“War is the health of the state,” said Randolph Bourne; it is also a bonanza for political intellectuals and for the marionettes who are put through their paces on FOX and CNN.  At the outbreak of World War I, Bourne saw the same phenomenon, though admittedly on a higher scale (Paul Begala and Chris Matthews had not yet been invented):

it has been a bitter experience to see the unanimity with which the American intellectuals have thrown their support to the use of war-technique in the crisis in which America found herself.  Socialists, college professors, publicists, new-republicans, practitioners of literature, have vied with each other in confirming with their intellectual faith the collapse of neutrality and the riveting of the war-mind on a hundred million more of the world’s people.

News-talk ratings go up during every international crisis, but, despite the thousands of hours devoted to the looming war with Iraq, Americans are no better informed about the goals and prospects of this war than they were in 1898, when William Randolph Hearst told the artist Fredrick Remington, whom he had sent to Cuba, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”  Hearst did not care one way or the other about Cuba, but he did want to beat his rival newspaper, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, in the 19th-century precursor of the ratings game.  In 1898, the yellow press instructed Americans that the evil Spanish Empire had blown up the battleship Maine in order to provoke the United States into a war that Spain could not, in fact, hope to win.  In 2002, the yellow press is telling Americans that Saddam Hussein wants to provoke the United States into a war that will inevitably destroy his country and, what is more important to him, his regime.  

The press, as obedient and uninformed today as they were during previous wars, dutifully repeat the phrases “weapons of mass destruction” and “links with Al Qaeda terrorists.”  Instead of citing evidence, they refer to official British reports (as if Tony Blair did not lie throughout the war against Yugoslavia) and unnamed administration sources.  The announcement of links to terrorism is always front-page news above the fold; the retractions, a few months later, are buried and forgotten.  Some commentators still refer to the debunked story of a meeting in Prague between Muhammad Atta and Iraqi officials.

In early December, the Washington Post headlined the usual story by Barton Gellman “U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis.” Gellman, true to the great traditions of the Post’s Bob Woodward and Janet Cooke, simply passed on the official story without check-ing any details.  This goes on every day, on every story.

In earlier times, once the rulers had decided upon a course of action, the peasants had only to obey, supplying food, money, and clothing to the king’s army and their sons as cannon fodder for the campaign.  Under self-proclaimed democracies, power supposedly resides with the people, who send their representatives to Washington or to Paris; for the people to have any say in the political process, however, they would have to have access to accurate information, and if such information was ever available in the history of the United States, it is not available now.  Ignorant people, subjected to an educational process that now consists exclusively of indoctrination, cannot make informed decisions.  In this sense, Americans are less free than the medieval peasant who knew he was not free and might, therefore, when the king’s officers came around, take steps to hide his money in the well or his son in the woods.

In a modern state, democracy (in the loose sense in which we use the word) depends on an honest and free press.  Such a press exists nowhere, least of all in the United States.  There are, of course, honest specialists who are occasionally allowed to share their expertise in the newspapers, and there are even honest commentators, such as Pat Buchanan and Alex Cockburn, who usually say what they believe.  For the most part, however, the gatherers and spinners of news, either from fear and ambition or from laziness and ignorance, do not do their job, which is to inform the public.  

In the case of Iraq, many of the key questions are simply not being asked.  What, for example, is the role being played by international oil interests?  To what extent is our legitimate concern for the security of Israel taking precedence over the security and interests of the American people?  How important is it, in this connection, to shift the balance of power in the Middle East, by eliminating one of Israel’s few obstacles to regional hegemony?  It seems strange that the press cannot discuss the fact that the administration’s policies in the Middle East are being set by Richard Perle, who is also a political activist in Israel on behalf of the bellicose Benjamin Netanyahu.  

The press tells us every day that Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction.  He probably does, because, during the Iran-Iraq war, he acquired such weapons, with the blessing of the U.S. government, from France, Russia, and the United States itself.  A recent report in the German press lists Siemens, along with unnamed American multi-nationalists, among Saddam’s major suppliers.  The fact that the United States is the largest producer and possessor and seller of such weapons cannot be discussed, and if it is mentioned (e.g., on a call-in show like Talk of the Nation), the host cuts off discussion by repeating the Bush administration’s highly improbable denial.

A war with Iraq, justified or not, may well accomplish some good things: the overthrow of a regime of thugs, increased U.S. control of the world’s oil supply, enhanced security for Israel (which may then find herself in a stronger position to resolve the question of Palestinian statehood).  In the long run, however, the war might turn out to be a disaster.  Ideally, it is up to Congress to debate such questions, but Congress follows public opinion as measured by polls, and public opinion is manufactured by the media.  We cannot expect the government to share its secrets with us, but we should demand that the press do its job.