[25 March 2008]
Normon Solomon is clearly a moral man. His criticism of the US government in its invasion of Iraq and the mass media’s coverage of the war is driven by a stated revulsion of the self-serving motives of both. Though he doesn’t use the term, Solomon is a journalist who believes in journalism as the fourth estate. Its job is above all else to check the power of government.
War Made Easy brings Solomon’s book of the same name to a wider audience. The crucial question is how Apler uses the film to further our understanding of the book’s main ideas in a way that is objective and analytical.
Apler’s approach is straightforward. The film comprises war footage and samples from the media with understated and infrequent narration by Sean Penn. Solomon’s commentary follows these segments. More often the images are left to speak for themselves. Children with burns, bombed houses, and families being rounded up at gun point require no explanation. When politicians are shown trying to justify these atrocities, they come across as callous and self-serving, parroting the same phrases over and over again. When Solomon speaks, it is to offer his analysis for the motivation behind such horrific images.
On the subject of the media, he is incredibly insightful. His comments about government, however, are less compelling. It is undeniable that governments should be accountable and transparent, but he doesn’t actively engage with the argument raised if whether, in times of security, the central tenants of civil liberties be restrained during times of war. It is not my interest to lend restraint on civil liberties and freedom of information any credence. However, the topics are raised in this coverage, and Apler and Solomon should have used this opportunity to challenge them.
Solomon says that a healthy democracy requires a free flow of information. Flow should mean more than just two sides batting their opinions over a divide. At times it might require people to take a closer look at the opposition and consider their points. I don’t expect Solomon or Apler to answer these questions definitively. Getting side tracked by such weighty issues would impede the effectiveness of the film. As well as maintaining balance, documentaries are about getting to and keeping to a point. On the role of the media complicity in wartime coverage, Solomon and Apler do this admirably .
Indeed, the degree in which the media has colluded in war efforts is shocking. Solomon offers insight, no doubt from his experience in the industry, to show how truths are manipulated. Before I discuss the points he raises, it is worthwhile looking at his examples of the half-truths presented in the lead up and during the conflict as many of them remain shocking even years after the event.
Solomon sees media and government collusion starting with the false reporting of the attack in the Gulf of Tonkin (Vietman, 1964). He cites his interview with the journalist Murrey Marder, the diplomatic correspondent at the Washington Post. Marder told Solomon that the Washington Post had never retracted the story because to do so would require a retraction of many more stories, as well.
From this example of media miscoverage, he moves quickly to Colin Powell’s case of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass distraction. The film reminds us to what extent the mainstream print and broadcast media supported Powell’s, and thus the administration’s, assertions. While some foreign papers questioned the case, almost all the major American papers and cable network stations celebrated the decisiveness of the argument.
More than 30 years later, the enthusiastic commentary covering the Gulf of Tonkin attacks seems absurd. The journalists appear as if discussing the events that led to the US-Vietnam War were rather like a boxing match: exciting, and favoring a “champ”. Only Phil Donahue voiced opposition to going to war, his voiced opinion costing him his job (February 2003). A leaked memo revealed that Donahue’s program, the highest rating on MSNBC at the time, was scrapped because Donahue “put an anti-war voice on [the] network.” The rest of the programs marched to the military drum.
Solomon sums up the media’s approach to the war as “News coverage about the war is more about PR about the war.” This is particularly evident when Solomon discusses the media coverage of military technology. He describes it as the “worship of the gods of metal”. While this sounds a little excessive, the journalists do effuse over these weapons of mass destruction like boys speaking about the latest toys.
If you had any doubts that the process of embedding was part of this same PR work, Solomon has extensive evidence from both government sources. Cheney said one of his main concerns was managing the “information problem”. The best way to do this was to invite the major news services to participate (to a degree) with the army; build up comaraderie, and ensure exclusive images for the networks in exchange for none-too-difficult questions.
Managing the media was a problem all governments believed stemmed from the media coverage of the Vietnam War, where, for the first time in history, media had full access to unmitigated images and stories of the bruatlity of war. But starting with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and continuing with the Walter Cronkite’s enthusiastic reportage of an airstrike, Solomon shows that the US media usually plays the role of mouthpiece for the government war effort. Even when Cronkite turned around and challenged the government position, Solomon maintains that this was noticeable for being an exception.
This critique doesn’t abate even when journalists admit they were wrong. His point is a simple one. Whether its Wolf Blitzer saying “We should have been more skeptical” or Christine Amanpour claiming her station “was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News,” Solomon’s remark is characteristically to the point and hard to refute: “This [acknowledgement] does not bring back people who have died.” Right as he is, this approach is problematic. The documentary would have been more effective had it questioned Blitzer and Amanpour. Solomon’s point is only part of the story.
There is no denying that there is a case being made. What’s more, despite the content, it is not a particularly radical one. In fact the whole point of this film can be summed up in a comment made by Senator Morse, who was one of two Senators to challenge American involvement in Vietnam. He said that nowhere was it written that a person should follow the President. The implication is that this is true in times of war as well as peace. Documentaries like War Made Easy are necessary not only to question the reasons for war, but to remind us of the principles by which many wars are fought.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/war-made-easy/