The Trump administration has assassinated Iran’s top military leader, Qassim Suleimani, and with the possibility of a serious escalation in violent conflict, it’s a good time to think about how propaganda works and train ourselves to avoid accidentally swallowing it.
The Iraq War, the bloodiest and costliest U.S. foreign policy calamity of the 21st century, happened in part because the population of the United States was insufficiently cynical about its government and got caught up in a wave of nationalistic fervor. The same thing happened with World War I and the Vietnam War. Since a U.S./Iran war would be a disaster, it is vital that everyone make sure they do not accidentally end up repeating the kinds of talking points that make war more likely.
Let us bear in mind, then, some of the basic lessons about war propaganda.
Things are not true because a government official says them.
I do not mean to treat you as stupid by making such a basic point, but plenty of journalists and opposition party politicians do not understand this point’s implications, so it needs to be said over and over. What happens in the leadup to war is that government officials make claims about the enemy, and then those claims appear in newspapers (“U.S. officials say Saddam poses an imminent threat”) and then in the public consciousness, the “U.S. officials say” part disappears, so that the claim is taken for reality without ever really being scrutinized. This happens because newspapers are incredibly irresponsible and believe that so long as you attach “Experts say” or “President says” to a claim, you are off the hook when people end up believing it, because all you did was relay the fact that a person said a thing, you didn’t say it was true. This is the approach the New York Times took to Bush administration allegations in the leadup to the Iraq War, and it meant that false claims could become headline news just because a high-ranking U.S. official said them. [UPDATE: here’s an example from Vox, today, of a questionable government claim being magically transformed into a certain fact.]
In the context of Iran, let us consider some things Mike Pence tweeted about Qassim Suleimani:
“[Suleimani] assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States… Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. The world is a safer place today because Soleimani is gone.”
It is possible, given these tweets, to publish the headline: “Suleimani plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats, says Pence.” That headline is technically true. But you should not publish that headline unless Pence provides some supporting evidence, because what will happen in the discourse is that people will link to your news story to prove that Suleimani was plotting imminent attacks.
To see how unsubstantiated claims get spread, let’s think about the Afghanistan hijackers bit. David Harsanyi of the National Review defends Pence’s claim about Suleimani helping the hijackers. Harsanyi cites the 9/11 Commission report, saying that the 9/11 commission report concluded Iran aided the hijackers. The report does indeed say that Iran allowed free travel to some of the men who went on to carry out the 9/11 attacks. (The sentence cut off at the bottom of Harsanyi’s screenshot, however, rather crucially says: “We have no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.”) Harsanyi admits that the report says absolutely nothing about Suleimani. But he argues that Pence was “mostly right,” pointing out that Pence did not say Iran knew these men would be the hijackers, merely that it allowed them passage.
Let’s think about what is going on here. Pence is trying to convince us that Suleimani deserved to die, that it was necessary for the U.S. to kill him, which will also mean that if Iran retaliates violently, that violence will be because Iran is an aggressive power rather than because the U.S. just committed an unprovoked atrocity against one of its leaders, dropping a bomb on a popular Iranian leader. So Pence wants to link Suleimani in your mind with 9/11, in order to get your blood boiling the same way you might have felt in 2001 as you watched the Twin Towers fall.
There is no evidence that either Iran or Suleimani tried to help these men do 9/11. Harsanyi says that Pence does not technically allege this. But he doesn’t have to! What impression are people going to get from helped the hijackers? Pence hopes you’ll conflate Suleimani and Iran as one entity, then assume that if Iran ever aided these men in any way, it basically did 9/11 even if it didn’t have any clue that was what they were going to do.
This brings us to #2:
Do not be bullied into accepting simple-minded sloganeering
Let’s say that, long before Ted Kaczynski began sending bombs through the mail, you once rented him an apartment. This was pure coincidence. Back then he was just a Berkeley professor, you did not know he would turn out to be the Unabomber. It is, however, possible, for me to say, and claim I am not technically lying, that you “housed and materially aided the Unabomber.” (A friend of mine once sold his house to the guy who turned out to be the Green River Killer, so this kind of situation does happen.)
Of course, it is incredibly dishonest of me to characterize what you did that way. You rented an apartment to a stranger, yet I’m implying that you intentionally helped the Unabomber knowing he was the Unabomber. In sane times, people would see me as the duplicitous one. But the leadup to war is often not a sane time, and these distinctions can get lost. In the Pence claim about Afghanistan, for it to have any relevance to Suleimani, it would be critical to know (assuming the 9/11 commission report is accurate) whether Iran actually could have known what the men it allowed to pass would ultimately do, and whether Suleimani was involved. But that would involve thinking, and War Fever thrives on emotion rather than thought.
There are all kinds of ways in which you can bully people into accepting idiocy. Consider, for example, the statement “Nathan Robinson thinks it’s good to help terrorists who murder civilians.” There is a way in which this is actually sort of true: I think lawyers who aid those accused of terrible crimes do important work. If we are simple-minded and manipulative, we can call that “thinking it’s good to help terrorists,” and during periods of War Fever, that’s exactly what it will be called. There is a kind of cheap sophistry that becomes ubiquitous:
- I don’t think Osama bin Laden should have been killed without an attempt to apprehend him. —> So you think it’s good that Osama bin Laden was alive?
- I think Iraqis were justified in resisting the U.S. invasion with force. —> So you’re saying it’s good when U.S. soldiers die?
- I do not believe killing other countries’ generals during peacetime is acceptable. —> So you believe terrorists should be allowed to operate with impunity.
I remember all this bullshit from my high school years. Opposing the invasion of Iraq meant loving Saddam Hussein and hating America. Thinking 9/11 was the predictable consequence of U.S. actions meant believing 9/11 was justified. Of course, rational discussion can expose these as completely unfair mischaracterizations, but every time war fever whips up, rational discussion becomes almost impossible. In World War I, if you opposed the draft you were undermining your country in a time of war. During Vietnam, if you believed the North Vietnamese had the more just case, you were a Communist traitor who endorsed every atrocity committed in the name of Ho Chi Minh, and if you thought John McCain shouldn’t have been bombing civilians in the first place then clearly you believed he should have been tortured and you hated America.
“If you oppose assassinating Suleimani you must love terrorists” will be repeated on Fox News (and probably even on MSNBC). Nationalism advocate Yoram Hazony says there is something wrong with those who do not “feel shame when our country is shamed”—presumably those who do not feel wounded pride when America is emasculated by our enemies are weak and pitiful. We should refuse to put up with these kinds of cheap slurs, or even to let those who deploy them place the burden of proof on us to refute them. (In 2004, Democrats worried that they did appear unpatriotic, and so they ran a decorated war veteran, John Kerry, for president. That didn’t work.)
Scrutinize the arguments
Here’s Mike Pence again:
“[Suleimani] provided advanced deadly explosively formed projectiles, advanced weaponry, training, and guidance to Iraqi insurgents used to conduct attacks on U.S. and coalition forces; directly responsible for the death of 603 U.S. service members, along with thousands of wounded.”
I am going to say something that is going to sound controversial if you buy into the kind of simple-minded logic we just discussed: Saying that someone was “responsible for the deaths of U.S. service members” does not, in and of itself, tell us anything about whether what they did was right or wrong. In order to believe it did, we would have to believe that the United States is automatically right, and that countries opposing the United States are automatically wrong. That is indeed the logic that many nationalists in this country follow; remember that when the U.S. shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, causing hundreds of deaths, George H.W. Bush said that he would never apologize for America, no matter what the facts were. What if America did something wrong? That was irrelevant, or rather impossible, because to Bush, a thing was right because America did it, even if that thing was the mass murder of Iranian civilians.
One of the major justifications for murdering Suleimani is that he “caused the deaths of U.S. soldiers.” He was thus an aggressor, and could/should have been killed. That is where people like Pence want you to end your inquiry. But let us remember where those soldiers were. Were they in Miami? No. They were in Iraq. Why were they in Iraq? Because we illegally invaded and seized a country. Now, we can debate whether (1) there is actually sufficient evidence of Suleimani’s direct involvement and (2) whether these acts of violence can be justified, but to say that Suleimani has “American blood on his hands” is to say nothing at all without an examination of whether the United States was in the right.
We have to think clearly in examining the arguments that are being made. Here’s the Atlantic‘s George Packer on the execution:
“There was a case for killing Major General Qassem Soleimani. For two decades, as the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, he executed Iran’s long game of strategic depth in the Middle East—arming and guiding proxy militias in Lebanon and Iraq that became stronger than either state, giving Bashar al-Assad essential support to win the Syrian civil war at the cost of half a million lives, waging a proxy war in Yemen against the hated Saudis, and repeatedly testing America and its allies with military actions around the region for which Iran never seemed to pay a military price.”
The article goes on to discuss whether this case is outweighed by the pragmatic case against killing him. But wait. Let’s dwell on this. Does this constitute a case for killing him? He assisted Bashar al-Assad. Okay, but presumably then killing Assad would have been justified too? Is the rule here that our government is allowed unilaterally to execute the officials of other governments who are responsible for many deaths? Are we the only ones who can do this? Can any government claim the right?
He assisted Yemen in its fight against “the hated Saudis.” But is Saudi Arabia being hated for good reason? It is not enough to say that someone committed violence without analyzing the underlying justice of the parties’ relative claims.
Moreover, assumptions are made that if you can prove somebody committed a heinous act, what Trump did is justified. But that doesn’t follow: Unless we throw all law out the window, and extrajudicial punishment is suddenly acceptable, showing that Suleimani was a war criminal doesn’t prove that you can unilaterally kill him with a drone. Henry Kissinger is a war criminal. So is George W. Bush. But they should be captured and tried in a court, not bombed from the sky. The argument that Suleimani was planning imminent attacks is relevant to whether you can stop him with violence (and requires persuasive proof), but mere allegations of murderous past acts do not show that extrajudicial killings are legitimate.
It’s very easy to come up with superficially persuasive arguments that can justify just about anything. The job of an intelligent populace is to see whether those arguments can actually withstand scrutiny.
Keep the focus on what matters
“The main question about the strike isn’t moral or even legal—it’s strategic.” — The Atlantic
“The real question to ask about the American drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was not whether it was justified, but whether it was wise” — The New York Times
“I think that the question that we ought to focus on is why now? Why not a month ago and why not a month from now?” — Elizabeth Warren
They’re going to try to define the debate for you. Leaving aside the moral questions, is this good strategy? And then you find yourself arguing on those terms: No, it was bad strategy, it will put “our personnel” in harms way, without noticing that you are implicitly accepting the sociopathic logic that says “America’s interests” are the only ones in the world that matters. This is how debates about Vietnam went: They were rarely about whether our actions were good for Vietnamese people, but about whether they were good or bad for us, whether we were squandering U.S. resources and troops in a “fruitless” “mistake.” The people of this country still do not understand the kind of carnage we inflicted on Vietnam because our debates tend to be about whether things we do are “strategically prudent” rather than whether they are just. The Atlantic calls the strike a “blunder,” shifting the discussion to be about the wisdom of the killing rather than whether it is a choice our country is even permitted to make. “Blunder” essentially assumes that we are allowed to do these things and the only question is whether it’s good for us.
There will be plenty of attempts to distract you with irrelevant issues. We will spend more time talking about whether Trump followed the right process for war, whether he handled the rollout correctly, and less about whether the underlying action itself is correct. People like Ben Shapiro will say things like:
“Barack Obama routinely droned terrorists abroad—including American citizens—who presented far less of a threat to Americans and American interests than Soleimani. So spare me the hysterics about ‘assassination.”
In order for this to have any bearing on anything, you have to be someone who defends what Obama did. If you are, on the other hand, someone who belives that Obama, too, assassinated people without due process (which he did), then Shapiro has proved exactly nothing about whether Trump’s actions were legitimate. (Note, too, the presumption that threatening “America’s interests” can get you killed, a standard we would not want any other country using but are happy to use ourselves.)
Consider three statements:
- “The top priority of a Commander-in-Chief must be to protect Americans and our national security interests. There is no question that Qassim Suleimani was a threat to that safety and security, and that he masterminded threats and attacks on Americans and our allies, leading to hundreds of deaths. But there are serious questions about how this decision was made and whether we are prepared for the consequences.”
- “Suleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans. But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict. Our priority must be to avoid another costly war.”
- “When I voted against the war in Iraq in 2002, I feared it would lead to greater destabilization of the country and the region. Today, 17 years later, that fear has unfortunately turned out to be true. The United States has lost approximately 4,500 brave troops, tens of thousands have been wounded, and we’ve spent trillions on this war. Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars. Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.”
These are statements made by Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, respectively. Note that each of them is consistent with believing Trump’s decision was the wrong one, but their emphasis is different. Buttigieg says Suleimani was a “threat” but that there are “questions,” Warren says Suleimani was a “murderer” but that this was “reckless,” and Sanders says this was a “dangerous escalation.” It could be that none of these three would have done the same thing themselves, but the emphasis is vastly different. Buttigieg and Warren lead with condemnation of the dead man, in ways that imply that there was nothing that unjust about what happened. Sanders does not dwell on Suleimani but instead talks about the dangers of new wars.
We have to be clear and emphatic in our messaging, because so much effort is made to make what should be clear issues appear murky. If, for example, you gave a speech in 2002 opposing the Iraq War, but the first half was simply a discussion of what a bad and threatening person Saddam Hussein was, people might actually get the opposite of the impression you want them to get. Buttigieg and Warren, while they appear to question the president, have the effect of making his action seem reasonable. After all, they admit that he got rid of a threatening murderer! Sanders admits nothing of the kind: The only thing he says is that Trump has made the world worse. He puts the emphasis where it matters.
I do not fully like Sanders’ statement, because it still talks a bit more about what war means for our people, but it does mention destabilization and the total number of lives that can be lost. It is a far more morally clear and powerful antiwar statement. Buttigieg’s is exactly what you’d expect of a Consultant President and it should give us absolutely no confidence that he would be a powerful voice against a war, should one happen. Warren confirms that she is not an effective advocate for peace. In a time when there will be pressure for a violent conflict, we need to make sure that our statements are not watery and do not make needless concessions to the hawks’ propaganda.
Imagine how everything would sound if the other side said it.
If you’re going to understand the world clearly, you have to kill your nationalistic emotions. An excellent way to do this is to try to imagine if all the facts were reversed. If Iraq had invaded the United States, and U.S. militias violently resisted, would it constitute “aggression” for those militias to kill Iraqi soldiers? If Britain funded those U.S. militias, and Iraq killed the head of the British military with a drone strike, would this constitute “stopping a terrorist”? Of course, in that situation, the Iraqi government would certainly spin it that way, because governments call everyone who opposes them terrorists. But rationality requires us not just to examine whether violence has been committed (e.g., whether Suleimani ordered attacks) but what the full historical context of that violence is, and who truly deserves the “terrorist” label.
Is there anything Suleimani did that hasn’t also been done by the CIA? Remember that we actually engineered the overthrow of the Iranian government, within living people’s lifetimes. Would an Iranian have been justified in assassinating the head of the CIA? I doubt there are many Americans who think they would. I think most Americans would consider this terrorism. But this is because terrorism is a word that, by definition, cannot apply to things we do, and only applies to the things others do. When you start to actually reverse the situations in your mind, and see how things look from the other side, you start to fully grasp just how crude and irrational so much propaganda is.
Watch out for euphemisms
- “It was not an assassination.” — Noah Rothman, conservative commentator
- “That’s an outrageous thing to say. Nobody that I know of would think that we did something wrong in getting the general.” — Michael Bloomberg, on Bernie Sanders’ claim that this was an “assassination”
Our access to much of the world is through language alone. We only see our tiny sliver of the world with our own eyes, much of the rest of it has to be described in words or shown to us through images. That means it’s very easy to manipulate our perceptions. If you control the flow of information, you can completely alter someone’s understanding of the things that they can’t see firsthand.
Euphemistic language is always used to cover atrocities. Even the Nazis did not say they were “mass murdering innocent civilians.” They said they were defending themselves from subversive elements, guaranteeing sufficient living space for their people, purifying their culture, etc. When the United States commits murder, it does not say it is committing murder. It says it is engaging in a stabilization program and restoring democratic rule. We saw during the recent Bolivian coup how easy it is to portray the seizure of power as “democracy” and democracy as tyranny. Euphemistic language has been one of the key tools of murderous regimes. In fact, many of them probably believe their own language; their specialized vocabulary allows them to inhabit a world of their own invention where they are good people punishing evil.
Assassination sounds bad. It sounds like something illegitimate, something that would call into question the goodness of the United States, even if the person being assassinated can be argued to have “deserved it.” Thus Rothman and Bloomberg will not even admit that what the U.S. did here was an assassination, even though we literally targeted a high official from a sovereign country and dropped a bomb on him. Instead, this is “neutralization.” (Read this fascinatingly feeble attempt by the Associated Press to explain why it isn’t calling an obvious assassination an assassination, just as the media declined to call torture torture when Bush did it.)
Those of us who want to resist marches to war need to insist on calling things exactly what they are and refuse to allow the country to slide into the use of language that conceals the reality of our actions.
Remember what people were saying five minutes ago
Five minutes ago, hardly anybody was talking about Suleimani. Now they all speak as if he was Public Enemy #1. Remember how much you hated that guy? Remember how much damage he did? No, I do not remember, because people like Ben Shapiro only just discovered their hatred for Suleimani once they had to justify his murder.
During the buildup to a war there is a constant effort to make you forget what things were like a few minutes ago. Before World War I, Americans lived relatively harmoniously with Germans in their midst. The same thing with Japanese people before World War II. Then, immediately, they began to hate and fear people who had recently been their neighbors.
Let us say Iran responds to this extrajudicial murder with a colossal act of violent reprisal, after the killing unifies the country around a demand for vengeance. They kill a high-ranking American official, or wage an attack that kills our civilians. Perhaps it will attack some of the soldiers that are now being moved into the Middle East. The Trump administration will then want you to forget that it promised this assassination was to “stop a war.” It will then want you to focus solely on Iran’s most recent act, to see that as the initial aggression. If the attack is particularly bad, with family members of victims crying on TV and begging for vengeance, you will be told to look into the face of Iranian evil, and those of us who are anti-war will be branded as not caring about the victims. Nobody wants you to remember the history of U.S./Iran relations, the civilians we killed of theirs or the time we destabilized their whole country and got rid of its democracy. They want you to have a two-second memory, to become a blind and unthinking patriot whose sole thought is the avenging of American blood. Resisting propaganda requires having a memory, looking back on how things were before and not accepting war as the “new normal.”
Listen to the Chomsky on your shoulder.
“It is perfectly insane to suggest the U.S. was the aggressor here.” — Ben Shapiro
They are going to try to convince you that you are insane for asking questions, or for not accepting what the government tells you. They will put you in topsy-turvy land, where thinking that assassinating foreign officials is “aggression” is not just wrong, but sheer madness. You will have to try your best to remember what things are, because it is not easy, when everyone says the emperor has clothes, or that Line A is longer than Line B, or that shocking people to death is fine, to have confidence in your independent judgment.
This is why I keep a little imaginary Noam Chomsky sitting on my shoulder at all times. Chomsky helps keep me sane, by cutting through lies and euphemisms and showing things as they really are. I recommend reading his books, especially during times of war. He never swallowed Johnson’s nonsense about Vietnam or Bush’s nonsense about Iraq. And of course they called him insane, anti-American, terrorist-loving, anti-Semitic, blah blah blah.
What I really mean here though is: Listen to the dissidents. They will not appear on television. They will be smeared and treated as lunatics. But you need them if you are going to be able to resist the absolute barrage of misinformation, or to hear yourself think over the pounding war drums. Times of War Fever can be wearying, because there is just so much aggression against dissent that your resistance wears down. This is why a community is so necessary. You may watch people who previously seemed reasonable develop a pathological bloodlust (mild-mannered moderate types like Thomas Friedman and Brian Williams going suck on our missiles). Find the people who see clearly and stick close to them.
Someday peace will prevail.