The universality of war propaganda

Endless wars and acts of aggression are always justified by the same cynical morality plays

Published June 29, 2010 5:30PM (EDT)

(Updated below [Reply to Joe Klein] - Update II - Update III - Update IV - Update V - Update VI)

Jeffrey Goldberg responded yesterday to my post detailing his long list of journalistic malfeasance by telling me that he and the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kuridstan would like me to travel there to hear how much the Kurds appreciate the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Leaving aside the complete non sequitur that is his response -- how does that remotely pertain to Goldberg's granting of anonymity to his friends to smear people they don't like or the serial fear-mongering fabrications he spread about the Saddam threat prior to the invasion? -- I don't need to travel to Kurdistan to know that many Kurds, probably most, are happy that the U.S. attacked Iraq.  For that minority in Northern Iraq, what's not to like?  

They had foreign countries (the U.S. and its "partners") expend their citizens' lives and treasure to rid the Kurds of their hated enemy; they received semi-autonomy, substantial oil revenues, a thriving relationship with Israel, and real political power; the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis whose lives were snuffed out and the millions of people displaced by the war were not Kurds, and most of the destruction took place in Central and Southern Iraq away from their towns and homes, while they remain largely free of the emergent police state tactics of the current Iraqi government.  As Ali Gharib put it to Goldberg:  "there are at least 600,000 Iraqis who, I imagine, are not too thrilled about the way it all turned out and with whom Greenwald will never get a meeting."

Goldberg apparently thinks that if you can find some citizens in an invaded country who are happy about the invasion, then it demonstrates the aggression was justifiable or at least morally supportable (I suppose I should be thankful that he didn't haul out the think-about-how-great-this-is-for-the-Iraqi-gays platitude long cherished by so many neocons, though -- given the hideous reality in Iraq in that realm -- that's now a deceitful bridge too far even for them).  I'm not interested in an overly personalized exchange with Goldberg, but there is one aspect of his response worth highlighting:  the universality of the war propaganda he proffers.  Those who perpetrate wars of aggression invariably invent moral justifications to allow themselves and the citizens of the aggressor state to feel good and noble about themselves.  Hence, even an unprovoked attack which literally destroys a country and ruins the lives of millions of innocent people -- as the U.S. invasion of Iraq did -- is scripted as a morality play with the invaders cast in the role of magnanimous heroes.

It's difficult to find an invasion in history that wasn't supported by at least some faction of the invaded population and where that same self-justifying script wasn't used.  That's true even of the most heinous aggressors.  Many Czech and Austrian citizens of Germanic descent, viewing themselves as a repressed minority, welcomed Hitler's invasion of their countries, while leaders of the independence-seeking Sudeten parties in those countries actively conspired to bring it about.  Did that make those German invasions justifiable?  As Arnold Suppan of the University of Vienna's Institute for Modern History wrote of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia (click on image to enlarge): And, of course, German citizens were told those invasions were necessary and just in order to liberate the repressed German minorities.  To be a bit less Godwin about it, many Ossetians wanted independence from Georgia and thus despised the government in Tbilisi, and many identified far more with the invading Russians than their own government; did that make the 2008 Russian assault on Georgia moral and noble?  Pravda routinely cast the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as one of protection of the populace from extremists.  I have no doubt that one could easily find Iraqi Sunnis today who would welcome an invasion from Hamas or Saudi Arabia to liberate them from what they perceive (not unreasonably) as their repressive Shiite overlords; would Goldberg therefore recognize the moral ambiguity of that military action?  If, tomorrow, China invaded Israel and changed the regime, there would certainly be many, many Palestinians who would celebrate; would that, in Goldberg's view, make it morally supportable?  Saddam himself, in FBI interrogations after he was captured, was insistent that many Kuwaitis were eager for an Iraqi invasion and that this justified his 1990 war; if he were right in his facutal premise, would that render his actions just?

As Jonathan Schwarz wrote in 2007, responding to similar war-justifying claims from Christopher Hitchens that he saw Iraqis giving "sweets and flowers" to American and British soldiers:

The strange-but-true reality is that throughout history, whenever one country has invaded another, there have always been some people within the invaded country who've welcomed the invaders.  Sometimes it's because they've been oppressed by their own government, are similar ethnically or religiously to the invader, or just know what side their bread is buttered on.

At the same time, those within the invading country who support the invasion have always seized on tales of the welcome they've received and declared it demonstrates the justice of their cause. And this is rarely pure cynicism. Human beings -- even (or especially) the worst of them -- need to believe they're moral.

To underscore the point, consider these photographs of ethnic Germans in Lithuania handing flowers to invading German soldiers, and citizens of Ukraine and Poland doing the same, all from the BBC documentary, Nazis:  A Warning from History (click on photogaphs to enlarge):

As Schwarz wrote: "I don't know who took this footage, but I would bet a lot of money it was the Nazis themselves, and that they rushed it back to the home front to demonstrate the extraordinary morality of their cause." And just to bolster the point a bit more, compare the propagandistic photograph on the right (below) used by Germans in 1941 to show that Lithuanians welcomed their invasion (depicting citizens pulling down a statue of an oppressive Communist ruler, likely Lenin), to the virtually identical, iconic photograph on the left of the staged scene of Iraqis "celebrating" the American invasion by pulling down a statue of Saddam:

It should go without saying, but doesn't:  the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions.  It may or may not be, but that's irrelevant. The point is that every nation which launches even the most brutal, destructive and unprovoked wars of aggression employs moralizing propaganda to claim that their aggression engenders magnanimous and noble ends, and specifically often points to segments of the invaded population which welcome the violence and invaders.  Pointing to the happy and rewarded Kurdish minority no more justifies or legalizes the attack on Iraq than similar claims do for any of those other cases.   

What's most pernicious about all of this is that any decent human being has a natural desire to see oppression of the type that the Kurds suffered under Saddam alleviated, and neocons exploit that natural human desire to drum up support for wars that have nothing to do with the noble goals that are touted (which is why so many of them who stood silently by while the U.S. supported Saddam [even as he brutally suppressed the Kurds] suddenly feigned concern for his crimes and his victims when it was time to attack him).  This is how a state of endless war is always justified:  with blatantly cynical, insincere and exploitative appeals to moralizing fairly tales that have nothing to do with the aggression itself.

No matter how many of Goldberg's Kurdish friends tell him how grateful they are, there are hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis dead, millions who were displaced, tens of thousands of American troops who are dead or wounded, hundreds of billions of dollars incinerated, and intense and enduring hatred of Americans in that part of the world -- all provoked by a heap of false pretenses.  Pointing to some happy Kurds who remained largely shielded from all of that destruction, and who even benefited from it, doesn't erase the serial deceit of Jeffrey Goldberg's pre-war "reporting," and it certainly doesn't justify the untold human suffering that was and continues to be unleashed.

* * * * * 

One added irony:  Goldberg accuses me of having "an overly simplistic, black-and-white view of the situation" (yes, I think unprovoked acts of aggression are clearly wrong; as lead Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson put it in his Closing Argument about the crimes of World War II:  "the kingpin which holds them all together, is the plot for aggressive wars").  But what's ironic is that this "simplistic, black-and-white" accusation comes from the very same Jeffrey Goldberg who, in 2002, wrote:  "In five years . . . I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality."  One last point:  before the field trip to Iraqi Kurdistan proposed by Goldberg, would he like to travel to Gaza to explain to Gazans how they got what they deserved?


UPDATE: More proof that there is no language sufficiently clear to guard against either those who want to deliberately distort what you say and/or whose reading comprehension skills are extremely impaired:

Me, in this post (emphasis in original):  

It should go without saying, but doesn't: the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions. It may or may not be, but that's irrelevant.  The point is that every nation which launches even the most brutal, destructive and unprovoked wars of aggression employs moralizing propaganda to claim that their aggression engenders magnanimous and noble ends, and specifically often points to segments of the invaded population which welcome the violence and invaders. Pointing to the happy and rewarded Kurdish minority no more justifies or legalizes the attack on Iraq than similar claims do for any of those other cases.

Time's Joe Klein -- who supported the attack on Iraq and then, once it went bad, pretended he didn't -- defending his friend Jeff Goldberg today:

Greenwald -- who, so far as I can tell, only regards the United States as a force for evil in the world -- has laid out the incredible notion that the liberation of the Kurds, which Jeff celebrates (and so do I, and so do civilized people everywhere) as a happy byproduct of George W. Bush's dreadful war in Iraq, can be compared to the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland . . . .This is obscene.

It's almost parody; Klein attributes to me (and then spends paragraphs hysterically railing against) a point I not only did not make but (anticipating that distortion) explicitly said was one I was not making.  Klein adds:  "For Greenwald, it seems, any honest political disagreement always winds up with charges of corruption and decadence."  No, not "any" -- just some, and yes:  I believe people like Goldberg who spouted blatant, unrecanted falsehoods and helped trigger a horrific war that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of human beings -- or who smear other people by printing catty insults from their anonymous friends -- are guilty of "corruption and decadence," not a mere "honest political disagreement."  As for the rest of Klein's screed, his commenters, as always, do a quick and thorough job of demolishing it (see here and here as but two excellent examples).



Me:  "It should go without saying, but doesn't: the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions. It may or may not be, but that's irrelevant."

Jeffrey Goldberg, citing his friend Joe Klein, today

For those for whom it's not already glaringly obvious, just read Klein's own comment section -- or John Cole here -- to see how deliberately dishonest these two Iraq War cheerleaders are being, again.


UPDATE III: One thing about neocons and their lies, as we all saw over the last decade:  they just keep flowing no matter how discredited they are.  In a separate post entitled "A Brief Follow-Up on Glenn Greenwald's Nazi Analogy," Goldberg links to and quotes Yaacov Lozowick, author of the book "Right to Exist, A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars."  Lozowick repeats Klein and Goldberg's lie, writing in his first sentence:  "Glenn Greenwald today compared the Nazi invasion of Austria, the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia, with the American invasion of Iraq."  And Saddam really had WMD and a working relationship with Al Qaeda.

Lozowick also says I added updates debunking this lie only after "[h]aving seen the firestorm of protest [I] ignited."  Actually, knowing the intellectual dishonesty of people like Goldberg as well as I do (as anyone does who is familiar with his "reporting" in the run-up to the war and since), I anticipated that exact distortion in the body of my original post and explained in language as clear as the English language permits why no such comparison was being made.  And the only so-called "firestorm" is from war supporters Joe Klein and his friend Jeff Goldberg; the rest of the commenting Internet -- particularly Klein's own commenters almost unanimously (literally all 90 who commented, and I really recommend reading what they have to say) -- all easily recognize this silly smear ("Glenn Greenwald compared the U.S. and the Kurds to the Nazis!!!") for the transparent and laughable falsehood that it is.  This little sideshow from Jeff and his friends is all just designed to distract from the actual issues raised here about the depravity of Goldberg's Iraq war justifications and the guilt of those like him who enabled it and cheered it on.


UPDATE IV: Predictably, war cheerleader Jonathan Chait has joined his fellow war supporters Joe Klein and Jeff Goldberg in promoting Klein's original lie of my "comparison of the Kurds to the Sudetan Germans."  When you're the subject of lame and fabricated smears by the neocon fabulists who cheered on the Iraq War, you know you're doing something right.


UPDATE V: International Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller explains why the Klein/Goldberg/Lozowick/Chait accusation is "patently ridiculous and can only be explained as deliberate misrepresentations of [my] post." And as for the ancillary though ironic attempt by Lozowick and Goldberg to minimize Hitler's crimes by insisting that he never "invaded" Czechoslovakia and Austria, see Heller's explanation for what the Nurmeberg Trials found on that question (exactly the opposite of the Goldberg/Lozowick claim), as well as Brad DeLong's evidence

Notice the true intent of these war supporters:  don't examine the justifications we offer for what we did; look over there instead:  he's an unpatriotic Kurd-hater who is comparing the U.S. to The Nazis!!!!!  I don't blame them for wanting to use shrill smears in order to distract attention from what they did and what they now say to justify it -- if you had their record of advocacy, wouldn't you? -- but it doesn't work when it's grounded in such a transparent distortion.


UPDATE VI:  More here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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