Printer Friendly

Which war were you watching? News coverage of the invasion of Iraq reveals the gap in perception between America and the rest of the world.

The American media's portrayal of the routing of Saddam Hussein as a great military victory and a step toward world peace is almost incomprehensible outside of the U.S., for the rest of us were watching a very different war. Here in Granada, I regularly watch the Spanish, French, and British television news, and then occasionally look at the CNN and New York Times webpages. It is often hard to believe they are covering the same events, and the gap between American and global perceptions of this war will certainly have significant repercussions for some time to come.

In the eyes of non-American media, it took the world's most powerful and wealthiest nation months of planning, the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops, and the launching of thousands of missiles, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, to topple one dictator in a country already crippled by two earlier wars and 10 years of international sanctions, defended by a third-rate army, almost entirely bereft of advanced armaments, who put up no coordinated resistance. Not an impressive feat.

The campaign itself, as viewed outside the U.S., was constantly marred by misjudgments and bad leadership: Brits and Americans killed themselves and each other in a rash of "friendly fire" incidents; America's "smart weapons" proved not to be so smart, and instead caused horrifying destruction in marketplaces, buses, maternity wards, and civilian neighborhoods; the Tomahawk missile system had to be taken offline not because it was missing its targets but because it was missing the entire country of Iraq(!) and instead landing in Saudi, Jordanian, and Syrian territories; the quick advances and welcoming crowds predicted by the Rumsfeld cabal did not materialize, and a panicked American military had to call for reinforcements of 120,000 new troops after only a few days of fighting.

The American military was portrayed here as unprepared and badly managed, without contingency plans for even the most predictable of situations such as sandstorms, suicide bombers, and lengthening supply lines. The flaws in this performance were only made more obvious when European news broadcasts repeatedly placed headline stories of various mishaps and civilian deaths next to the typically immodest statements of Rumsfeld that American missiles were "the most precise ever seen in human history" or that "everything is going exactly as planned," or Tommy Franks announcing the infamous "shock and awe" campaign. More than one European commentator took advantage of America's hubris to state that the only shock in this war was how badly it was waged and how inured to human suffering the American people seem to have become.

In one particularly poignant moment on Spanish television, after a series of unrelenting images of civilian wounded and dead (far more graphic than would ever be allowed in the U.S.), we were shown a Pentagon spokesperson referring to understandable levels of collateral damage. The Spanish commentator simply looked directly into the camera, shook his head sadly and mused: "One wonders what type of human being can refer to the death of a child as 'collateral damage.'"

The disinformation campaign waged by the U.S. government also went badly awry and European commentators openly began to compare Iraqi and American sources as being equally tendentious and unreliable: Tariq Aziz has defected (oops, no, he hasn't); Saddam Hussein is dead (oops, no, he isn't), an Iraqi division has surrendered (oops, only seven soldiers have surrendered), we've captured an Iraqi general (oops, he's not a general or even a ranking officer)....

When Saddam's media showed footage of Arab volunteers flocking to Iraq to become suicide bombers, European TV channels showed that footage back to back with the U.S. military's latest recruitment ads on American television along with commentary about the increased militarization of both societies. News programs began to note how many times the Coalition had to reannounce its gains: for the sixth day in a row, Coalition sources have announced that Nasiriyya has fallen, once again the Coalition has announced that resistance in Basra is under control, etc. The credibility of the American government all but disappeared, and that of the American media crumbled.

When Iraq showed footage of its American hostages, European channels showed the footage (not shown in the United States) back to back with Bush's angry denunciations, and his statement that this violated the Geneva Convention, followed immediately by American footage from earlier that same week of its Iraqi POWs and then images of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The audience scarcely needed the commentator's remarks afterwards about double standards and hypocrisy in order to draw the intended conclusions.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Peter Arnett was fired after his statements critical of the war, the English newspaper the Daily Mirror sported a headline that read something like "American Reporter Fired for Telling the Truth." News programs in several European countries carried features that night, and for several days following, about the state of the American media: How could a reporter be fired for expressing criticism of a government in an interview? Commentary by multiple political and academic figures made it clear that America no longer has a free press in the true meaning of the term, for in America one is not free to express criticism of the war, or of the Bush regime.

Toward the end of the military engagement, American troops fired directly upon the hotel that housed many of the international journalists still remaining in Baghdad. That night the rest of the world watched in horror the film footage of an American tank rolling into position in front of the hotel, the turret turning to aim directly at the camera, the flash as the shell was fired, and the destruction and dust as the shell hit just to one side of the camera. We then watched as people, screaming for help, began to dig bodies out from the rubble.

One of those wounded was a Spanish cameraman; we followed him as he was carried out of the building in a blanket, placed in a vehicle and transported to the hospital, and then we watched as he died. The Spanish media was in an uproar.

In a series of badly calculated press releases, the Pentagon first claimed that a sniper had fired from the hotel and that the Americans were defending themselves. Journalists who had been in the hotel for the previous 48 hours said that this was untrue: another of a seemingly endless series of American lies meant to justify their stupid and senseless war. The Pentagon then announced that there had been an unidentified explosion, perhaps a missile. Finally, a day and a half later, the Pentagon admitted that American troops had indeed fired directly upon the hotel and killed the journalists. For every European who had watched the unmistakable and shocking footage of the American attack two nights earlier on the news, the prevarications of U.S. authorities were infuriating, and they were certainly not alleviated by the eventual, partial admission of responsibility.

The day the statue of Saddam was torn down, the great divide between America and the rest of the world was briefly suspended, and millions watched to see if America would be wiser, more competent, and more humane in peace than it had been in war. But within hours the chaos began to spread, and for the next few days, one American spokesperson after another got up in front of the cameras to say that America had no responsibility for maintaining law and order or for protecting the civilian population (despite the Geneva Conventions). In a truly shocking development, Coalition troops did not even move to secure hospitals.

Newspapers and news programs throughout Europe are openly comparing America's role in Iraq to the burning of the great Library of Alexandria, the Goths' sacking of Rome, and the Mongols' sacking of Baghdad in the 13th century. In the end, it was only a matter of hours from the images of the crowds cheering the arriving American troops to those of the first public demonstrations against the American occupation. CNN had an interesting spin on this, their headline ran: "Iraqis Exercise Newly Won Freedom of Expression to Protest against Coalition Forces."

In the end, I think, the difference between the two views of the war (that of America and Israel versus that of the rest of the world) boils down to a single question: Were there alternatives? Americans were told by their media that there were no alternatives and that the only option was for Americans to get in there and get the job done and let the rest of the world be damned. The rest of world was told by their media that there were numerous other options (diplomatic, economic, etc.) that would have involved less death and destruction.

So for most people in the world, every civilian death in Iraq has been an unwarranted murder. For Americans (or at least some), those deaths have been an acceptable means towards a rather poorly defined goal: What exactly ARE American forces doing there? Disarming weapons of mass destruction? Eradicating terrorism? Stabilizing Iraq's oil resources? Toppling Saddam Hussein? Establishing a democracy?

As several editorials here have recently pointed out, if America is aiming to establish a democracy, it will be doing something that it has not done for nearly 60 years. For six decades the United States has supported and maintained dozens of dictatorships, a host of military regimes, a collection of monarchies, and the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, but its record of supporting democracies, let alone establishing them, is dismal indeed.

In short, there were two very different wars to watch: one almost entirely military in nature (the American version) and another portrayed in unrelentingly human terms (the global version). Spain was nominally a member of the Coalition, but 91 percent of the population here opposed the war and the largest and most impressive demonstrations against the war have been held here, massive marches of millions upon millions of people in nearly every city and town throughout the country. The coverage we watched in Spain was unflinching in its portrayal of the violence and pain of war.

Spaniards are divided and more than a bit confused when it comes to interpreting the public opinion polls that show that the majority of Americans support the war: some simply say that Americans are a violent people (as demonstrated by their love of guns and their astonishing rates of murder, violent crime, and imprisonment); others say that Americans are famous for their lack of knowledge about the world and their low level of education and that their support comes mainly from not having suffered themselves the tragedy of war on their own soil.

A third school of thought was expressed to me rather succinctly the other day by the owner of a music shop: "I don't believe the polls. I don't think Americans really do support the war, no people can be in favor of war--but they don't really see the war, do they? They just believe what the American media tell them."

Dwight F. Reynolds is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has been serving as director of the University of California's Education Abroad Program Study Center in Granada, Spain, since July 2002.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Color Lines Magazine
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:framed!
Author:Reynolds, Dwight F.
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2003
Words:1888
Previous Article:Uncle Sam says Hi: the State Department sets out to win hearts and minds in the Middle East with a glossy lifestyle magazine.
Next Article:Death of a journalist: Mazen Dana was shot by U.S. troops while filming in Iraq.


Related Articles
America at war.
Celebrities counter the war.
Whose side are they on? U.S. officials have accused Arab news network Al Jazeera of biased coverage. Are any media really objective in times of war?
The war: a year later.
A year later, teens weigh in on Iraq: high-school students are taking a second took at the war, with many adopting more nuanced views about not only...
Major "liberal" outlets clog media diets.
An obsession the world doesn't share: many countries see the war on terror as a U.S.-imposed distraction from critical issues such as poverty, crime,...
Critically reading the other hand.
EDITORIAL IRAQ'S LAST CHANCE AMERICA BROKE IT AND MUST MAKE A FINAL EFFORT TO FIX IT.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters