Silencing Voices for Peace

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

In the “liberal” New York Times today, I saw an article on “Putin’s forever war” that has the following short synopsis: “Vladimir Putin wants to lead Russians into a civilizational conflict with the West far larger than Ukraine. Will they follow him?”

Is this true?  Does Putin truly seek a “civilizational conflict” with the West?  One that’s “far larger” than the Ukraine war?  It doesn’t seem likely.  Russian forces have struggled in Ukraine.  Already embroiled in a destructive regional war that’s become somewhat of a quagmire, why would Putin seek to widen it?  Is Putin always the aggressor, the bad guy, and the West always the aggrieved party, the good guys, holding back a “red storm rising”?  I thought the West won the Cold War more than 30 years ago.

It’s remarkable how easy it is to get alarmist articles about Russia or China published in the U.S. mainstream media (MSM).  Wars and rumors of war dominate.  The West is always portrayed as the defender of democracy; other countries such as China and Russia are portrayed as threats to civilization and its “rules-based order.”  Strictly speaking, this is simplistic, one-sided, propaganda.

Back in 2017, I wrote about how difficult it is in the MSM to read honest accounts of war.  In the runup to the Iraq War in 2003, critical voices were actively suppressed and punished.  Back then, I focused my article on MSNBC, which like the New York Times is allegedly “liberal.”  At “liberal” newspapers and networks, shouldn’t America expect at least a few critical critiques of war narratives?  The answer here is “no,” as I wrote here:

Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota (1999-2003), was a hot media commodity as the Bush/Cheney administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ventura, a U.S. Navy veteran who gained notoriety as a professional wrestler before he entered politics, was both popular and outspoken. MSNBC won the bidding war for his services in 2003, signing him to a lucrative three-year contract to create his own show – until, that is, the network learned he was against the Iraq war. Ventura’s show quickly went away, even as the network paid him for three years to do nothing.

I heard this revealing story from a new podcast, the TARFU Report, hosted by Matt Taibbi and Alex Pareene. By his own account, Jesse Ventura was bought off by the network, which back then was owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor that was due to make billions of dollars off the war.

Of course, Ventura was hardly the only war critic to run afoul of GE/NBC. Phil Donahue, the famous talk show host, saw his highly rated show cancelled when he gave dissenters and anti-war voices a fair hearing. Ashleigh Banfield, a reporter who covered the Iraq war, gave a speech in late April 2003 that criticized the antiseptic coverage of the war (extracts to follow below). For her perceptiveness and her honesty, she was reassigned and marginalized, demoted and silenced.

So much for freedom of speech, as well as the press.

As Phil Donahue said, his show “wasn’t good for business.” NBC didn’t want to lose ratings by being associated with “unpatriotic” elements when the other networks were waving the flag in support of the Iraq war. In sidelining Ventura and Donahue, NBC acted to squelch any serious dissent from the push for war, and punished Ashleigh Banfield in the immediate aftermath of the war for her honesty in criticizing the coverage shown (and constructed) by the mainstream media, coverage that was facilitated by the U.S. military and rubber-stamped by corporate ownership.

Speaking of Banfield’s critique, here are some excerpts from her speech on Iraq war coverage in April 2003. Note that her critique remains telling for all U.S. media war coverage since then:

That said, what didn’t you see [in U.S. media coverage of the Iraq war]? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.

With admirable honesty, Banfield spoke of the horrific face of war at Kansas State Univ. in 2003. Soon after her speech, she was demoted (Image courtesy of KSU)

I can’t tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you’ve got to be on both sides…

Some of the soldiers, according to our embeds had never seen a dead body throughout the entire three-week campaign. It was like Game Boy. I think that’s amazing in two different ways. It makes you a far more successful warrior because you can just barrel right along but it takes away a lot of what war is all about, which is what I mentioned earlier. The TV technology took that away too. We couldn’t see where the bullets landed. Nobody could see the horrors of this so that we seriously revisit the concept of warfare the next time we have to deal with it.

I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I’m very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people’s opinions. It was very sanitized.

This TV show [Iraq invasion coverage] that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there’s nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do.

War is ugly and it’s dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It’s a dangerous thing to propagate…

I’m hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.

Nothing has changed since Banfield’s powerful critique. Indeed, the networks have only hired more retired generals and admirals to give “unbiased” coverage of America’s military actions. And reporters and “journalists” like Brian Williams have learned too. Recall how Williams cheered the “beautiful” U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles as they were launched against Syria earlier this year [2017].

It’s not just that U.S. media coverage actively suppresses dissent of America’s wars: it passively does so as well, which is arguably more insidious. Any young journalist with smarts recognizes the way to get ahead is to be a cheerleader for U.S. military action, a stenographer to the powerful. Being a critic leads to getting fired (like Donahue); demoted and exiled (like Banfield); and, in Ventura’s case, if you can’t be fired or demoted or otherwise punished, you can simply be denied air time.

When you consider that billions and billions of dollars are at stake, whether in weapons sales or in advertising revenue tied to ratings, none of this is that surprising. What’s surprising is that so few Americans know about how pro-authority and uncritical U.S. media coverage of war and its makers is. If anything, the narrative is often that the U.S. media is too critical of the military to the detriment of the generals. Talk about false narratives and alternative facts!

America’s greed-wars persist for many reasons, but certainly a big one is the lack of critical voices in the mainstream media. Today’s journalists, thinking about their career prospects and their salaries (and who is ultimately their boss at corporate HQ), learn to censor themselves, assuming they have any radical thoughts to begin with. Some, like Brian Williams, even learn how to stop worrying and love the beautiful bombs.

[After I wrote this in 2017, I added this comment at the site.]

One thing that troubles me is the mindset that criticism of America’s wars undermines the troops. That it could even be a form of betrayal. This mindset is very dangerous. It not only protects the decisions and actions of those at the highest levels of the military and government. It acts to prolong wars and to endanger the lives of the troops (and of their “enemies” as well).

During the Iraq war, I recall instances of U.S. troops speaking clearly and frankly against the war. Their voices were heard, yet their advice was not taken. Instead, generals like David Petraeus were trotted out to assure the American people that the war was being won, even if the gains were characterized by weasel words like “fragile” and “reversible.” And so those gains have proved — even so, Petraeus remains in demand, and is still trotted out, now in mufti, to explain how we must stay the course and continue to defer to the military.

There’s a powerful book to be written here, and it should focus in part on the silencing or marginalization of anti-war voices (even those that wear or wore the uniform), even as pro-war elements are given the main stage as the voices of probity and sanity.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.