Manufacturing Consent for War as a Public-Private Partnership
Editor’s note: after numerous stops, starts and internet difficulties I have finally finished moving. Although I am not yet unpacked, I did manage to set up an improvised computer desk by laying a board across two end tables so I could get back to writing as soon as possible. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how I want to approach the intertwining series of broad-stroke foreign policy discussions I’ve recently started writing in wake of increasing US, Saudi and Israeli hostility towards Russian ally Iran, as well as the continuedmilitary activities of the US-led alliance in Russian-allied Syria.
Effectively writing about US imperialism, the American military industrial (and security) complex or even the way our geopolitical establishment stokes public outrage to create demand for wars, requires finding a way to cut through multiple decades worth of absolutely fucking mind-numbing Pentagon lies and propaganda to identify a consistent pattern in the behavior of Uncle Scam’s vast, often-unrecognized war machine. In order to tackle this daunting task, I’ve decided to keep discussions about current US warmongering against Russia, Iran and Syria in the Russiagate, Foreign Policy & the Coming Forever War series of articles, while focusing on background and/or historical information you need to know in these Fear and Droning articles.
In order to understand the deceptions that are currently leading us in to a predictable catastrophe, it helps to examine both the US establishment’s motivations for war as well as America’s shamefully under-reported history of manufacturing consent for previous conflicts; in today’s Deep Dive we examine the American perpetual war machine and the modern US legacy of lying to justify highly-profitable (for some) imperial aggression.
Production Partners: Vietnam, LBJ & the Nightly News War Show
As a both a history student and a media observer, I genuinely believe it is impossible to overstate the importance of corporate news coverage during the Vietnam War when discussing what has now become the American public-private war propaganda machine. While far too much has already been said about the ridiculous (and false) idea that the US media “lost” a “winnable” war in Vietnam, this was the first large-scale conflict brought directly to viewing families across America by the terrifying “magic” of television; albeit, primarily from the safety of hotel lobby rooms in friendly Saigon. As a result, the coverage of this conflict would establish longstanding patterns of mutually beneficial behavior for both policy makers and private media companies; patterns that continue to influence how the western media reports imperial wars to this day.
Although the US-led military intervention predated his administration, Vietnam has been called president Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Living Room War” primarily because there is ample evidence that the Johnson White House inherently understood the importance of partnering with the press to sell the conflict. LBJ himself was said to be obsessed with the corporate media’s coverage of US military activities in Vietnam; indeed, after one historic CBS News broadcast that described the war as “mired in stalemate,” Landslide Lyndon reportedly lamented “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Although the story may have been apocryphal, it was certainly quite accurate; Johnson would be challenged by insurgent, anti-war elements in his own party and decline to run for the Democratic nomination as an incumbent president a mere six months later. Regardless of whether or not LBJ actually uttered those words, this idea clearly inspired subsequent US administrations to influence public opinion on a variety of foreign policy issues related to military conflict by controlling media coverage; a concept best exemplified by the laughably partisan reporting provided by embedded US journalists during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf Crisis.
Of even greater relevance and yet more rarely articulated however, is the fact that the escalation of the already multi-year US military intervention in Vietnam also represented a devastating turning point in the history of western corporate media – the rise of “televised war programming” as non-stop entertainment; complete with ratings-driven coverage provided daily by every major news network in the the US as well as many western allied nations.
While pro-intervention war propaganda has always been a part of our print news, by the mid-1960’s, network television had risen to be the dominant media format in the US and as a result, most Americans experienced the Vietnam War through the nightly news. Perhaps unsurprisingly, viewing audiences were immediately responsive to the pageantry and drama of a war broadcast to their living room, sending news outlets scrambling to provide viewers with more ratings-generating coverage; in a matter of months, the war in Vietnam became “must-see TV” in homes all across the country. Of course, nobody involved at the time could have possibly known it, but I believe this is the precise moment the US media started on the path that would lead to what remains the most obvious example of the ongoing public-private relationship televised conflict journalism creates; the 24 hour a day “Desert Storm” coverage (and the ascension of corporate cable newsitself) during and in the immediate aftermath of the first US invasion of Iraq. Although it would take later refinement to properly conceal the western media’s open jingoism and US military boot-licking, the American “video game war” and its resulting ratings bonanza ensured that “the endless war show” remains a permanent fixture in our modern media landscape.
It is important to note that in practice if not by design, this combination of the US administration’s need to control public opinion about foreign interventions, as well as mainstream media’s profit-driven imperative to attract viewers, effectively makes the government and major American news corporations partners in producing and packaging a given war for public consumption. Once you realize that the two major lessons the US media learned from Vietnam were that long-term warfare is fucking incredible for your ratings and unpopular wars eventually get cancelled; it becomes much easier to comprehend precisely why mainstream news corporations are always supportive of US military aggression and why self-censorship on behalf of the empire is as much an impediment to accurate conflict journalism as any form of overt restrictions imposed by a western war time government.
Growing the Machine: the Military Industrial Complex, Neoliberalism & War for Profit
Unfortunately however, the openly incestuous relationships between the US government, its military and the (primarily) American press is only one example of the vast network of complex and rarely-examined public-private “partnerships” that fuel the perpetual war machine; and thus, much of the American economy. Astute observers will of course immediately recognize these relationships for what they are; symptoms and examples of the predominant governing economic theory in western society; neoliberalism. From Dwight Eisenhower’s rueful warning about the growing alliance he had just helped forge between industry and the US military, to Dick Cheney’s Haliburton army supply racket and on through Barack Obama’s indiscriminate arms sales to brutal dictatorships, the entire business of creating a demand for war, supplying the materials for war and even actually fighting the wars has always been an increasingly lucrative business arrangement between members of government & powerful private corporations of virtually all types.
Ultimately these inter-related partnerships actually go far beyond what traditional observers would classify as the military-industrial complex and indeed, creep into almost every aspect of imperialist society. A nearly forty year neoliberal fascination with deregulation, corporate media consolidation and the supremacy of the free market in literally all endeavors has incubated a wide-reaching, pro-war private sector lobby that can easily steer our governments towards doling out a metric fuckton of public funding to meet even a perceived threat. For example, in the wake of the catastrophic 9/11 attacks in New York City, the unified interests of public and private actors came together to vastly increase the size and profitability of a whole new war-dependent sectorthat hoovers up money like a vacuum – the now objectively massive and thus extremely influential, National Security Complex.
Indeed, this “war for profit” model has proven so successful that numerous American administrations have actively applied the concept to domestic activities. Thus mass surveillance becomes the “war on terror” while mass incarceration coupled with the rise of a police state is the “war on drugs;” because a “war” is clearly an excuse to expand state agencies while throwing gobs of cash at the private sector. If that money just happensto go to contractors who’ve been bribing a given politician, well that’s just a “random” function of winning the latest “war” against easily-demonized targets.
Furthermore, it’s important to realize that every conflict or even potential conflict also represents an excellent opportunity to book obscene profits for a variety of private interests that have no obvious military relationship with western governments at all; someone has to supply staff and materials to the staggering number of American military bases all across the globe, someone is selling sophisticated computing technology services to US intelligence agencies and someone gets the contracts to rebuild shattered nations at absurd markupsonce the fighting is all over. Does your new US-installed “democratic” government need a cripplingly-expensive national loan to get up and running? Well just talk to the IMF and our approved western banking partners who will be happy to profit from your struggling nation’s misery and corruption. Even casual investors have skin in this game; conflict is so closely tied to corporate profits that while rumors of war cause dips on Wall Street, the actual outbreak of hostilities sends the markets soaring – when your return on investment is directly tied to US bombing campaigns, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to support new military interventions as a matter of general policy.
In this light, it seems more than fair to say that the western neoliberal establishment truly does use “everypart of the cow” to generate profit from warmongering, intervention and neocolonialism. Although few mainstream observers in America will be prepared to admit it; this environment effectively guarantees that the media, the government, private corporations and much of the elite investor class are essentially de facto partners in maintaining a state of largely perpetual warfare at home and abroad.
Manufacturing Consent: Creating an Environment of Zero Accountability
While understanding the above “war as entertainment” and “war for profit” models goes a long way towards explaining both how and why the US imperial war machine functions, there are two more key elements of the intervention scam that ensure its own survival; the manipulation of public sentiment to justify intervention, coupled with the exploitation of our cumulative guilt to get away with the crime. For the purposes of this discussion, I’d like to focus on the 2003 American invasion of Iraq for a moment but we could just as easily examine these concepts in relation to the war in Afghanistan, the US invasion of Libya or our establishment’s recent attempts to generate support for a full scale invasion of Syria. Finally, please remember that that when we discuss western war propaganda, we’re talking about the manufacturing of public consent to not only wage war, but escape punishment for doing so even if the intervention in question was a completely predictable humanitarian disaster.
Although it’s not the only example of this phenomenon, the Iraq War is important because it definitively highlights the terrifying effectiveness of pairing outrage and guilt to absolve the various architects of an objectively immoral military conflict. The simple heartbreaking truth is that virtually nobody was ever impeached, fired or arrested for the multi-faceted war crime that was the US-led invasion of Iraq; despite the fact that everyone now knows American intervention was both a genocidal failure and based on nothing but lies. To paraphrase key Democratic Party conflict enabler Nancy Pelosi; how can you punish US political leaders for an illegal war if more than half the government voted for it? By that same measure, a populacethat mostly supported toppling Saddam Hussein isn’t in the greatest position to ensure accountability from either its military or it’s elected officials. Thus, despite anger over the Iraq invasion, US voters were largely placated by the end of Bush’s term and the election of another neoliberal warmonger who would ultimately mire the country in even more wars; former US president Barack Obama.
In short, by lying about and demonizing supposed “enemies” of the western imperial powers, the political and media class (particularly in the United States) exploit society’s collective fears to generate popular public support for military interventions while marginalizing criticism; which in turn allows everyone who advocatedfor war to spread the blame around far enough to ensure nobody suffers any real consequences for the atrocities we commit simply to generate immense profits for wealthy western elites.
The terrifying truth in all of this is that western military, government, media and economic establishments have spent the better part of the past fifty years creating a self-perpetuating political environment that can only and inevitably lead to endless imperial war. After all, if the entire ruling class always supports the business of military conflict, nobody ever suffers any consequences for advocating on behalf of war and public opinion can easily be swayed in favor of US intervention by sympathetic private interests, it would be objectively naive to assume America’s current state of “forever war” is some sort of unlucky accident – this is a feature of neoliberal imperialism, not a bug.
Armed with the light of knowledge, is it really all that absurd to question if the elite American establishment is actively trying to manufacture consent for a large-scale conflict that would effectively eliminate Vladimir Putin’s influence in the Middle East by attacking Russian-allied Syria and Iran? When you consider how many billions of dollars would undoubtedly be riding on the outcome of that PR push, is it somehow unreasonable to wonder if emerging neo-McCarthyism and the Russiagate scandal aren’t at least in part about priming the public for an extremely likely proxy war with Russia that western imperial powers have been anticipating for years? Frankly, wouldn’t it be more than a little silly to assume that the US establishment’s recent fascinationwith blatantly Russophobic propaganda isn’t really all about the almighty dollar and that somehow, this timethe masters of war are actually telling us the truth?
Welcome; to the machine.