It didn’t start with Iraq: A review of the film War Made Easy
By Robert Jensen
Published in Monthly Review Online · September, 2007
When George Bush began trying to justify the occupation of Iraq by invoking the “lessons” of Vietnam, I had the urge to send him a copy of the new documentary War Made Easy featuring Norman Solomon. That’s hardly surprising — no doubt we’ve all had the occasional desire to try to educate our president.
Then as I read and listened to the responses from mainstream pundits — most of whom missed the real insights to be gained by analyzing the U.S. invasion of Southeast Asia and the relevance of that history to our invasion and occupation of Iraq — I realized a whole lot of allegedly smart people need to see the film.
But the real mark of the film’s value is that everyone — even those of us who think of ourselves as well-informed with a critical framework — can learn much from Solomon’s analysis in the film and his book by the same name. At a time when it’s more crucial than ever to understand the post-World War II era in which the United States became a permanent warfare state, Solomon’s film and book hone in on one of the key features of that project: the propaganda aimed at us in the United States is as important to that military-industrial project as the guns trained on people in the Third World.
The goal of that propaganda is to get people to believe a claim that is contradicted by all of history and contemporary experience: the objective of the United States in its military interventions around the world has been not to expand and deepen economic domination (which has been the goal of all other empires) but to bring peace, freedom, and democracy to the world. U.S. officials are not the first in world history to assert such noble motives for such inhuman policies (just ask the Brits), but never has that claim been made so relentlessly, with so much help from allegedly independent journalists.
“War becomes perpetual when it’s used as a rationale for peace,” Solomon says in the film, and then goes on to provide ample evidence of how the justification for perpetual war has been manufactured, packaged, and sold. If it weren’t such serious business, the producers’ collection of sound bites from presidents — Democrats and Republicans alike, all mouthing some version of “We Seek Peace” — would be comical. From Korea through every conflict up to Iraq, the rhetoric is remarkable similar, as are the real aims and the deadly consequences of the policy.
Solomon’s target is not just the politicians, however, but the journalists who become the vehicle for selling that story. His work reminds us that even when journalists seem to be reporting critically about failed war policies, they almost always implicitly endorse U.S. officials’ underlying claim about the desire for peace and democracy.
While the film covers all the conflicts in the post-WWII period, it is the Vietnam/Iraq parallels that are most chilling. One of the most crucial to remember — in defiance of the distorted revisionist history that suggests the U.S. public lost its will to support the Vietnam War because of relentlessly critical news coverage — is that journalists were largely supportive of the war in the early years. Not until the failures on the battlefield were too obvious to ignore did the media coverage abandon the administrations’ propaganda line.
The producers of this film have used archival footage brilliantly, and one of the most illustrative clips is of Walter Cronkite in 1965 climbing into a B-57 to go along on a bombing run. In the breathless fashion typical of so much war reporting, Cronkite extols the virtue of the airplane and the thrill of the mission. Viewers see him get off the plane and say to the officer he’s about to interview, “Well, colonel, it’s a great way to go to war.”
After the Tet Offensive in 1968 Cronkite would declare the war “mired in stalemate,” and so he’s remembered as a critic of the war. But like most of the press corps he first was enthusiastic about U.S. power, and even in that famous 1968 broadcast he didn’t challenge the basic propaganda story about the so-called Communist threat.
That segment also reminds us that journalists have long expressed a giddy, almost childlike, fascination with the increasingly high-tech weapons with which these wars have been fought. Journalists, it seems, are always suckers for machines that go fast and blow things up. Solomon suggests that there’s “a kind of idolatry there. Some might see it as a worship of the gods of metal.” This technology fetish reached unimaginably sick levels in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the news media flooded us with high-tech graphics and retired military officers offering commentary.
Solomon reminds us that for all the talk about precision weapons, the percentage of deaths that are civilians has climbed steadily from 10 percent in World War I to almost 90 percent in Iraq. He describes how “an acculturated callousness” to the effects of massive bombardment has built up in our society, facilitated to a large extent by journalists who are more likely to focus on how a weapon works than what it does to victims. One of the film’s most poignant scenes comes when images of those victims are shown over the voice of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld waxing eloquent about the unprecedented humanitarianism of this “precision” bombing.
But back to Vietnam and Bush’s bizarre analogy, in which he suggested that the United States’ mistake was not invading another country to block a popular leftist government that had been on the verge of winning a fair election. No, it turns out that our mistake was leaving an immoral and unwinnable war too soon.
When I asked Solomon last week for his reaction to Bush’s comparison, he pointed out that Bush was invoking a familiar “stab-in-the-back theme” to assert that a lack of resolve at home undermined the military effort, to bolster the idea that with continued support, “this time the USA can, and must, see the war through to its appropriately triumphant conclusion.” But the possibility of such a victory in Iraq is about as likely as it was in Vietnam, in large part because each war was morally bankrupt from the start.
It was the same game during the Vietnam War, Solomon said, pointing to news footage from War Made Easy of a network TV announcer saying, “Appealing for public support for his peace policy, Mr. Nixon said, ‘The enemy cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans,’ he said, ‘can do that.’”
Perhaps we have not really been defeated and humiliated by either the enemy or ourselves, but by leaders who have created this warfare state and journalists who have helped sell it to the public. War Made Easy is a useful tool for progressive educators and activists who want to redefine peace and end a state of perpetual war.
War Made Easy was produced and distributed by the Media Education Foundation. For their entire catalog, go to: mediaed.org/.