A lot of people want to believe that the current war on Iraq is some kind of aberration -- a radical departure from the previous baseline of U.S. foreign policy. That's a comforting illusion.
Yes, the current administration in Washington is notable for the extreme mendacity and calculated idiocy of its claims. But -- decade after decade -- the propaganda fuel for one U.S. war after another has flowed from a standard set of lies.
Some of the boilerplate lies are implicit assumptions about Uncle Sam's benign and even noble intent. Other deceptions rely on more specific whoppers, endlessly whirling through the news media's spin cycle. From one war to the next, certain themes are played up more than others -- but the process always involves building an agenda to start a war, trying to justify the war while it's underway, and then claiming that the war must continue as long as the man in the Oval Office says so.
Sometimes a war begins suddenly, filling the national horizon with a huge insistent flash. At other times, over a period of months or years, a low distant rumble gradually turns into a roar. But in any event, the democratic role of citizens is not simply to observe and obey. In the United States, what we think is supposed to matter. And for practical reasons, top officials in Washington don't want to seem too far out of step with voters.
The president leads a siege of public opinion on the home front -- a battleground where media spin is the main weapon. A media campaign for hearts and minds at home means going all-out to persuade us that the latest war is as good as a war can be -- necessary, justified, righteous and worth any sorrows to be left in its wake.
Along the way, media outlets routinely march to the drumbeat of key themes:
* America Is a Fair and Noble Superpower
* Our Leaders Will Do Everything They Can to Avoid War
* Our Leaders Would Never Tell Us Outright Lies
* This Guy Is a Modern-Day Hitler
* This Is About Human Rights
* This Is Not at All About Oil or Corporate Profits
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* They Are the Aggressors, Not Us
* If This War Is Wrong, Congress Will Stop It
* If This War Is Wrong, the Media Will Tell Us
* Media Coverage Brings War Into Our Living Rooms
* Opposing the War Means Siding With the Enemy
* This Is a Necessary Battle in the War on Terrorism
* What the U.S. Government Needs Most Is Better PR
* The Pentagon Fights Wars as Humanely as Possible
* Our Soldiers Are Heroes, Theirs Are Inhuman
* America Needs the Resolve to Kick the "Vietnam Syndrome"
* Withdrawal Would Cripple U.S. Credibility
In a society with significant aspects of democracy, persistent spin is necessary to gain and retain public support for war. The war-makers rely on "perception management" techniques that effectively promote certain themes; the better we understand those ongoing themes, the more clearly we'll be able to see through them. Such understanding can blow away the fog of media war and enhance democratic participation in decisions that are truly matters of life and death.