Killing Them Softly
The Pentagon’s air drops of food parcels and President Bush’s plea for American children to aid Afghan kids with dollar bills will go down in history as two of the most cynical maneuvers of media manipulation in the early 21st century.
Many U.S. news outlets have been eager to play along. A New York Times editorial proclaimed that “Mr. Bush has wisely made providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people an integral part of American strategy.” Four days later, on Oct. 12, the same newspaper still had nothing but praise for the U.S. government’s food aid charades: “His reaffirmation of the need for humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan–including donations from American children–seemed heartfelt.”
While thousands of kids across the United States stuff dollar bills into envelopes and mail them to the White House, the U.S. government continues a bombing campaign that is accelerating the momentum of mass starvation in Afghanistan.
Relief workers have voiced escalating alarm. Jonathan Patrick, an official with the humanitarian aid group Concern, minced no words. He called the food drops “absolute nonsense.”
“What we need is 20-ton trucks in huge convoys going across the border all the time,” said Patrick, who is based in Islamabad. But when the bombing began, truck traffic into Afghanistan stopped.
In tandem with the bombing campaign, the U.S. government launched a PR blitz about its food-from-the-sky effort. But the Nobel-winning French organization Doctors Without Borders has charged that the gambit is “virtually useless and may even be dangerous.” One aid group after another echoes the assessment. The U.S. has been dropping 37,000 meals a day on a country where several million Afghans face the imminent threat of starvation. Some of the food, inevitably, is landing on minefields.
The food drops began on Sunday, Oct. 7, simultaneous with the start of the bombing. “As of Thursday, a Pentagon spokeswoman said more than 137,000 of the yellow-packaged rations had been dropped,” the Knight-Ridder News Service reported on Oct. 12. “International aid organization officials say, however, that around five million Afghans are in danger of starvation because the nation’s borders are sealed and food supplies are diminishing by the day–meaning that only a tiny percentage of the hungry are receiving the U.S. food.” The borders are sealed because of the continuous bombing.
Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t worried about provoking appropriate derision and outrage when he told reporters on Oct. 8: “It is quite true that 37,000 rations in a day do not feed millions of human beings. On the other hand, if you were one of the starving people who got one of the rations, you’d be appreciative.”
Avowedly, the main targets of the bombing are the people in the Bin Laden network and their Taliban supporters. But the rhetorical salvoes will be understood, all too appropriately, in wider contexts. “We will root them out and starve them out,” Rumsfeld said, just before closing a news conference with a ringing declaration: “We are determined not to be terrorized.”
Unlike the media herd, longtime foreign correspondent Robert Fisk is exploring key questions. “President Bush says this is a war between good and evil,” he writes in the London-based Independent. “You are either with us or against us. But that’s exactly what Bin Laden says. Isn’t it worth pointing this out and asking where it leads?”
Fisk asks other questions that aren’t ready for prime time: “Why are we journalists falling back on the same sheep-like conformity that we adopted in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo war?… Is there some kind of rhetorical fog that envelops us every time we bomb someone?”
In wartime, media accounts seem to zigzag between selected facts and easy sentimentality. Michael Herr, who covered the Vietnam War, later wrote that the U.S. media “never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about.” Obscured by countless news stories, “the suffering was somehow unimpressive.” Accustomed to seeing its military might as self-justifying, the USA powered ahead. “We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality,” Herr observed. “Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.”
In its Oct. 12 editorial, headlined “Mr. Bush’s New Gravitas,” The New York Times concluded that the current president is providing exactly the kind of leadership we need: “As he reflected on the sorrow, compassion and determination that have swept the country since those horrifying hours on the morning of Sept. 11, he seemed to be a leader whom the nation could follow in these difficult times.”
Among the leadership qualities most appreciated by editorial writers is the administration’s aptitude for shameless propaganda. While the Pentagon drops tons of bombs, it scatters some meals to the winds. While the U.S. government persists with a bombing campaign that shows every sign of resulting in mass starvation, the president urges the young people of the United States to send in dollar bills–”to join in a special effort to help the children of Afghanistan.”
Norman Solomon writes a syndicated column on media and politics. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.