Published on Sunday, March 16, 2003 by the Toronto Star
Rewriting History in the Gathering Fog of War
by Linda Diebel
WASHINGTON—Beware the Iraqi navy. Watch out for fake U.S. soldiers in Iraq. And take note, the "Mother Of All Bombs" is really a psychological device.
The weirdness of war is upon us. Just one harebrained notion after another. We're left shaking our heads.
But in the gathering fog of this particular war with Iraq, there's a new twist: flexible history.
Recent history is being rewritten on the fly, and with born-again vigor, by White House briefers, Pentagon spin doctors and U.S. military analysts.
These novel versions of events are not only irritating, they increasingly challenge our Canadian history on everything from World War II to the 1999 military intervention in Kosovo.
"There was never a war more easy to stop," U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz indignantly told U.S. war veterans Tuesday about World War II. He compared the failure of the world community to stop Germany's Adolf Hitler to today's indifference to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and applauded the American sacrifice.
"Many of you served in that terrible war," said Wolfowitz.
"You know firsthand what it cost the U.S. in terms of lives and treasure. You saw what it cost the world — 40-50 million dead, cities destroyed, great nations laid waste."
True. The world did dither through the 1930s. But what Wolfowitz failed to mention was that the United States did not get involved in that war until more than two years after Canada was fighting it, and then only after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
Washington ignored pleas from its allies, including Canada, as Britain was pulverized by German bombs, beginning in 1939.
"Well, we weren't allies then," U.S. security analyst George Friedman told the Star when asked about World War II. The Star brought up the subject because Friedman was lecturing Canada on how to be a good ally.
The fog of war is nothing new. In every conflict, one gets hyped "psyop" stories, head-scratchers and fast-breaking scenarios, usually difficult to check and later proving to be false.
In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the most infamous example was the story about Iraqi soldiers ripping babies from incubators in Kuwait City hospitals. There were eyewitnesses, including a young woman — actually the daughter of the ambassador to the U.S. — who broke hearts around the world with her tearful accounts.
It took congressional hearings after the war for the story to be proven untrue. This time, we have seen White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer argue that NATO launched military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 in order to oust Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and effect "regime change."
It's clear such rewrites annoy Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. On ABC's This Week Sunday, he dismissed "this notion in the United States that I find a bit surprising" and pointed out that Milosevic's defeat in elections was a later by-product of military intervention.
Fleischer compares Security Council inaction on Iraq to its failure to intervene in Rwanda when thousands in the African country were being slaughtered.
But he does not mention the widely held view that Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., led the charge for the United Nations to abandon Rwanda, leaning on Security Council members not to use the word "genocide."
The problem is that "White House speak" can become conventional wisdom. People have busy lives; they don't always have time to really think about every item in the onslaught of information.
Most often, spin can be funny.
Last week, for example, the U.S. military tested its new 9,000-kilogram bomb, which White House and Pentagon officials refer to as the "Mother Of All Bombs." In military lingo, it's dubbed MOAB, for "Massive Ordnance Air Burst."
"They could have picked a better name," Mayor Dave Sakrison — of Moab, Utah — told CNN Tuesday. "Everyone around town is pretty much appalled."
With a straight face, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to convince a Pentagon briefing that the main focus of the biggest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal is its "psychological component."
"It's not small," said Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Richard Meyers, about a bomb that could probably flatten a good part of Baghdad.
There were guffaws.
Then, there was President George W. Bush's assertion earlier this year that Iraq could load smallpox onto a pilotless aircraft "launched from a vessel off the American coast" and reach "hundreds of miles inland."
The Iraqi navy consists of a few obsolete vessels.
U.S. military spinners also insist Saddam is having fake U.S. military uniforms made — "identical down to the last detail," according a Central Command official — so he can blame atrocities on American soldiers.
The Pentagon assures troops that its chemical warfare suits won't leak, despite news that the military lost track of some 250,000 potentially defective Battle Dress Overgarments, according to the New York Times.
"If the eventuality ends up that we have to issue (other suits), although we've done extensive checks into our inventory, we will inspect each one of them prior to them being issued," said Maj.-Gen. John Doesburg.
Finally, there's the "we're bombing them so they won't know when the war starts" scenario. In recent weeks, U.S. and British jets have doubled air patrols over Iraq's northern and southern "no-fly" zones and repeatedly bombed surface-to-air missile sites.
The object, military officials told reporters, is to disguise the real start of war.
As if it will be hard to miss.
Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited