Media Spin Can Separate War From Death
by Norman Solomon
A dozen years after the Gulf War, public perceptions of it are now
very helpful to the White House. That's part of a timeworn pattern.
Illusions about previous wars make the next one seem acceptable. As George
Orwell observed: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls
the present controls the past."
It's not unusual to hear journalists and politicians say that the Gulf
War had few casualties. Considering the magnitude of media spin, that myth
is hardly surprising. "When the air war began in January 1991," recalls
Patrick J. Sloyan, who covered the Gulf War as a Newsday correspondent,
"the media was fed carefully selected footage by (Gen. Norman) Schwarzkopf
in Saudi Arabia and (Gen. Colin) Powell in Washington, DC. Most of it was
In an essay written as a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation
this year, Sloyan describes "limitations imposed on reporters on the
battlefield" in 1991: "Under rules developed by (Defense Secretary Dick)
Cheney and Powell, journalists were not allowed to move without military
escorts. All interviews had to be monitored by military public affairs
escorts. Every line of copy, every still photograph, every strip of film
had to be approved -- censored -- before being filed. And these rules were
As December 2002 began, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw told
readers: "Based on past performance, both by the current Bush
administration and by its immediate Republican predecessors, there's every
reason to think that if we go to war against Iraq, Washington will exert
more control over the media than ever before, using every tactic from
manipulation to deception to disinformation."
For the most part, mainstream news organizations are avid participants
in such deceit. Their objections are routinely feeble and belated.
Even when they occur, media critiques usually steer clear of moral
concern. They're much more likely to focus on false claims about technical
performances: whether "smart bombs" were truly accurate, whether cruise
missiles strayed off course, and so forth. But the greatest deception of
the Gulf War was far more profound. "In manipulating the first and often
most lasting perception of Desert Storm," wrote Sloyan, "the Bush
administration produced not a single picture or video of anyone being
killed. This sanitized, bloodless presentation by military briefers left
the world presuming Desert Storm was a war without death."
Now, the Pentagon is in gear for what a pull-out poster in the latest
Mad Magazine calls "Gulf Wars, Episode II." ("Production designed to
distract you from the failing economy. Produced by the military-industrial
complex in association with Exxon, Texaco, Mobil, et al.") A key reason
many Americans are inclined to go along with the next war is that Episode I
seemed like a pretty decent made-for-TV movie. Media references to "Desert
Storm" rarely dwell on -- or even mention -- the human losses during the
six-week period of the Gulf War.
But in his excellent new book "Tinderbox," scholar Stephen Zunes
points out: "Most estimates put the Iraqi death toll in the Gulf War in the
range of 100,000. Due to the increased accuracy of aerial warfare, the
proportion of Iraqi civilians killed was much less than it had been in
previous air campaigns. At the same time, because the bombing was the
heaviest in world history -- consisting of tens of thousands of sorties --
the absolute numbers were quite high. Most estimates of the civilian death
toll are approximately 15,000."
What are the likely human consequences of the impending war on Iraq?
News media should be asking that question. But the American public remains
in the dark.
"The avowed U.S. aim of regime change means any new conflict will be
much more intense and destructive than the Gulf War, and will involve more
deadly weapons developed in the interim," said a report issued last month
by health professionals with the London-based Medact organization and
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. They warned:
"Furthermore, the mental and physical health of ordinary Iraqis is far
worse than it was in 1991, making them much more vulnerable this time
The report found that "credible estimates of the total possible deaths
on all sides during the conflict and the following three months range from
48,000 to over 260,000. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000
deaths. Additional later deaths from post-war adverse health effects could
And here's another conclusion from the report that major U.S. news
outlets keep ignoring: "In all scenarios, the majority of casualties will
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The
Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated
column focuses on media and politics.
Note to online readers:
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