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BOOK REVIEW

Harsh insight into how we make war

War Made Easy How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death Norman Solomon John Wiley & Sons: 320 pp., $24.95

June 29, 2005|Russ Baker | Special to The Times

Does the unspooling Iraq saga fill you with a disquieting sense of deja vu? Feel like you've been there, done that, been lied to and spun in this manner somewhere else, at some other point in time? Well, that's because you have.

Norman Solomon, a longtime media critic, lays out the elaborate hustle in his new book, "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." It's all there -- Vietnam, the invasions of Panama and Grenada, the first Gulf War and more. (Including a first chapter about the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, an unfortunately labored and obscure choice to lead off an otherwise compelling read.)

The villains are the government and the media: the government because time and again it remorselessly falsifies the reality of war, and the media because major press and broadcast outlets can't seem to wriggle free from self-interest long enough to speak truth to power.

Solomon offers 16 brutally persuasive chapters, each centered on a perennial falsehood, such as "If This War Is Wrong, Congress Will Stop It," "This Is About Human Rights" and "This Is Not at All About Oil or Corporate Profits."

One insidious whopper -- that American war leaders always yearn for peace -- runs counter to such evidence as the Nixon tapes, in which the president, who publicly expressed concern about the Indochina carnage, is caught on the White House recording system discussing with Henry A. Kissinger an extension of the bombing to new targets in North Vietnam:

Nixon: "I still think we ought to take the dikes out.... Will that drown people?"

Kissinger: "About 200,000 people."

Nixon: "No, no, no.... I'd rather use the nuclear bomb.... I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ's sakes."

The belief that the media will remain vigilant to government misconduct in times of war is belied by an internal MSNBC report cited by Solomon, which explains why Phil Donahue's show (with which Solomon was associated) was canceled shortly before the Iraq invasion. Keeping Donahue on the air, says one MSNBC executive, would "present a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war ... [and become] a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." Solomon also notes that less than 1% of the sources featured on CBS' "Evening News" during the Iraq War's first three weeks could be considered "antiwar."

For sheer chutzpah, nothing tops the story of U.S. troops during the 1989 invasion of Panama seizing a huge cache of dictator and former U.S. ally Manuel Noriega's cocaine. Well after the event, the military was forced to admit that the reported stash was actually tamales wrapped in banana leaves. This was followed by the military's claim that Noriega had used the stash for "unspeakable acts of witchcraft and voodoo."

Solomon is most outraged by what he sees as the utter disconnect between Americans and the true horror of wars carried out in their name and with their approval. He cites James Baldwin on denial, on "the fraudulent and expedient nature of the American innocence which has always been able to persuade itself that it does not know what it knows too well."

And Solomon adds, "Aren't we at least dimly aware that -- no matter how smooth and easy the news media and elected officials try to make it for us -- in faraway places there are people not so different than us who are being destroyed by what journalists and politicians glibly depict as necessary war?"

"War Made Easy" is largely an amalgam of material from others' books, speeches and articles. But Solomon is a formidable thinker and activist in his own right. He traveled with Sean Penn to Iraq shortly before the invasion, and one wishes he had shared more of his considerable experiences in the media trenches.

Solomon's voice, when he gives it full throat, is appropriately sardonic. Here he comments on a USA Today headline from June 2004, about the incoming Iraqi prime minister's support for the U.S.: "The banner headline was a classic of occupation puppetry and media gimmicky," Solomon writes, noting that Iyad Allawi was long close to the CIA but a virtual stranger to the Iraqi people. "All in all, by Washington's lights, the man was eminently qualified to be Iraq's 'new leader.' And his superb judgment was immediately apparent: 'New Leader Asks U.S. to Stay'! "

"War Made Easy" is a must-read for those who would like greater context with their bitter morning coffee, or to arm themselves for the debates about Iraq that are still to come.

Solomon cites a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, in which top Pentagon officials "are studying the lessons of Iraq closely -- to ensure that the next U.S. takeover of a foreign country goes more smoothly." Says a top assistant to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld: "We'll get better as we do it more often."

Russ Baker (www.russbaker.com) is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review and founder of a new nonprofit, the Real News Project, dedicated to investigative journalism.

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