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Total Information Control

BY Joel Bleifuss

On the homefront, the media are not as much “embedded” as in bed with the Bush administration.

“Size of protest—it’s like deciding, well, I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group,” said George W. Bush, trying to dismiss the millions of demonstrators who took to the streets on February 15 to protest the administration’s plans for war with Iraq. Bush said what he did, no doubt, because White House strategist Karl Rove had discovered through focus groups that Americans view “focus groups” as a negative.

The Defense Department, at the request of the Senate, has put the price tag on war with Iraq at $95 billion—and 99 cents. But the Pentagon has yet to release an estimate of the human cost, and the Senate hasn’t requested one. (Could it be that “conflagrating innocent civilians” is another focus-group negative?)

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) chided his colleagues: “On what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq—a population, I might add, of which over 50 percent is under age 15—this chamber is silent.”

For damage estimates, one has to look to the United Nations, which has been planning relief efforts. (“Preparing for eventualities should hostilities occur,” is how they tactfully put it.) A U.N. study titled “Strictly Confidential—Likely Humanitarian Scenarios” estimates 500,000 Iraqi civilians will receive “traumatic injuries” (100,000 direct and 400,000 indirect) as a result of the war. In addition, according to the United Nations, the 2 million “severely and moderately wasted under-5 children” of Iraq would be put in danger if what meager sustenance they currently receive is interrupted.

Should the United States wage the “total war” that is predicted, those estimates could well be low. Adam Mersereau, a one-time Marine, writing for National Review Online, defined total war like this:
The kind of warfare that not only destroys the enemy’s military forces, but also brings the enemy society to an extremely personal point of decision, so that they are willing to accept a reversal of the cultural trends that spawned the war in the first place. A total war strategy does not have to include the intentional targeting of civilians, but the sparing of civilian lives cannot be its first priority. … The purpose of total war is to permanently force your will onto another people group. Limited war pits combatants against combatants, while total war pits nation against nation, and even culture against culture.
That may not be a pretty sight. However, the Defense Department has plans to totally control what the American people will see. Under the Pentagon’s press rules, “embedded” reporters will receive guided tours of the battlefield by U.S. military personnel. According to a reporting contract leaked to Editor & Publisher, to get “embedded” the reporters must sign “ground rules” that let the Defense Department limit what they report and see. For example, the contract states, “Embedded media are not authorized use of their own vehicle while traveling in an embedded status.”

On the home front, the media are not so much “embedded” as in bed with the Bush administration. A USA Today headline proclaimed the feel-good news, “Bush predicts postwar stability.” Viacom/CBS, the nation’s second-largest media company, refused to let the anti-war coalition MoveOn rent billboard space. Further, Viacom/CBS warned Grammy presenters and nominees that it would cut off the microphones of any singer who ad-libs anti-war opinions. On Oscar night, will Hollywood stars be similarly corralled—and cowed—by Disney/ABC?

Not if those stars know what’s good for them. A new study by psychologists at the University of Sussex in England found that being active in political campaigns, strikes and demonstrations can help people overcome stress, pain, anxiety and depression. Researcher John Drury put it this way: “The take-home message from this research therefore might be that people should get more involved in campaigns, struggles and social movements, not only in the wider interest of social change but also for their own personal good.”

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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