Thursday, June 19, 2003

Why did we go to war?

This is the best my co-workers and I can figure out: If we find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then it will have been about weapons of mass destruction. If we don't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then it will have been about something else. "We didn't lie," one Bush official told ABCnews, "it was just a matter of emphasis." In other words, the war will ultimately be about whatever we want it to be about, and we'll let you know once we've made up our minds.

So much of this is right out of George Orwell's 1984. In fact, because 1984 is so often associated with state totalitarianism, we don't usually apply it to propaganda systems in democratic societies, which are usually much more sophisticated and convincing. When the only news source in a country is government controlled, people know well enough to discount what they're hearing. This was how I always viewed Orwell's Oceania--a kind of clumsy, Soviet-style system, holding a bludgeon over people's heads lest they fall out of line. (Having re-read 1984 again recently, I think there's more to it than this, but I will leave that aside for the moment.) It's not as interesting in terms of propaganda because the propaganda isn't as good. If you want to see propaganda that people can invest themselves in, you have to look to the free societies.

What's been interesting to me about the Iraq war, however, is just how unsophisticated the propaganda has been. Orwell's Oceania had a proclivity to declare itself at war with one country one day, only to turn around and deny it the next: it had really been at war with someone else. The intellectual class--writers, editors, teachers, archivists--were assigned the task of destroying official records not keeping with current government declarations, and to rewrite history according to the new narrative. The government of Oceania relied on its population being so beat-down and apathetic, and their attention span so limited, that they wouldn't remember, or wouldn't care to remember, that just yesterday they were at war with a totally different enemy. The purpose of war was simply a means to control the population, keep them afraid, and provide justification for their detainment or execution if they stepped out of line, thus becoming 'enemy combatants,' to borrow a term from our current administration and its Patriot Act legislation.

Normally I would consider our society above so crude a means of persuasion, but in the case of WMD's, it's practically right off the pages of Orwell's most famous novel. Our administration sends us to war because of the 'imminent threat' we face from Iraq and their weapons program. That's what they sold the war on, remember, not liberating Iraqis or giving a shot to the arm of Middle East peace. Iraq has 'tens of thousands' of tons of weapons, and so on and so forth. Blair tells his people Saddam could prep a warhead with bio-chem weapons in 45 minutes. Most of this is never verified, who knows where this information is coming from, but people begin to accept, yes, Hussein is our greatest threat. So we lay waste to the country, its communities, its infrastructure, kill a lot of people, some good, some bad, some theirs, some ours--and now we can't find any weapons. 2 months of searching and zilch. Tens of thousands of tons of materials, and we can't find a goddam firecracker. Now it comes out, well, the whole war wasn't really about WMD's after all. My supervisor is saying, "I could have told you that." Of course, the war wasn't about that! And suddenly I am surrounded by experts in the affairs of state and foreign policy, who understood this all along.

Are we really that apathetic and distracted not to notice that we went to war for one reason and came out of it going to war for another--any other--reason? Christ almighty. Stop watching The Matrix and start paying attention to the matrix around you.

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