The first casualty of war…

Leftover from the Kuwait-Iraq war, by Christopher Michel of San Francisco, U.S. Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Leftover from the Kuwait-Iraq war. Photo by Christopher Michel of San Francisco, U.S. Creative Commons via Wikimedia

February 13, 2015 

We all lie. 

It doesn’t have to be about big things. We lied to our teachers when we were young about why homework wasn’t done. We lied to our parents about why we got home late. These days we lie to our bosses about why we were sick yesterday. We lie about our taxes. Telling a lie is probably one of the most human things that we do.

But when you’re a major TV network news anchor, and you tell a lie, it’s a big deal. NBC-TV anchor Brian Williams is learning that right now as he embarks on his six-month suspension from the nightly newscast. But when you come right down to it, the lie Williams probably told about what happened to him on that helicopter in Iraq is really only a minor one when compared to the BIG LIE of the entire second Gulf War and why we were there in the first place. 

Many Americans continue to believe (or consciously ignore) the lies about Iraq that were used to convince them that going there again was a good idea. You can see this to a degree in the public’s response to the film American Sniper. On the one hand the movie is a rather good depiction about what happens to soldiers when they come home from war and many struggle with PTSD. But director Clint Eastwood has so glossed over the truth about the war itself, and the role that America has played in the creation of that failed state today, that it basically undermines what might have been a reasonably good movie.

Those of you who are students of media will recognize my title of this column. It’s the title of Philip Knightley’s great book on war correspondents and misinformation and lying about war, “The first casualty...(of war is the truth).” Governments have been lying to the public about reasons for war for longer than I care to speculate. The British certainly did it in World War I, the Americans with the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin incident that precipitated the U.S. build up in the Vietnam War. And one that I have some familiarity with, the Kuwait hospital “babies in incubators” story that was a creation of the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton and the Kuwaiti government, that pushed many American congressmen and senators to support the first Gulf War at a time when that support was not so solid.

In September 2002 I wrote a column for the Christian Science Monitor entitled, “When contemplating war beware of babies and incubators” that basically reviewed a lot of the reporting that had exposed this deliberate deception that in many ways led to the First Gulf War. Little did I know then that yellow uranium cake would be the babies in incubators of the Second Gulf War.

So why are we so easily deceived? Why is it that after being lied to about one of the main reasons to go to war in Iraq during the first Gulf War, we then completely forgot that lesson and fell hook. line, and sinker for another lie that put us in a wreck once again? And those lies continue to mount up the longer we stayed in Iraq: Rumsfeld told us going there a few months, Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials said it wouldn’t cost much, we were also told that we would be welcomed with open arms. We were winning – mission accomplished. Well, we weren’t, and it wasn’t. 

I think there are number of factors at play here. One is the old notion of the bigger the lie the more people will believe it. Another factor is that even when that lie is exposed Americans don’t like to believe they’ve been deceived. It makes them look bad. So rather than, as Pres. Obama recently said “looking at ourselves clearly in the mirror” we prefer to insist that the lie was in fact true long after it had been proven false. In the case of something like weapons of mass destruction, even after the Bush administration admitted that none existed, polls showed that something like 40 per cent of the American public continued to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction..

There were so many lies it’s hard to count them all. But perhaps that last one I mentioned above is the worst. In fact we were not welcomed with open arms and we made this worse through a series of blunders that basically turned a significant portion of the Iraqi populace against the United States. Daesh (the Islamic State) may be the most brutal enemy we have faced in the Middle East to date, and we all look forward to its ultimate destruction, but we cannot ignore the role that we played in its creation. Through our incompetence and lies we basically turned Iraq into a training ground for terrorists and we (and to a much much greater extent the Iraqi and also Syrian people) are now reaping what we have sown.

So what Brian Williams did was certainly wrong. Journalists are supposed to tell people the truth, not make stories up. And when they do they must pay the consequences.

But isn’t it time we hold a few more people responsible for telling lies about the Iraq war, other than television anchor people with an inflated sense of self-importance? And maybe it’s time that we Americans stop deceiving ourselves about Iraq and clearly face the truth of what we did there, and why we didn’t succeed.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

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“When contemplating war beware of babies and incubators,” Christian Science Monitor 


Tom Regan

Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe newspapers, and National Public Radio, in the United States. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.







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