Bush and Rumsfeld are picture
perfect at a Memorial Day event.
With Eye on E2k4 White House
Manipulates Iraq News, Images
[May 31, 2004 evote.com]
American leaders have
a long history of influencing the images of war as propaganda to push
war fever upon the masses—and the people of the United States have a
history of rejecting war, or being less inclined to wage it, because of
those same war images. The battle over images, pictures or words has
long been an important part of the war on the battlefields, as the two
are fought simultaneously. Since antiquity, every war in every country
has had two fronts, of pens and spears.
Images of war have been
smothered in some cases by past administrations, and promoted by others.
Bush is using both strategies: smothering and promotion, depending on
the political wind. While the death of four civilians in Fallujah
received almost no comment, President Bush was front and center in
offering the Berg family his condolences.
A History of
WWII publications claimed that military news was being "dry-cleaned" by
the government, which had yet to release a single picture of an American
military death. President Roosevelt feared such images would erode
support for the war. This was the same policy in place during World War
I during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, which also
censored all such images throughout the war.
In 1942 there were rumors
that a nervous administration was planting informants in newsrooms and
tapping reporter’s telephones. War photographers often had to send their
unexposed rolls of film to the Pentagon for processing.
Towards the end of WWII
the White House reversed its policy and encouraged the publication of
American military dead to spur more war fever, self sacrifice at home
and decrease absenteeism in factories.
Images from Somalia turned
America's collective stomach sour on 'peacekeeping'.
Vietnam, Somalia Harder to Suppress
During the Vietnam War, television for the first time played a
significant role in turning Americans against a conflict, as they could
then see it diurnally and often more graphically inside their homes.
Opinion was swayed again with the image of Lt. William Calley as he was
court-martialed for massacring 504 civilians on March 16, 1968 in the
hamlet of My Lai.
The new Clinton
administration in 1993 virtually abandoned its Somalian peacekeeping
initiatives soon after a filmed Mogadishu mob killed US soldiers and
hauled the corpses through the streets, unnerving and dismaying the
President George Bush is
continuing the long American tradition of militantly corrupting the
images of this latest military conflict. Bush’s concern is not just the
American people’s desire to engage in warfare, but his reelection too.
The Iraqi occupation
could easily be the deciding issue facing voters in November, with
Bush’s approval ratings dropping largely because of the guerilla war.
Indeed, a recent poll by John Zogby predicted a 102-point Kerry
electoral victory if the election was held the day the poll was taken.
The Bush family dynasty is on the line in the Iraqi desert.
Tragedies, Two Different Bush Reactions
And with the race for the presidency now at a full gallop, Bush is
determined to set the Iraqi war images to his advantage.
Bush had two very
different public reactions to two recent Iraqi abominations. The
incidents demonstrate how the president uses the image of a tragedy to
his advantage. One was the film of the beheading of American civilian
Nicholas Berg; and the other was the four American civilians who worked
for Blackwater Security Consulting of Moyock, N.C. and were ambushed and
killed west of Baghdad in Fallujah.
A cheering mob torched
the contractors’ vehicles, dragged their charred corpses through the
streets and then strung two of them from an iron bridge over the
Plug 'Nick Berg' into Google and
you'll find more conspiracy theory websites than actual news
on the incident.
Bush Plays Down
On April 1 the Washington Post reported the president did not speak
directly of the Fallujah killings, which occurred the day before and
dominated that day’s television news, despite his address before a
fundraiser during the evening of the tragedy.
Bush instead let his
officials condemn the mutilations as “horrific,” with his press
secretary Scott McClellan saying, "The best way to honor those who have
lost their lives is to continue to show resolve in the face of these
cowardly, hateful acts.” During the next few weeks Bush would say very
little about the Fallujah atrocity.
Political analysts said
the new images of charred bodies being beaten, dragged by a donkey cart
and hung from a bridge could increase public wariness about U.S.
involvement in Iraq.
"The (American) public
has stood by their decisions on Iraq, more or less, although there has
been some decline in support in the face of unexpected casualties,"
reportedly said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "The
question is whether the power of these pictures and the view that we're
so hated over there will change public opinion."
In other words, Bush knew
the burning of the bodies of four U.S. government contractors would
anger America and lessen support for the war and his candidacy. So his
response was as limited as possible with the hope the news would pass
by, quickly forgotten.
No help from CNN. While FOX and
MSNBC showed a solemn Bush at the traditional Memorial Day
wreath hanging, CNN showed a firefight in Kufa.
Bush got help from the hawkish and pro-Republican Fox News Channel.
Although other networks aired wide-angle shots of the attack, and
pictures of crowds cheering and vehicles burning, Fox decided to not to
show pictures of the bodies being dragged or burning or hung from a
"We thought it might be
too graphic," reportedly said Bill Shine, vice president of production
at Fox News. "We're on all day, and at any moment, we know kids can be
watching." Another consideration, he said, was that Fox was not sure the
victims' relatives had been notified before the images were broadcast.
The Berg Incident Played Up
But then came the horror of Nicholas Berg’s assassination—except this
time Bush played up the tragedy for the home town crowd during his
weekly radio address a full week after Berg’s headless body was found
May 8. “We must confront the enemy and stay on the offensive until these
killers are defeated," he said.
A few days earlier Bush
also reportedly said, “I want to express my condolences to the family
and friends of Nicholas Berg. Nicholas Berg was an innocent civilian who
was in Iraq to help build a free Iraq," Bush said. "There is no
justification for the brutal execution of Nicholas Berg -- no
"The actions of the
terrorists who executed this man remind us of the nature of the few
people who want to stop the advance of freedom in Iraq,” said Bush.
Bush did not personally
express his condolences to the families of the four killed in Fallujah,
or attend ANY soldier’s funeral since the start of the war. Actually, we
know why there is such a striking difference between Bush’s two public
responses for the two acts of enormity. It is all about image. It is all
about winning the presidency.
The Mission Accomplished banner
was a PR effort that backfired leading many to call Iraq
Bush talked at length about Nicholas Berg because he was trying to do
everything he could do to divert the American people’s attention away
from the media aftermath of the G.I. Monsters Ball at the Abu Ghraib
prison that was occurring simultaneously.
He needed to magnify
Berg’s tragedy to stop the prison scandal from becoming the Daisy Cutter
of Bush’s legacy, as credible allegations surfaced that the guards were
using criminal means to extract information on orders from the Pentagon
or White House.
Reaction from Congress Keeps Abu Ghraib
in the News
After viewing photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib that included forced sex,
brutality, sodomy with foreign objects (yet to be shown publicly), Rep.
Jane Harman (D-CA) reportedly said, “I saw cruel, sadistic torture.”
Sen. Ben Nighthorse
Campbell, a Colorado Republican who served as a military policeman with
the Air Force during the Korean War, called the guards “degenerates.”
The photographs have
added to a highly charged atmosphere on Capitol Hill where many
Democrats - including Al Gore and Colorado Reps. Diana DeGette and Mark
Udall, called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign or be
fired over the scandal. John Kerry said Rumsfeld should resign months
before the prison scandal became well known.
Not everyone reacted the
same way to the additional photos of humiliation and abuse of Iraqi
prisoners. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), said he thought "some
people are overreacting. The people who are against the war are using
this to their political ends.”
Provides Jolt, GOP Notices
Berg’s media attention helped the White House with damage control from
the prison abuse scandal. The beheading restored the link in the
public’s mind between al-Qaeda and Iraq that was part of the
justification for the war in the first place, even though that link is
more thematic than concrete. (Michael Higgins, an Irish Labour Member of
Parliament representing Galway West, says “al-Qaeda tried to kill (the
publicly secular) Saddam Hussein three times.”
Roy Blunt reportedly said regarding Berg, “it jolted everybody's memory
about why we were there in Iraq and who we're dealing with.”
Republicans all over the
country played up the Berg killing to the president’s advantage. Newt
Gingrich, the erstwhile Republican Speaker of the House, on ABC
television went out of his way to juxtapose the degree of immoral
difference between Berg and the prisoner abuse scandal. He did it for
Democrats Climb on the Berg Bandwagon
And the Berg beheading did have an effect on the American people’s
reaction to the prisoner abuse scandal, as Democrats soon began singing
the same tune as the Republicans. "If they think this (Berg) is going to
make us cut and run," said Charles Schumer, the liberal New York
senator, "they are dead wrong."
John Kerry described
Berg's killers as "people who have no values system", and softened his
condemnation of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Campaigning in Florida, he
repudiated a description of the prisons as "torture chambers" by his
close adviser, Ted Kennedy.
Having a bad news week? Show up in
a battle zone and change the headlines from 'X Dead' to
'President Serves Turkey'.
Recognize PR Issues in Berg Incident
Some groups opposed to America in the Middle East knew Berg’s murder
would have negative propaganda implications for the Arab world. One of
the few Arab groups to offer immediate condemnation of Berg's murder was
the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, a guerilla group to Arabs and a terrorist
group to the West.
It reportedly condemned
"this horrible act that has done very great harm to Islam and Muslims,"
but also was upset at the public relations implications.
"The timing of this act
that overshadowed the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in
occupation forces prisons is suspect timing that aims to serve the
American administration and occupation forces in Iraq," the statement
said. "(It) presents excuses and pretexts for their inhumane practices
against Iraqi detainees."
Berg Used for Al-Qaida PR, Too
But the al-Qaida elements that apparently murdered Berg may have
targeted their actions and video, not at the United States, but at
potential recruits in Muslim countries, increasing the anguish over
American policy and further embroiling Iraq in chaos.
"I think that video, like
others before it, was aimed at a Muslim rather than an American
audience," reportedly said Jim Phillips, an expert in terrorism and the
Middle East at the Heritage Foundation.
"They want to trumpet
their strength to Muslims, especially their core audience of
15-to-25-year-old male Muslims. They want to show them they are doing
something to resist the Americans or to punish the Americans, also to
avenge the humiliations Iraqis have suffered under Americans. It's kind
of a recruiting video."
Turnover of Power
Offers Bush an Out
Bush knows he needs to control the perception of Iraq in order to be
successful in November, but in the short term the Bush Administration
appears to have lost control of images and reactions to Iraq. While a
series of speeches planned to address Iraq issues, Bush will hand hold
American voters through the turnover of power on June 30.
It’s not a real turnover,
but the plan is already working to Bush’s advantage. News reports almost
always include the credo that “the U.S. and the U.N” are working towards
the June 30th date. Surely Bush is looking forward to having another
entity to hold responsible for any bad press on Iraq: the U.N. and
Iraq’s fledgling government.
[John Pike is a
veteran journalist based in Boston. He has been a guest commentator on
many radio stations and his articles have appeared in numerous
magazines, newspapers and web sites, including the Boston Globe, Reason
Magazine, Insight Magazine, Access Magazine and the Associated Press. He
is hoping this article gives him the best image as possible. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]