Tag Archives: Falluja

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2018

‘The biggest immediate single problem we face… is mainstream media reporting’, British historian Mark Curtis recently argued in an Open Democracy interview about UK foreign policy.

Florian Zollmann’s deeply impressive first book – which expands on his PhD, supervised by Professor Richard Keeble – goes a long way in engaging with this long-running issue for peace activists.

‘The news media in liberal democracies operates as a propaganda system on behalf of state-corporate elite interests’, he argues, using Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model as the foundation of his study.

Analysing elite newspapers in the UK, US and Germany, Zollmann, a lecturer in journalism at Newcastle University, compares and contrasts nearly 2,000 news, editorial and comment items covering human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

Zollmann’s findings are deeply worrying, with huge ramifications for journalists, activists and British democracy itself. ‘If countries designated to be “enemy” states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses’, he notes. ‘If, on the other hand, Western states or their “allies” are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.’ The level of indignation, the seniority of the officials blamed, and whether the media call for sanctions, action from the United Nations or so-called humanitarian military intervention – all largely depends on the identity of the perpetrators. It isn’t included as a case study, but the media’s (lack of) coverage of the Western-backed assault on Yemen is a further damning illustration of Zollmann’s thesis.

In addition to extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence, a wealth of references and an in-depth bibliography, the book also includes important accounts of the two devastating US-led assaults on Fallujah in Iraq, as well as critical facts and arguments effectively excluded from the mainstream media’s reporting of the West’s interventions in Libya and Syria.

At £29, this is a pricey purchase, and though it is clearly written and logically argued, the academic style may make it a little dry for some readers. However, I would strongly recommend peace activists get hold of a copy of Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention as it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the media’s propagandistic role in the West’s often deadly and counterproductive foreign policy.

Refocusing our attention on Western airstrikes in the Middle East

Refocusing our attention on Western airstrikes in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 November 2016

The claim by Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman that the government’s focus on Russian airstrikes in Syria “diverts attention” away from other “atrocities”, including those committed by the West, created a backlash in liberal circles.

“Jeremy is unwilling to face up to the role that Putin’s Russia is playing in Syria”, said Labour MP Angela Smith. Alice Ross from the independent monitoring group Airwars took a different tack, jumping to the conclusion Corbyn was making a direct comparison between Russian and Western airstrikes, even though his spokesman had explicitly said he was not drawing a “moral equivalence” between the two. “Russia and the [Western] coalition are fighting different wars when it comes to civilians”, Airwars Director Chris Woods responded. The US-led coalition tries to limit civilian deaths, he noted, “while everything we understand about the way Russia is behaving shows they are deliberately targeting civilians, civilian infrastructure”.

Building on this straw man, the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison penned an article ‘Reality check: are US-led airstrikes on Syrians as bad as Russia’s?’ Corbyn’s “remarks implied the casualties were comparable”, noted Graham-Harrison mistakenly, “and that coalition attacks had been ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.”

One wonders why Graham-Harrison felt the need to ask about the media’s coverage of Western airstrikes when her own Guardian report about the July 2016 US airstrike that killed 73 civilians in northern Syria appeared as a tiny story tucked away at the bottom of page 22. Appearing on BBC Any Questions in August 2016, the broadcaster and publisher Iain Dale noted UK airstrikes in Syria “haven’t killed people… because they are precision airstrikes” – an assertion that fellow panellist Labour MP Chuka Umunna agreed with. Similarly, backing the Tory Government in December 2015, Labour MP Dan Jarvis made the extraordinary claim that there had been no civilian casualties in over 300 UK airstrikes in Iraq since summer 2014.

So what are the facts about the ongoing Western air campaign in the Middle East?

Two key bits of information are often missing from any discussions of the topic. First, in April 2016 USA Today reported that new rule changes meant “The Pentagon has approved airstrikes that risk more civilian casualties in order to destroy Islamic State targets”. Worryingly, this modification itself followed a 2014 report from Yahoo News that noted “strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from US drone strikes will not apply to US military operations in Syria and Iraq.”

Second, the US and UK use highly questionable methods to monitor the number of civilian casualties. In 2012 the New York Times reported that Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” of US drone strikes that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” US counterterrorism officials insisted this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explains: that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” Not to be outdone by their American allies, in January 2016 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) told the Sunday Herald that it only investigates reports of deaths on the ground in Syria and Iraq coming from “UK military personnel, and ‘local forces’ deemed friendly.”

This, then, is presumably why the MoD recently claimed they had killed 1,700 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria since 2014 but no civilians. These figures were “an estimate based on ‘post-strike analysis’ and has not been confirmed by visits to the targeted areas”, the BBC noted. Responding to these fantastical figures Woods argued that if the MoD’s claims were true, it was “unprecedented in the history of modern warfare”. Woods also provided a pertinent comparison: “Britain is in the uncomfortable position of being in the same position as Russia in claiming that large numbers of air strikes have killed no civilians.” In contrast, Airwars’s own analysis shows the US-led coalition has conducted 16,008 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since 2014, killing an estimated minimum of 1,749 to 2,608 civilians.

Western governments – rarely questioned by a pliant media and intellectual class – have a long and shameful record of aerial bombardment and indifference to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children they have killed.

“The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive… should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany”, noted Arthur Harris, Commander of RAF Bomber Command, in 1943 (his statue was erected in London in 1992). Discussing the US bombing of Japanese cities in the same war, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson confided to President Truman that the US could “get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities”.

Between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives on Cambodia – “more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II”, according to Henry Graber writing in Atlantic magazine in 2013. “Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.” Neighbouring Laos also bore the brunt of US military aggression during this period, with the US dropping more than two million tons of ordnance in an astonishing 580,000 bombing missions, apparently making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

Visiting Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, Dr Eric Hoskins, the coordinator of a Harvard study team, noted the US-led bombardment had “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. Ten years later during the US-UK bombing of Afghanistan, the Chief of the UK Defence Staff exhibited a touching level of trust in the efficiency of the country’s political system, declaring “The squeeze will carry on until the people of the country themselves recognise that this is going to go on until they get their leadership changed.” In Pakistan, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found the US Central Intelligence Agency has carried out “double-tap” drone strikes – the tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers at the scene of a previous drone strike.

The US bombed a hospital and clinic in Fallujah in 2004, and the US-supported Iraqi government reportedly used US helicopters to drop barrel bombs on the city in 2014. The 600 airstrikes carried out by the US between July and December 2015 in Ramadi played a key role in destroying nearly 80 percent of the city. One third of Saudi Arabian-led air raids in Yemen have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. The UK supports “the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015.

Like Woods, I agree that the evidence suggests Russian bombing in Syria is deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. However, as a British citizen, I also believe my primary concern should be the actions of the UK and its allies. And it is clear Western airstrikes in the Middle East since 2014 have killed thousands of civilians, including hundreds of children: a deeply upsetting reality largely ignored or downplayed by the mainstream media, government and Labour MPs like Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna.

Comparing the West with Russia is simplistic and unhelpful (since when did Russia become the moral baseline to judge the West’s actions by?) Instead we need a more intelligent, nuanced and honest analysis of the morality of Western airstrikes. Because while the US and UK are not, it seems, deliberately targeting civilians in Iraq and Syria, neither is it satisfactory to simply state the US and UK are doing everything they can to minimise civilian casualties, and that any so-called “collateral damage” is accidental.

In reality the West carries out air campaigns comprised of thousands of airstrikes in the full knowledge it will kill non-combatants, and then goes to significant lengths to ignore – that is, cover-up – the existence of those dead civilians.

So, how should concerned citizens define this kind of behaviour? Violence, a callous disregard for the safety of others, a lack of empathy, deceitfulness, the failure to conform to social norms and respect the law – arguably the US and UK’s governments continued bombing in the Middle East exhibits many of the commonly understood symptoms of psychopathy.

Falluja: The BBC’s Paul Wood covers up US war crimes

Falluja: The BBC’s Paul Wood covers up US war crimes
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
1 December 2014

“The truth”, US Historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

A recent article by the BBC’s Paul Wood titled Iraq’s Hardest Fight: The US Battle For Falluja 2004 perfectly illustrates Zinn’s truism. Wood, an award-winning foreign correspondent, was writing about the tenth anniversary of the US assault on Falluja, when he had been embedded with US Marines attacking the Iraqi city.

For Wood the story begins on 31 March 2004, when four US private security contractors were ambushed in the centre of the city, killed, burned and strung up from a bridge. In response the US launched their first attack in April 2004, killing approximately 800 people, including around 300 women and children, before they were ordered to pull back in the face of protests across Iraq and the world. What Wood doesn’t mention is tensions in the city had been running high since April 2003 when US soldiers killed 17 protestors during a demonstration about US soldiers being stationed in a school. In the days before the lynching of the private security contractors the US military had conducted a “sweep” through the city. During this operation, The Observer noted at least six Iraqi civilians were killed, including an 11-year old boy.

Speaking about the aftermath of the first US attack, Wood repeats the official narrative of the US military, noting “Falluja became a safe haven for al-Qaeda”. In contrast, Fadhil Badrani, an Iraqi journalist and resident of Falluja who reported regularly for Reuters, wrote an article for the BBC News website in which he noted “I am not aware of any foreign fighters in Falluja.”

Turning to the second US assault in November 2004, Wood makes the most audacious and inaccurate statement I’ve ever seen made by a professional journalist: “Most of the people had left Falluja… the image of a city packed with non-combatants being pounded with artillery and white phosphorus was wrong.”

In reality, when the US attack began on 8 November 2004 the American Forces Press Service reported that out of a total population of 300,000 “officials estimate that between 50,000 and 60,000 people are left in the city”. According to the New York Times, just before the US forces moved into Falluja “heavy artillery could be heard pounding positions in or near the city every few minutes. An entire apartment complex was ground to rubble. A train station was obliterated in a hail of 2,000-pound bombs [delivered from US warplanes].” The Washington Post reported the US military used white phosphorus during the fighting, a fact confirmed by a 2005 edition of Field Artillery magazine, the official publication of the United States Army Field Artillery Corps.

While Wood’s words are a despicable example of a journalist echoing US propaganda, arguably it is what he chooses not to mention that is most shocking.

Contemporary news reports and subsequent commentary confirm the US committed a number of war crimes in Falluja. Prior to the attack, the Washington Post reported that US forces cut off Falluja’s water and electricity supply. This contravened the Geneva Conventions which states the “starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited” and led to predictable results. Rasoul Ibrahim, who fled the fighting, said “there’s no water. People are drinking dirty water. Children are dying.”

The New York Times reported that within an hour of the start of the ground attack, US troops seized the Fallujah General Hospital: “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs”. Quoting an Iraqi doctor, The Independent reported a US air strike destroyed an emergency clinic killing 20 doctors. The Geneva Conventions state that medical establishments “may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.”

US forces blocked aid convoys from reaching Falluja, only letting them enter after five days of fighting. “From a humanitarian point of view, it is a disaster, there is no other way to describe it,” Firdoos al-Ubaidi, from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said on 10 November 2004. “We have asked for permission from the Americans to go into the city and help the people there but we haven’t heard anything back from them.” At the same time they were stopping help getting to the city, US forces were preventing military aged males from leaving. “Hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”, the Associated Press reported. James Ross, Senior Legal Advisor to Human Rights Watch, said that returning unarmed men to the war zone “would be a war crime.”

Those unable to escape Falluja had to contend with US forces implementing “a strict night-time shoot-to-kill curfew” with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot”, according to The Times. Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent: “US commanders largely treated Fallujah as a free-fire zone to try to reduce casualties among their own troops.”

The outcome of this unrestrained violence was 800 dead in the first week of fighting, according to one Red Cross official. In January 2005, the director of the main hospital told the UN Integrated Regional Information Network that 700 bodies – including 550 women and children – had been recovered from just a third of the city’s neighbourhoods. Local authorities said about 60 percent of all houses in the city were totally destroyed or seriously damaged while the Falluja Compensation Committee reported that 9,000 shops, 65 mosques, 60 schools and a heritage library had been demolished. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War US academic Edward Herman penned his seminal essay The Banality Of Evil about the normalisation of “ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts”. According to Herman “there is usually a division of labour in doing and rationalising the unthinkable, with the direct brutalising and killing done by one set of individuals”, while “it is the function of the experts, and the mainstream media, to normalise the unthinkable for the general public.”

We in the West should be deeply ashamed and angry about what our armed forces did to Falluja in 2004 – described as “our Guernica” by The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele and independent journalist Dahr Jamail. Instead what we get is Wood’s embedded puff piece complete with a sub-heading referring to when “US troops and coalition forces fought their deadliest battle since the Vietnam War” (my emphasis added).

If Emily Thornberry MP has to step down form the shadow cabinet for tweeting a photo of a house decked out with English flags, then Wood should definitely go for his callous whitewashing of US war crimes in Iraq.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair.

Chemical weapons in The Newsroom

Chemical weapons in The Newsroom
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
October 2013

Much like Matt Santos’ Obama-like bid for the White House in the Aaron Sorkin-penned television drama The West Wing, the sarin gas attack storyline in The – also Sorkin written – Newsroom prophesised events in the real world. But it’s not the Syrian Government who is accused of using chemical weapons by the staff of fictional news network ACN but the American Government itself. Led by Jeff Daniels’ charismatic anchor Will McAvoy, the news team believe they have uncovered a massive cover-up by the US military.

During the discussions about whether to run the story, White Phosphorus (WP) is mentioned, with ACN’s president Charlie Skinner noting in passing that if US forces “shot White Phosphorus into an enclosed area that alone would be chemical warfare.” His remark is ignored and the narrative soon moves on. The story (spoiler alert!) turns out to be false. There was no government cover-up.

Sorkin, seen as one of the smartest guys working in television, seems to be unaware that there is no need to explore the issue in a fictional context: The US has fired WP in an enclosed area – in Falluja, Iraq in 2004, with many arguing this constituted the use of a chemical weapon. I’m not aware of any reliable figures for how many Iraqis were killed by the US use of WP in Falluja. However, a Red Cross official noted that at least 800 civilians were killed during the November 2004 US assault on the city. During the attack the US targeted medical buildings, cut off the water and electricity supply, refused entry to aid agencies and refused exit from the battle zone to males aged 15 to 55 years old.

Initially, when questions were raised the US military denied using WP as a weapon. However, in 2005 bloggers uncovered evidence showing the US had indeed deployed WP as a weapon. “WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition”, noted the March 2005 edition of the US army’s Field Artillery magazine about the US attack on Falluja in November 2004. “We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosive]. We fired ‘shake and bake’ missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out”.

Speaking to the BBC a spokesperson for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) stated that “If… the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the [Chemical Weapons] Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.”

For me, a lay person, this quote seems to show the US use of WP in Falluja in 2004 should be considered a use of chemical weapons. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot agrees, telling Democracy Now! In 2005 “The US Army was acting in direct contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It committed a war crime.” However, the chemical weapons experts I contacted for clarification were far from certain. Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the US Army’s Chemical Corps, noted “WP falls into a grey area and opinions” vary widely. Alastair Hay, a Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds, noted the OPCW definition above “requires a lawyer to interpret it.” Another expert who declined to be quoted explained that if used as an incendiary WP is not a chemical weapon, although if it is used for its toxic properties then it could be considered a chemical weapon.

While the experts stress the complexity of the issue, it should be noted the Pentagon has no problem making a clear statement on the subject. A declassified US Department of Defence document from 1991 reports that “Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorus (WP) chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels”.

All this is important when one considers how the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government in August 2013 caused an avalanche or moral outrage in the media. Taking her cue from the US and UK governments, the day after the chemical weapons attack Channel 4 News′s Sarah Smith asked “Syria chemical weapons horror – is it time for intervention?” Over at the Independent the front page headline on 26 August 2013 was ‘Syria: air attacks loom as West finally acts’. The Indy’s use of “finally” speaks volumes.

In contrast, although the possible use of chemical weapons by the US government in 2004 received some attention from the mainstream media, it was often reluctantly covered following pressure from concerned viewers and readers. There was, and continues to be, a noticeable lack of moral outrage outside of a couple of honourable exceptions like Monbiot and John Pilger. And there has been a distinct lack of further journalistic investigation, which if the experts’ uncertainty is anything to go by, is desperately needed to uncover the truth.

Arguably, Sorkin, along with many contemporary conspiracy theorists, fundamentally misunderstands how modern day propaganda works. The most effective, most insidious thought control is not based on huge cover-ups involving tens, maybe hundreds of people. After all the US use of WP in 2004 did receive some coverage in the mainstream media. But importantly it has been quickly forgotten and certainly didn’t inform the political debate about how or who should respond to the Syrian Government’s possible use of chemical weapons. War crimes happen and war criminals get away with it because the historical events are refracted and therefore shaped by non-conspiratorial journalistic and academic processes such as omission of key facts, framing, sourcing bias, subservience to power, careerism and adherence to the dominant ideology.

As with many things, George Orwell explained it best. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”, he wrote in the suppressed preface to his 1945 classic novella Animal Farm. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

The continued silence of the vast majority of UK journalists, columnists and editors clearly shows it is currently “not done” to say the US may well have used chemical weapons in Falluja in 2004. Or that the US helped Iraq to use nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq War, as Foreign Policy magazine recently reported. No doubt many journalists in Syria have also stayed silent about the many crimes of the Assad Government. And for good reason – reporting inconvenient truths in Syria today could well be life-threatening. What excuse do journalists working in our supposedly free and combative media have for their silence?