‘War of the Worlds’

With a record 57 percent of Americans now believing that the Bush administration deliberately misled the U.S. into a war with Iraq, and a plurality of Americans believing Bush is more responsible for starting the war than Saddam Hussein, the president took to the airwaves on Tuesday in a prime time television bid to stem the shocking loss of public support.

As he has so many times in the past, he again invoked the specter of 9/11 as an implied justification for the Iraq war.

“The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September 11, if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like Zarqawi and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like bin Laden. For the sake of our nation’s security, this will not happen on my watch,” said the president.

As Knight Ridder Newspapers wryly noted, "Bush has acknowledged there’s no known link between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks," yet the president "referred to bin Laden or Sept. 11 six times in his 30-minute speech" on the Iraq war.

Clearly, the constant 9/11 invocation – which was test-driven in a speech by Bush muse Karl Rove a week earlier – is a desperate administration’s attempt to rekindle America’s latent fears of the crashing jetliners, burning skyscrapers, and collapsing buildings of our not-too-distant-past for renewed political exploitation.

Coincidentally or not, the Republican effort to awaken those dormant nightmares may receive a boost from, of all places, Hollywood.

The much anticipated, big budget Steven Spielberg remake of "War of the Worlds" (starring box office titan Tom Cruise) opened the day after Bush’s speech.

"Spielberg, Cruise shine in remake with tones of Sept. 11" read the headline of a review in the Seattle Times by Tom Keogh.

"During the film’s first astonishing scenes of mostly urban devastation (in a city never identified, but it feels like New York), wrought by an invading force of extraterrestrials that attacks sans warning on an ordinary day, it’s impossible not to recall the rage and grief felt watching the televised aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001," Keogh writes.

"It’s all here: The way the sky is blotted out by smoke and ash. The way strangers huddle, run en masse or stop to gaze back in disbelief at the unthinkable. The way a small, ordinarily forgettable event – say, a man running by with a girl in his arms – can fix itself in one’s memory, much like the sharply remembered details recalled by so many Sept. 11 survivors."

And in a line that would make Karl Rove green with envy: "If anything, Spielberg, a constant student of visual styles that expand and strengthen his storytelling skills, captures and tweaks the look, feel and emotion of extensive documentary footage of Manhattan under siege on Sept. 11."

Isn’t that exactly what Bush and his speech writers were trying to do, albeit rhetorically, on Tuesday? Expand and strengthen their storytelling skills? Tweak and capture the feel and emotion of post-9/11?

Suspicious minds want to know: did Republicans time the speech to coincide with the opening of the film? Is this yet another ploy by Madison Avenue-smart Machiavellians to achieve synergy and sell at least a portion of the American public the same bill of goods twice by transforming them back into that post-9/11 state of mind?

Nothing should be put past this administration. After all, these are the people who sold the Iraq war first on WMD (which weren’t there) and Iraq ties to al-Qaeda/9/11 (not there either), then on "regime change," then on the noble cause of "spreading democracy to the Middle East," and now they’re apparently returning to form: “The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September 11," [snip: scene of destruction from "War of the Worlds"] "…if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like Zarqawi and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like bin Laden" [snip: Manhattan under siege on Sept. 11].

“The whole world is watching this war,” Bush said on Tuesday.

As any master of advertising will tell you, achieving and maintaining market share requires constant repetition of message and brand.

The Bush administration managed to attain market share (re-election) through repetition of a package of lies. It apparently believes it can regain market share (public support) by repeating some of those lies again.

I suspect this particular advertising campaign, however, has run its course.

As many readers will recall, "War of the Worlds," like Bush’s case for war, sprung from creative writing. In the first case, it was by H.G. Wells; in the second, by a team of neocons.

"War of the Worlds" reached its apex in public consciousness when Orson Welles modified the story for a 1938 radio broadcast that caused mass hysteria.

I doubt Spielberg’s movie will have the same effect. And barring another terrorist attack, I doubt the mass hysteria that Bush, Rove and the neocons whipped up after 9/11 to leverage America into Iraq, and themselves back into the White House, can be conjured again, either.

Author: Steve Breyman

Steve Breyman will teach "War in Afghanistan" at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute fall semester. Breyman is a veteran of the U.S. Army.