So now we are told by President Bush that the hostilities against Iraq have drawn to a close. Now, we’re told, with an imperious wave of the arm, this chapter has ended. And Americans are meant to feel closure and satisfaction over an event that few of us have been given much insight into.
From the buildup for the war to the bombing to the final days, Washington has constructed a simple, heroic narrative of freedom and asked us to ignore the much messier human devastation and tragedies of this war — stories that, sadly, have little to do with the heroic legend. There are angry outbursts against America across the Middle East, and most Americans have almost no idea why.
Trying to get the story straight on any of these recent events has been incredibly difficult. This war supposedly came about because Iraq has been hiding weapons of mass destruction. And yet the war has come and gone, revealing no such threatening cache. Saddam Hussein, it seems, has eluded capture. And another narrative — linking Hussein, on an almost subconscious level in the American psyche, with Osama bin Laden — has been fostered in the media in a deliberate attempt to justify and bolster support for the war. One fighter pilot said in a TV interview that flying over New York City reminded him of why we were in this war. And yet this connection is an artificial creation, maintained by the media and supported through innuendo and rumor — playing on Americans’ fears and revenge fantasies.
Our news programming has been instrumental in the marketing of this war, as I can attest from my own experience with the media. Because I’ve written about Iraqis in America, the interviewers turn their questions to the war on Iraq, but it’s clear that they’re interested in specific sorts of answers. One journalist who repeatedly asked me about “Arab rage” and the “innate Arab hatred of America” openly scoffed when I said that actually I’ve found that Arabs tend to admire Americans and American culture.
When I said on one radio show that I’ve traveled throughout the Middle East as an American, with American friends, and have felt nothing from the Arabs but friendship and hospitality, I received an e-mail from one listener who wrote, “Don’t you know that Arabs hate us? It’s all over the news.”
Of course, if Arabs are systematically portrayed as an essentially hate-filled people, that makes the marketing of a very expensive war and occupation much easier to manage.
Recently such publications as Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and Time featured glorious covers and photo spreads documenting images of jolly GIs playing Ping-Pong in Saddam Hussein’s palace, and supposedly joyous Iraqis throwing their arms around American soldiers. The alternative media, weeklies, online sites and foreign news services (which are often cast in the role of villain) offer a much grimmer picture of this war — but how many of us have time to read as widely as we want to or need to? Why should we, when Fox News regularly tells us that its news coverage is “fair and balanced” — a motto that’s just vague enough to include nearly any sort of political agenda?
And indeed, at a recent press conference, Gen. Tommy Franks, commenting on the firing of reporter Peter Arnett, stated that the news should be “fair and balanced.” Afterward, the Fox anchor underscored Frank’s comment, as if to tell viewers that the network had now been approved by the U.S. military. It seems to me that this is a development that should chill the blood of any truly objective journalist. Do we really want our news to be dictated by our military? Do we want it to be dictated by any one special interest group, or even by one side of a question?
In an op-ed piece in October, I urged readers to be courageous and direct in expressing their feelings and questions about Iraq. I was inundated with e-mails from people telling me about their fear of doing just that. Over and over people spoke of their fear of being labeled un-American, unpatriotic or, more recently, of being accused of not supporting the troops. This is not the sign of a free society.
This fearfulness strikes me as pernicious, because variety, complexity, even contradiction are signs of strength — in a person, in a family and certainly in a nation. Now we are presented not only with our own private fears but with the shrinking of our own media. If the world is ever going to close the fatal cracks opening up between nations and peoples, it’s crucial that we start questioning the omnipotence of our mainstream media, for all of us to ask for more searching queries about the true effectiveness of war and occupation, and to demand — of our media, our writers, our scholars and leaders — a narrative of Iraq and the United States that is more than a small sliver of the true story.