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Published on Wednesday, June 23, 2004 by
Iraq: 1984
by Michael Reid

Recently, American military central command in Iraq (CENTCOM) has, in one of the occupation's more astoundingly Orwellian maneuvers, taken to calling resistance fighters in Iraq "anti-Iraqi" forces. The logic, I suppose, is that the U.S. occupation is so unquestionably benevolent that forces fighting against it must, by their nature, be anti-Iraqi.

This isn't the first time the resistance forces in Iraq have been rebranded in an apparent effort to change public perception about the war and those fighting it; (ironically, the plans to invade and occupy Iraq were called, by their designers, "anti-Iraq" strategies as early as last year). The editorial board of the L.A. Times late last year, with others following suit, issued a directive for their reporters to stop calling the resistance fighters...well, just that-resistance fighters--and to start calling them "insurgents" or "guerillas," saying that the term resistance fighters invoked images of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Another attempt to manage public perception has been the ongoing Pentagon directive to not photograph the returning coffins of American soldiers. So seriously intentioned is this directive that Tami Silicio, a photographer whose photo of these coffins was run in the Seattle Times, lost her job. In explaining the Pentagon directive, a U.S. government media spokesman in Iraq said that this was a war of ideas and information, and it was understandable that the Pentagon would want to control the flow of information as much as possible.

Rebranding of the opposing sides in a conflict is nothing new in warfare, nor are the "Ministry of Truth" tactics so favored by successive administrations, this only being, arguably, one of the boldest. In fairness, one must also note that even the mainstream media seem to be shy of this latest attempt at branding by CENTCOM, perhaps because they recognize blatant "Newspeak," or perhaps just because it's too confusing. (If the forces fighting the coalition are anti-Iraqi, then the coalition must be pro-Iraqi.but the "anti-Iraqi" forces are actually from Iraq, with few exceptions, so the coalition can't be pro all Iraqis). Whether or not the mainstream media are biting on this particular piece of propaganda, however, it would behoove us all to boil the purpose of the propagandizing down to its essential elements, if only for the sake of our collective memories and communal sanity.

What indeed is the purpose of propaganda, of spin, of selective censorship? What is really being accomplished through this control of the flow of information? Nothing less than the control of not only the flow of, but indeed the very formation of ideas. The L.A. Times directive essentially stated that certain terms were to be avoided so as not to create undesirable associations in the mind of the public. This becomes truly frightening when we realize that the desirability of these associations is based not on their accuracy or confirmability, but on their potential psychological impact, and, presumably, this psychological impact is judged on how likely it is to create or crystallize dissent.

This leads us into the murky world of, as Noam Chomsky calls it, manufactured consent. Both "democratic" and totalitarian regimes concern themselves with the mood and attitudes of their respective publics. But a democratic regime, being unable to resort to the blatant repression and intimidation available to the totalitarian systems, has to concern itself to a far greater degree with the mental state of its populace, replacing prison terms with societal disincentives, and overt repression with coercion. This is a far more elegant system, one of distortions, omissions and lies, underpinned by and directly supporting a key feature of democratic thought control: the central inviolable presumption of the benevolence of the regime. This presumption is so ingrained as to make its adoption a prerequisite to being taken seriously in any mainstream debate.

It is this belief that allows us to laud our freedom when the state police don't automatically come to our door when we voice a dissenting opinion, and at the same time keeps us from pausing to consider how many opinions go unformed as a result of the information to form them having never been given, or having been given in such a distorted way so as to render it meaningless.

So the problem is two-fold: the media, through its adherence to the central doctrine of the American state religion -- patriotism -- presents information in such a way so as not to violate that doctrine, and in doing so further perpetuates the acceptance of that doctrine. Truly, it is a vicious information loop, from which there seems to be no clear way to disentangle ourselves except unflinching acceptance of the truth.

But disentangle ourselves we must, if we are ever to create the futures that we seek. We must be fearless inquisitors of the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that truth may be. From the coffins of U.S. soldiers, to the nomenclature of the resistance, if this truly is a war of information and ideas, we should, as citizens in an alleged and ever more endangered democracy, be amply and proactively given access to all the information out there, so that we may make informed decisions and either guide our representatives in the direction we see fit or, perhaps more constructively, take direct action ourselves.

But we must also be able to comprehend what the information we receive means. Not allowing us access to information on the grounds that it may cause us to react in a way that the administration deems troubling is profoundly chilling. More chilling still is the inability to perceive these intentions and their likely consequences. We must begin not just to act, but to think, for there is no better slave than the one who believes his slavery to be freedom, and we are in no greater peril than when we cannot see the chains on our minds because there are yet no chains on our feet.

Michael Reid is an educator and writer in Washington State. He can be reached at


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