are the actions of General Norman Schwartzkopf, head of
US Central Command, during the same period. At the time April
Glaspie was reassuring Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Schwartzkopf
convened his top commanders for an exercise which, according to th
New York Daily News, simulated "exactly the contingency" of an Iraqi
drive into Kuwait. "The similarities were eerie," said the paper's
source, adding that: "When the real thing came, the one way they
could tell real intelligence from the practice intelligence was the little t
in the corner of the paper - t for training."
There is other evidence that Saddam Hussein was deliberately
squeezed or 'entrapped' into invading Kuwait. As a US client, he had
become too powerful, too cocky and so - rather like Noriega - he had
to go. And, like its strategic plans for Panama, the United States has
long had a secret contingency for a permanent military presence in the
Gulf, notably for the air force.
The timing of the Iraqi invasion could not have been better. Today the
US arms industry no longer faces the cuts of a 'peace dividend' and
the recession no longer threatens America'a 'world leadership'. "In the
future," said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee,
Les Aspin, "we are more likely to be involved in Iraq-type things,
Panama-type things, Greneda-type things..." But what of Kuwait,
whose 'liberation' is the reason for the war? "Our poaition," said Aspin,
"should be the protection of the oilfields. Now whether Kuwait gets put
back, that's subsiduary stuff."
According to Bush, Saddam Hussein has refused to get out of Kuwait
"at any price" and that "extraordinary diplomatic efforts have been
exhausted". When the war started, the New York Times reported that
the administration feared "a diplomatic tracl" that might "defuse the
crisis" at the cost of "a few token gains" for Iraq, perhaps "a Kuwait
island, or minor border adjustments".
In fact, Washington received an Iraqi proposal along these lines and,
although described by a US official as "serious" and "negotiable", it
was dismissed. Indeed, on January 3, the Iraqis put forward an offer to
withdraw, which, again, State Department sources described as a
"serious pre-negotiating offer" that "indicated the intention of Iraq to
withdraw"; and, again, it was dismissed.
Put these events together, add the absence of any US effort to create
an international opposition while there was time, and urgent questions
are raised. But who is to raise them if there is general agreement
among the opinion-leaders that this is a matter of good versus evil and
that the 'national interest' is at stake? Who is to say: this crisis can
be settled diplomatically and a war that merely legitimises militarism
is not a just war.
In a genuinely free society, there needs to be unrestricted debate,
drawing on a diversity of sources that reflect the complexion of a
society that is not one nation. As the Daily Mirror has pointed out, it
will be the sick and old who will pay the bill for this war. So whose
'national interest' is at stake?
Is the build up to war really a demonstration of America's world
'leadership' at a time of deepening recession and diminishing sources
of raw materials and oppoptunities for 'free trade'? Why have the
sanctions not been allowed time to succeed? We all, it seems, live by
the January 15 deadline. Saddam must leave Kuwait by that date. Bet
the facts are not as they have been represented. At his news
conference on November 30, Bush actually hoped Saddam would
meet James Baker "at a mutually convenient time" between December
15 and January 15. He did not name a specific date. The Iraqis may
be awkward about the date, but so is Bush; and why should life or
death for thousands of innocent people, who do not appreciate the
'values' of High Noon, hang upon it?
The Observer recently illustrated an article about the British Army in
the Gulf, with a picture of a Colonel Denaro blowing a hunting horn to
summon his driver. The colonel was described as "an extravagant
character with an attractive swashbuckling manner". His regiment, the
Hussars, "are sometimes to be found wearing their big Browning
automatics in shoulder holsters over tank crew's overalls, which gives
them a rakish appearance". Some of the officers come from "the same
stock as Wellington", and are heirs to the Light Brigade, "the same
gallant six hundred..." The Charge of the Light Brigade was one of the
most pointless imperial disasters in history.
The national newspaper editors being called to discuss war coverage
at the Ministry of Defence should read the Crimea diaries of perhaps
the greatest of all British war reporters, William Howard Russell of The
Times. Not for him propaganda in the 'national interest'. He reported
the sacrificial battles, the waste, the blunders. "Am I to tell these
things?" he wrote to his editor, John Delane, "or am I to hold my
tongue?" To which Delane replied: "Continue as you have done, to tell
the truth, as much of it as you can." Both were described as
"treasonous", having incurred the wrath of the monarch, the prime
minister and the rest of the establishment. This, of course, ought to be
no more than an occupational hazard.