Concerning Iraq, most mainstream American media now stand guilty of failing to raise the issue of aggressive war.
On September 20, 2002, George W. Bush told Congress that under his presidency the United States can and will attack nations of his selection even though they are not about to attack us. Since that day the issue crying out for public discussion and debate, dwarfing all others in urgency and importance, is whether the United States should wage wars of aggression. Beginning March 19, when, on Bush’s order the U.S. military began bombing Iraq and then invaded it from Kuwait, the United States did in fact commit an aggressive war in violation of the United Nations Charter.
“All members shall refrain . . . from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” says the Charter, which became the law of the United States when our Senate adopted it, 89–2, in 1945. Under Article 51 of that Charter, attacking in self-defense is justified only “if an armed attack occurs” against a nation. Iraq had not attacked the United States, contrary to the widely believed lie that Saddam Hussein was behind Al Qaeda and 9/11. There is no evidence for that.
The major television networks have focused on whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, which was not the real question in this war, and never on whether the United States should wage a premeditated war of aggression, which is. Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids and his Fox network, calling our troops liberators instead of invaders, waved the flag while we bombed and conquered. Name even one leading American newspaper that has editorialized against the United States committing aggressive war against Iraq or any other nation. Scrutinize waffling editorial after waffling editorial in the New York Times on the subject of whether to attack Iraq—the subject of aggressive war was never even mentioned, even in the Times’ last-moment editorial finally opposing invasion without U.N. sanction. The Washington Post crusaded in favor of this criminal war. The Wall Street Journal, in its jingoistic ecstasy about attacking Iraq, all but posted a list of the traitors who oppose it. Clear Channel Communi cations, which owns 1,214 U.S. radio stations, stopped airplay of a singer who criticizes Bush and let a right-wing disc jockey use air time to organize pro-war rallies.
And all this while, as the venerable Tom Wicker writes, the question, “Does a U.S. President really have the power to ‘make war at pleasure’?” is “seldom being asked by an American press that seems sometimes to be playing on the administration team.”
To be sure, the government no longer bans reporters from the war zone and propagandizes the American people with canned footage that turns out to be misleading and manipulative, as Bush I did during Gulf War I. Commendably, the government under Bush II, wanting our troops to be properly appreciated back home and expecting the war to be a triumphal “cakewalk” as Iraqis greeted us with flowers and outpourings of joy, attached six hundred reporters to various fighting units in exchange for the reporters’ agreement to rules that protected the troops and military secrets. Some of these reporters pushed the U.S. military’s storyline, but many of them have given us honest reports on what they saw or learned, and all risked their lives.
For example, two days after a suicide bomber in a car killed four U.S. troops, a Toyota packed with fifteen civilians barreled toward a checkpoint intersection near Karbala, south of Baghdad. U.S. Army guys poured half a dozen rounds into it, killing five children and four or five adults. A soldier said the driver had ignored two warning shots. William Branigin’s eyewitness report on the incident in the Washington Post on April l fingered a captain who had excitedly goaded his men to fire, but who, when he realized what had happened, blamed their platoon leader, roaring at him, “You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough!” According to a story by Dexter Filkins in the New York Times of April 6, in another such incident, in which six members of a family in a mini-bus were killed at a checkpoint, “one Marine, according to witnesses there, began to cry.” A Times story on April 14 tells of the killing of six daughters in a single family by an American missile.
The truth of war is blood and death, and reports like these give us some of that truth. On April 5, sixty tanks and other armored vehicles rolled through Baghdad, a city of five million. While taking light casualties, by U.S. military estimates those forces killed between two and three thousand Iraqis, not counting civilians, although civilians were also killed. As a matter of policy the Pentagon refused to provide any estimates of how many innocents or how many Iraqi fighters we were killing and wounding, even as we continued flying eight hundred to one thousand bombing sorties every day of the war.
If the UN had sanctioned the attack on Iraq, that might have made new international law in favor of collective action to disarm a state whose leader, with the silent and consenting knowledge of the United States, had used chemical weapons against Iranians and Kurds. But without UN sanction, which the Security Council refused to give, the attack on Iraq was a war of aggression, and the killings that we, Britain, and Australia committed are war crimes.
The dismissal of NBC correspondent Peter Arnett because of an interview that he gave to official Iraqi media, which raised serious journalistic issues, also clearly demonstrated that, in a war, reporters are expected to behave as citizens of their countries first and reporters second. But Branigin and Filkins prove that courageous reporters can send some of the most painful truth back home. And the very concept that our reporters are “embedded” with U.S. military units should help Americans see that we are all now embedded together: per the dictionary at my hand, we are “fixed firmly in a surrounding mass” or “enclosed snugly or firmly” in the waging of a war of aggression.
How could Bush have been permitted to conjure up and declare an attack-first doctrine of aggressive war as national policy and then, in speech after speech, use Saddam’s villainy to shove us into launching an illegal and therefore murderous war against a nation one-twelfth our size? How could a free and democratic people consent to our young people and our weapons being used to attack a nation that neither attacked us nor was poised to? How could our mainstream media have so totally failed us in this historic moral crisis?
The causes appears to include citizen and journalistic ignorance or disregard of international law, the corporate domination of main-stream journalism, more cowardice than courage among the people and in the Congress, and knee-jerk nationalism.
But the outcome, the reality now—the conversion of the United States into a nation waging aggressive war and poised to launch new such wars on Iran, Syria, and North Korea—is so all-affecting that we may take it as a sign that American democracy is in danger of death. Instead of leading efforts to end nuclear weapons on Earth, we are driving more nations to get them to defend themselves against us. Probably, as you read this, the American “killout” in Iraq is over. But if we celebrate that crime as a righteous victory, and Bush then orders more aggressive wars with the apparent consent of Congress, the mainstream media, and the majority of the people, we will have damned ourselves in history.
Ronnie Dugger, a reporter, writer, and social-structure activist, has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson (Norton, 1973) and Ronald Reagan (McGraw-Hill, 1983), as well as other books and countless articles in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Nation, the Atlantic, and so on. He was founding editor of the Texas Observer and co-founder of the Alliance for Democracy.