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imperialism & war | media criticism

How US Wars are Sold

One of the oldest representative democracies of the world changed in the First World War into a controlled undemocratic form of state.. The myth of the surgical war originated in 1991.. Local commercial television stations eagerly accepted the free propaganda films of the govt.

Andreas Elter, The War Merchants. The History of US Propaganda 1917-2005. Suhrkamp 2005

By Ernst Huber

[This book review published in: Zeit-Fragen Nr. 25. 6/20/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.zeit-fragen.ch/. Andreas Elter has worked as a journalist for television, radio and print media for 15 years. He is also a part-time lecturer at the Universities of Bochum and Leipzig.]

The journalist Andreas Elter has published a detailed study. His conclusions explain why the peace movement in the US has a hard time. War means nothing but lies, propaganda and manipulation of citizens. War means suspension of democracy. Elter shows this impressively in the example of the US in the last 100 years. The propaganda methods have become constantly refined and more aggressive.

When we view the last 100 years, there was hardly a time period over 10 years when the US did not wage some kind of war. Journalist and part-time lecturer Andreas Elter made this statement at the beginning of his critical study "War Merchants. The History of War Propaganda 1917-2005."

Questions inevitably arise. How could the population of a democratic country accept this constant periodic state of war? How is this possible?

These questions can be answered after reading this very important book that appeared at the right moment.

Elter's shaking conclusions are particularly important since the US Defense Department broadcast unscrupulously on February 6, 2006:

"The United States is a nation engaged in a war that will be a long war. [..] On any day, 350,000 men and women of the US armed forces are amassed or stationed in 130 countries. [..] The American Defense Department is the largest employer in the world directly employing more than three million persons [..] (Excerpts from the "Quadrennial Defense Review Report" of the pentagon, in Zeit-Fragen Nr. 13, March 27, 2006)


Elter goes far back to trace the beginnings of war propaganda. A change of course in the American population occurred at the start of the last century. Up to 1917, the majority of the population was neutral and unenthusiastic about war. The nation was founded on tolerance and religious diversity.


In the spring of 1917, a decision was made by the government - behind the scenes - for a war against the German Empire and its allies on the side of the oil- and colonial power Great Britain. A few years before, the central Federal Reserve Bank was founded. Called the "Fed" today, the Bank lent money to the US state originally built in a strongly federalist way. Private banking houses profited enormously in the indebtedness of the state (and also of other states) expected in war. This model still exists today.

On April 2, 1917, the US entered the First World War. A referendum on the war lost. Gigantic propaganda efforts were necessary until "just anger" appeared among Americans. President Wilson's private secretary Tumulty demanded this "just anger" from the population.

An Authority to Manipulate the People was Created

To "convince" American citizens, the first official governmental propaganda authority in US history was established: the Committee on Public Information (CPI). From 1917, the CPI has coordinated the whole press- and information policy of the government. "The influence- and manipulation machine of the CPI aimed at all areas of society."

Only 5 days after entering into war, President Wilson approved a $5 million annual budget for the CPI. The Great War seemed to throw all constitutional principles over board.

Let us focus on this incredible process. No honest and open discussion with the population about declaring war occurred. That could have been expected of a truly representative democracy. Instead a disastrous way was chosen that is still taken today not only in the US. Europeans also took this path in the Kosovo war. Where would humanity stand today if an honest dialogue with citizens had had the highest priority?


With his propaganda machinery at his back, Wilson succeeded within months in redefining the US as a peace power. This was psychological warfare against one's own people. The change was veiled insidiously.

In the past, neutrality and distance to wars abroad constituted the identity of the "peace-friendly" US. Now "peace-friendliness" was redefined. The US had described itself as a counter-concept to egoism, militarism and the imperialism of the European powers. Now they wanted to act with military weapons. Just wars were born that are today called "humanitarian" wars. The adversary was denigrated as "evil" that obviously must be combated. The US itself was and remains "democratic" despite the domestic dictatorial propaganda.


To re-position the consciousness of the population, no means and methods were too treacherous for the CPI and the war-friendly government. This is not in our official history books. The CPI financed hundreds of thousands of speakers, writers, journalists, cartoonists, advertising agents and government officials. A division for visual propaganda was founded at that time. The propagandists knew the power of pictures. Lies and half-truths ("gray propaganda") were the agenda of the day.

German soldiers with Satan-heads and horns were shown. On another poster, a helpless mother was portrayed. German soldiers had snatched a baby from her arms. The emperor was discredited as a criminal. We only need to recall the Hill and Knowlton advertising agency launched the story of the brutal murder of several hospitalized Kuwaiti babies by Iraqi soldiers in 1991. This agency had contacts to the Bush administration reaching back to the Reagan era, we know today. Private persons and the Kuwaiti government paid for the assignment. President Bush senior was told at that time according to Elter's investigation.

The new media and movie films were part of the manipulation. Two of these motives were titled "A Bath of Bullets" and "Steel Storm." They were full of staying-the-course slogans and victory symbols. Stalin was not the first to discover the propaganda film. The brawl "To Hell with the Emperor" was so popular the police had to stop an angry mob in Massachusetts from storming a movie house.

"Why We Fight" contained speeches in the form of advertising spots. Toward the end of the war, 750,000 men and women belonged to this rhetorical propaganda division. Altogether 755,190 speeches were held in 5200 U.S. cities and communities.


These are excerpts from the work of the CPI. The mood of the population could soon capsize. Explicit censorship was skillfully avoided.

But when a journalist reported negatively about the war, he was quickly denounced as a traitor to his country and fouler of the nest. This mood is widespread again in the US today.

So one of the oldest representative democracies of the world changed in the First World War into a controlled undemocratic form of state. It sees the citizen as a willing object with whom one could not dialogue any more. The citizen is led to the goal set out by the governing and the military-industrial-media complex.

The further development of "US war merchants" and their increasingly elaborate propaganda runs on this prescribed line.

The technical means and manipulation possibilities are refined in the course of time. Media like the radio and television are used. Modern laptops satellite-supported with the most sensitive digital cameras "report" or deliver pictures.

"Embedded journalists" today are not free. They must agree not to name locations. Many other things are prohibited to them. How are exact reports possible? For example, interviews with soldiers who suffered a shock or trauma were not allowed in the Iraq war beginning in 2003. Control over "embedded journalists" (EJs) dependent on the military and supposedly "free" in reporting has carried the manipulation system to the extreme. The book's author calls the system "corruption through nearness."


This is very deceitful. The unsuspecting citizen has the impression of a free reporting, different from the former Soviet Union. People learned to "check" the newspaper in the Soviet Union. In fact and truth, however, American citizens and many of us in Germany are deceived and misled by the war propaganda. What do the EJs, the "embedded journalists," communicate? 94% of the "embedded reports" are reports, not commentaries. Distance to events and reflection about the dreadful circumstances and consequences of war are impossible. The citizen should rely on electronically transported - censored - pictures. Critical reflection and synthesis are not possible.


Elter discovered in the latest Iraq war in 2003: Not one of the reports showed persons wounded by bullets or other weapons. War is unscrupulously "aestheticized." The myth of the "surgical war" originated in 1991. In the 1991 Iraq war, 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped. In truth, only 7% were "surgical" "smart bombs." 81,950 tons of the bomb loads were "unguided." Their accuracy was 25%. One can imagine where the other horrific bombs fell. The Geneva Conventions protecting the civilian population were trampled on. According to a pentagon investigation, 70% of the bombs in the war of Bush senior missed their targets in 1991.


The supreme commander General Schwarzkopf originally claimed 80% were accurate. Elter offers many more examples of lies known to the public.


The Vietnam War was an exception in the total development because a total control of all news - whether voluntary or involuntary - from the war zones was not possible. Two many engaged and independent war reporters like for example Peter-Scholl-Latour provided "uncontrolled" pictures and television shots. At that time commentaries and analyses were the order of the day. Lessons should be drawn from this.


In the 1991 Gulf war, aircraft on their operational missions turned toward the camera or took off in the rising or setting sun. Soldiers were filmed either relaxed in their free time in the camp, concentrated, solitary and heroic with overpowering weapons. Local, commercial television stations all over the US eagerly accepted the free propaganda films of the government. Money was earned that way. The pentagon recently started its own television channel - even in so-called peace times.


Camera teams that wanted to film coffins or wounded in 2003 and 2004 were denied access to army bases, including the US base at Ramstein in Germany. The media has willingly accepted graphics, sounds, trailers and "war-speak" in the most recent Iraq war.


This is ominous for democracy. A vicious circle undermines the democratic process since all real knowledge is kept from citizens. From the beginning, the population was inundated with beautiful pictures of war in all the commercial media dependent on advertisers.

On the run-up, the "necessity" of war was spread as with an incessant array of opinions. "Rogue states" were decried. War was the Nr.1 theme. Whoever had the fastest pictures and reports gained advertisers. As everybody knows, probing analyses and commentaries are not as attractive as the prefabricated pictures of the military. As a result, the population knows less and less about the truth of the war. War opponents and genuine peace activists become increasingly marginalized and outlawed. Are there pictures and critical reports for their corroboration? High-spirited soldiers put the pictures of the Abu Ghraib torture prison on the Internet. That was the only way they could come to the public. At the end of the cycle, the warring government sees itself confirmed. The war is profitable for many.


Soft propaganda - pre-packaged news of government propaganda in the last Iraq war - tailored for the local stations - told of the "life" of soldiers who come from the broadcasting city. As in the First World War, propaganda leaves nothing to accident and has deep pockets. This "soft" news from the war can produce nearness to people and "humanize" war.


That the "Neue Zuricher Zeitung" paper (cf. March 25/26) boasting of its liberal identity is not too proud to serve readers background-manipulation stories under the title "Supreme Food in Kabul Military Camp. How Peace troops [not Occupation troops] Live, Eat and Sleep is remarkable. The paper presents a positive mood for the belligerent foreign deployments of the Nato-army that is unconsciously effective. Has a neutral land reversed its polarities, a land obligated to protect the Geneva Conventions?

We should pay attention to the pictures of war that the newspapers impart. Again and again nearly idyllic pictures of fighter jets or heroic soldiers are shown, propaganda for military operations.


The war trivializers obviously become more brazen. An announcement of NZZ on Sunday demonstrates this. Franz Jaeger, professor "for applied economic upswing" had discovered the "land war" (!) as an "economic stimulation measure", it was reported. We would become sedate in "permanent peace." The text appeared in the VBS-publication "Swiss Peace Advocate." What a scandal!

Elter wrote on war in 2003: "Television reporting was marked by a high measure in patriotism, war glorification and even national chauvinism in extreme cases." (p.336)


"Instant history" is passed on to the people, the US media scholar says. Now we know why critical citizens in the US have such a hard time raising their voices against the war. Elter wrote about the 1991 Gulf war: "The perfection and professionality of the press control and the harmonization of all particular actions with a single propaganda goal are frightening. Until then, such a total control over pictures and news was only known from autocratic states."


Elter fears the free Internet will be much more sharply controlled in the near future. This could be camouflaged with great expense...

The book of the journalist and historian who is in no way hostile to America can open eyes to a radical deformation of American democracy, provoked by an unending war - when other laws are in effect than in peace times. The American president has extraordinary freedoms in this case.

Let us in Europe help the American people know what democracy and respect for the American constitution mean. Let us help stop the propaganda wave in Europe. Every serious movement and citizen - whether in Germany or the United States - can contribute. The fine-spun web of lies cannot hold in the long run. People want peace, not war.

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