Wartime Confessions of a Talk Radio Heretic
This is the transcript of a speech Charles gave the night the Iraq War broke out, on March 19, 2003, before the Phoenix Economics Group in Phoenix, Arizona.
Now, with the benefit of ten years’ hindsight, see how well you think it holds up.
I left my radio studio this evening to be here just as President Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein expired. The bombing of Iraq, which has been going on more or less continuously since 1991, at this hour assumes a new intensity, joined by helicopter gunship attacks, and a ground invasion. A headline in the foreign press—I have after all become accustomed to getting my news from foreign press—screams, “Expecting Iraqi Mothers Rush to Give Birth Before War! Baghdad: The sound of screaming filled the maternity ward at the Elwiyah Hospital on Tuesday, as women rushed to give birth ahead of an impending U.S. invasion. Many pregnant women demanded to have Cesareans rather than risk delivering their babies during war, even though they were sometimes well short of their natural due date.”
Under the circumstances, there is little reason for me to yet again marshal the arguments against war as I have been doing on my daily radio talk show. In any event, the rationale for the war that America wants has shifted so many times thatone can hardly know which to refute: Is this war, in defiance of the wishes of the United Nations, a war to uphold the sacred honor of UN resolutions? But that seems logically inconsistent. Is it a war against Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? Or was that last year? Well, it could hardly be about 9/11 since the architects of this war had the blueprints finished years before the attack on America, even before the election of President Bush.
Perhaps we need the war for the good of the stock market as we’ve been told by some analysts. So far that hasn’t worked out too well and the long-term impact of this policy on the American economy and the dollar may hold some very unpleasant surprises. Any significance that Iraq’s oil riches can have for this war has been so vehemently denied, that one almost feels foolish believing there actually is oil beneath the ground of Iraq.
(Although I should say parenthetically that since oil certainly has nothing to do with it, I hardly know what to make of the 1998 letter to President Clinton urging America to war alone against Iraq because Saddam Hussein is a “hazard” to “a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil.” Those who signed that letter more than five years ago include current U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; a current Pentagon adviser, Richard Perle; Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State; John Bolton and Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretaries of State; Elliott Abrams, the presidential adviser for the Middle East and a member of the National Security Council; and Peter W. Rodman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. That’s a mighty impressive list of officials to have all been deluded about the presence of oil in Iraq.)
Perhaps the best reason for this war, or if not the best at least the latest reason for this war, is to liberate the Iraqi people. Yeah, liberation, that’s the ticket! We’ve been so very busy liberating people in the Middle East these many years, liberating these people from the difficulty of finding their own way by propping their shahs, sheiks, and sultans. Liberate Iraq, the way we liberated them in the Gulf War Part One when we encouraged them to revolt, incited revolution with broadcasts from our CIA posts in Cyprus. Liberate Iraq. Set the people free with Operation Shock and Awe. We wouldn’t want anybody getting loose with any weapons of mass destruction so let us open the heavens and rain down some 3,000 cruise missiles and bombs in the first 48 hours. And then there’s the new MOAB bomb—the Massive Ordinance Air Blast or Mother of All Bombs—21,000 pounds of explosives, more than ten tons of bomb. It flattens everything around leaving behind only a mushroom cloud. And a liberated Iraq.
This is how force rules. It has become a tried and true proposition. In Vietnam we had to destroy the village in order to protect it. In Waco we had to kill the children in order to save them. And in Iraq, we’re sorry, but it will be necessary to slaughter the people in order to liberate them.
Of course hand-in-hand with liberation of Iraq is democracy for the entire Middle East. Democracy. We believe in democracy. There’ll be democracy for everybody. Of course, when our representatives voted to pass the constitutional buck on the war, nobody had told them it was to bring democracy to the Middle East. And you wouldn’t want to put it to a vote in the United Nations General Assembly or even a vote of the Security Council. We’ll install democracy just as soon as the Palestinians quit choosing leaders we don’t like it. Democracy. Even if we have to underwrite the Generalissimo in Pakistan who tossed out the elected government. Democracy. Even if we have to spend billions to bribe the government of Turkey to betray its people, ninety percent of whom oppose this war. Even if we have to vilify European leaders for not defying their constituents who want no part of this war.
Well, you can understand how perplexing it is to enter the ring of public debate and wrestle with this shape-shifting rationale for war. You may be convinced that we are in a foreign adventure because Karl Rove discovered after 9/11 that Bush polls twenty points higher dressed in a bomber jacket. But no sooner do you have it pinned down fair and square than it morphs into something new. A new focus group shows three out of five Americans’ pupils dilate and palms sweat when Bush says, “My job is to protect the American people.” You know they’ve discovered a new phrase that pays when you hear it uttered in response to every question asked in White House press conferences. And if they really need a boost, the President will say it while actually wearing a bomber jacket. Aboard an aircraft carrier.
So then, war is a fait accompli. Mr. Bush shall have his bump in the polls like his father before him. His presidency, indeed by his own acknowledgment his life, is given meaning. But I am a lonely dissenter because I see this wolf of war walks on three legs: fear, deceit, and collectivism.
Since September 11, 2001, my industry—the news industry—and most particularly cable television news and talk radio have been in the fear business. With the exception of greed, there is nothing quite so motivating, no sell quite so easy as fear. And we’ve been selling it by the tank load.
I am in this business because I enjoy the bare-knuckles of debate about policy, lively discussion of issues, and a laugh about the foibles of our age. But the continual promotional announcements about mushroom clouds; the near-hysterical tone in which the most trivial developments are presented as breathtaking breaking news; the frenzied dance of government and news anchors, of official pronouncements and heightened alert levels, creates a weird symbiosis in which the media serves the state in its relentless grab for bigger budgets and greater police powers; while the state feeds the media’s need for high drama and the narcotic of fear.
The disproportionality of our continual state of alarm, our addiction to fear, is evident in the air traveler’s submission to utterly pointless and humiliating treatment; in the outbreak of panic at the presence of powdered donuts (whatever did happen to that anthrax investigation by the way, and will we have to bomb Maryland when the truth comes out?); and in the rush to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape—which resulted in more than one death by suffocation. We are witnessing a level of hysteria not seen in a generation, since bomb shelters and school children cowering under their desks.
This is not to say that proportionate measures are not needed in dangerous times, but fear of imminent attack is mesmerizing as we watch and listen and learn where the threat will erupt next. It brings in new viewers, creates extended time spent listening, and higher ratings.
Deceit has ever gone hand in glove with war. The Spanish-American War of 1898 and the suspicious circumstances of the sinking of the battleship Maine may be ancient history, but it shouldn’t be hard to recall the tale of Frederic Remington’s request to return home from Cuba because nothing was going on. He was famously told by his publisher William Randolph Hearst to remain. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” In no time the Hearst and Pulitzer press frenzy, on no evidence, had the public demanding intervention in Cuba.
Perhaps it is so that the truth comes out eventually, but as Napoleon said, the truth doesn’t need to be completely suppressed. It just needs to be delayed until it no longer matters. Does it matter any longer that after 59 years of cover-ups secret documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the extent of the President’s foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor? See Robert B. Stinnet’s Day of Deceit. If it matters to you.
I had Daniel Ellsburg on the show a few days ago, famed for risking prison to release the Pentagon Papers. He describes the deceit behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the act that gave Johnson the same unlimited authority to wage the Vietnam War that Bush has been given in the War on Terrorism. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The lie that became the pretext for the course of action that had already been designed. Sound familiar? Another gulf, another blueprint for war, drawn up well before the triggering event. If that doesn’t sound familiar, how about his from President Johnson: “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Half a million American boys overseas later and 58,000 dead, we have to wonder why anyone believed him. Couldn’t anyone at the time remember similar assurances from Wilson and FDR before their World Wars?
Those who do remember the deceit always vow not to get taken in the next time. “We won’t get fooled again!” But a generation later, we’re told that this time it’s different. It’s like the high-tech bubble. This is a whole new paradigm, or so the story goes. But reality, like the market, has a way of crashing in. It’s the same old paradigm. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Surely we should remember Bush the Elder telling a joint session of Congress of the threat to Saudi Arabia during the prelude to Gulf War I. The Defense Department—under the same officials pushing Gulf War II—the Defense Department was estimating there were as many as 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks in Kuwait poised in the south to roll into Saudi Arabia. So a reporter at a small Florida newspaper persuaded her bosses to spend $3,200 on satellite photos. No troops, no tanks. No threat.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Wars are built on fear and deceit—and collectivism. It is to be expected that we would link arms, circle the wagons in times of danger. There is nothing destructive in seeking mutual aid and security in the company of one another. It is only natural to have a special affinity for, and obligations to our own countrymen, those with whom we share community, custom, and culture. This wholesome patriotism is quite unlike a national collectivism that deifies the state, a nationalism that demands obedience.
Just as my love for my children cannot detract from your love for your own, the pride I feel for my country should not detract from that which others have for theirs. But a national collectivism that incites contempt and hatred for others is something else entirely. This collectivism, the state raised to divine status, is a prerequisite for aggressive war. If the state is a god, not only can it command all the resources needed for war, but its enemies are nothing but devils and must be destroyed. That this destructive nationalism rules is seen when the talking heads of TV indulge in dehumanizing the opponent. It is heard as the radio hosts encourage a frenzy of hatred for the enemy’s culture, institutions, and people. Of course there is no moral accountability for this behavior because each individual is dissolved in the collective.
One last ritual is demanded to make the collectivism complete, one last act of capitulation that I must make along with everyone else who opposes this war. We must make a holy vow that we “support our troops.” What this affirmation would mean in reality is almost too silly to contemplate. As if I could refuse to pay the taxes that actually provide for our armies and support our troops. As if I’m somehow empowered to decide what troops and which missions I will support. Support the troops? I’m risking my livelihood trying to keep them from being sent on these deadly and needless foreign adventures. I’ve been nothing if not outspoken that I want these young men and women all to come home to their lives and families. (Or in the alternative, in calling for the middle-aged architects of these wars—the armchair chickenhawks of the War Party—to go to the front lines in their place!) How much more supportive can it get? But the demand for the public declaration is really about something greater than the individual men and women in uniform. It is demanded with a vehemence by those whose doubts are forcibly suppressed, whose own responsibility in this blood affair must never be acknowledged. The sin that the aggressive war represents must be a universal sin. All must be stained by the guilt equally, in the hopes that there are no individual consequences.
This collectivism is also responsible for what could be described as the cowardly behavior of the media, their obsequious deferral to the governing authorities. The party line—or it could even be called the Patriotic Line—is established after a crisis. It is capsulized in slogans: “They hate us for our freedom”; “They hate us because we are good”; “You are either with us or against us”; and a host of other Big Brotherism.
Most journalists are willing to toe the Patriotic Line, at least for a while, sometimes because they doubt their own contrary views, and sometimes out of fear. Dan Rather told the BBC last year that it was a form of self-censorship, of patriotism run amok. So how do I account for my own heresy, a talk show host on an explicitly conservative station surrounded by what have been called “The Windbags of War”?
My view is a Socratic one: that self-knowledge is the basis of all wisdom. One might wish that it would be given us to see not just ourselves, but our country, as others see us. Just as we can be psychologically blind to our own faults, so too do we shut our eyes to the deceit, hypocrisy, criminality and violence of our own government. Jung makes clear that this quest for self-knowledge can be an unpleasant undertaking and is preoccupied with bringing to light the psychological shadow, one’s own dark and rejected nature. Oh yes, terrible things happen, but it is always others who do them. Yes, children are starved and deprived and die by the thousands, but we have no complicity. Yes, we have been bombing them for years, but we have solid legal grounds for doing so. In fact, says Jung, a persistent disregard for our own collective shadow can make us an instrument of evil.
This call to self-knowledge is, I have found, a pretty hard sell in the popular media. We know ourselves to be good, and we mean well, and have laws, and besides, only left-wing American-haters blame America first. And in regarding ourselves as harmless we add stupidity to our destructiveness.
Pro-War vs. Anti-war
One last point that I would like to make, although I feel I should warn you that I may not make it well, because its outlines are just becoming clear to me in the course of the public debate. There is a sense in which being pre-war and being anti-war are very much alike. The stakes are raised, antagonists are spotlighted and vilified, battle lines are drawn, casualties created. Emotions run high, anger and hatred fill the psycho-sphere! In their extreme form, the pro-war want their enemy’s land nuked into a glass bowl, while the anti-war hope for the kind of widespread calamity that will vindicate their position. War, god I love it! Anti-war, glorious anti-war! Locked together in an eternal embrace of action and reaction! But I am not sure that peace is created in such battles of force and resistance. The I Ching says the only effective way to overcome evil is to make continual progress in the good. Jesus spoke of the same spiritual principle.
This group has often invoked the wisdom of the late Leonard Read, who founded The Foundation for Economic Education at the end of the last world war. Read was a wonderful champion of freedom and self-improvement. He understood this philosophy of continual progress in the good. This volume of his essays, which he generously signed for me before his death, begins with an epigram from Emerson:
“Great men are they who see that spiritual is stronger than material force, that thoughts rule the world.”