Monday, February 4, 2008

On Prestige and Power and War Crimes

I wrote about this only a few weeks ago, but I still can't get my head around how this story played out in the press. (I could cite many more examples of this national noblesse oblige, such as revelations from the Downing Street Memo, on Abu Ghraib, on illegal wiretapping, on secret prisons, etc.)

From the Center for Public Integrity:
President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses....

In short, the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003.
I simply can't understand why this story hasn't gotten more traction. As a matter of sound evidence of governmental deception and war crimes, it couldn't be clearer. Yet, at the mageristerial press conferences and speeches by governmental personnel, we witness continuing deference, and acceptance of lies and spins, with the promise of cocktail parties later for the "in" crowd who never make waves. Is it really all about access to power?

Who has more prestige than the powerful? Where can we find more deception than in the highest echelons of the societal apparatus?

1546, "practicing illusion or magic, deceptive," from L. præstigious "full of tricks," from præstigiæ "juggler's tricks," probably altered by dissimilation from præstringere "to blind, blindfold, dazzle," from præ- "before" + stringere "to tie or bind" (see strain (v.)). Prestige is from 1656, from Fr. prestige "an illusion" (16c.). These words were derogatory until 19c.; prestige in the sense of "dazzling influence" was first applied 1815, to Napoleon. Prestigious with this sense is attested from 1913
Privilege is prestige, and prestige, in its fundamental nature as in the etymology of the word, means deception and enchantment. Again the line of development is continuous from the magician-leader of the simpler societies to the priest-king or god-king of the first civilization, as indeed Frazer showed fifty years ago.

Power was originally sacred, and it remains so in the modern world. Again we must not be misled by the flat antimony of the sacred and the secular, and interpret as "secularization" what is only a metamorphosis of the sacred. If there is a class which has nothing to lose but its chains, the chains that bind it are self-imposed, sacred obligations which appear as objective realities with all the force of a neurotic delusion. (Life Against Death, Norman O. Brown, Vintage Books, 1959, p. 252)
What else but neurotic delusion or mass denial could account for the fact that U.S. citizens have failed to react to the fact that its government has in the past five years killed over one million people? As Reuters reports:
LONDON (Reuters) - More than one million Iraqis have died as a result of the conflict in their country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to research conducted by one of Britain's leading polling groups.

The survey, conducted by Opinion Research Business (ORB) with 2,414 adults in face-to-face interviews, found that 20 percent of people had had at least one death in their household as a result of the conflict, rather than natural causes....

The margin of error in the survey, conducted in August and September 2007, was 1.7 percent, giving a range of deaths of 946,258 to 1.12 million.
The Reuters story notes the now long-simmering controversy over the Iraq death toll. The OMB poll results are themselves a reduction from a study OMB initially reported last September that found 1.2 million Iraqis had died as the result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A Lancet study in 2004 found 100,000 had died as a result of the initial U.S. invasion. A second study in 2006 reported "654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5% of the population."

The website Iraq Body Count reports between 80,000 and 90,000 civilian deaths due to the war to date. But then IBC uses a "media-centered" approach to body counting:
The project uses reports from English-language news media (including Arabic media translated into English) to compile a running total. In its "Quick-FAQ" the IBC states: "It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war."
The statistical approach of the ORB is said to have the backing of many statisticians and epidemiologists, who use many of the same techniques in other studies of populations. Indeed, the U.S. Census uses household sampling methodologies, although not without its own concurrent controversies. (See this excellent article at Science News for a relevant discussion of statistical sampling issues.)

To make matters worse, counting Iraqi bodies has become even more difficult since "the surge," i.e., the escalation of the war. the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq discovered early last year, verifying the numbers independently is impossible because, since the U.S. escalation nicknamed the "surge" began one year ago, the Iraqi government has refused to share its raw mortality data with UNAMI [United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq] or other outside sources. Many human rights advocates, including UN Human Rights Officer Ivana Vucco, have said this step was taken under pressure from the United States to conceal the real level of violence.
No matter how you want to look at it, the U.S. government is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. And not the government only as a whole, but specific people in the government, individuals who are as directly responsible as the Nuremburg defendents were for the crimes of Hitler's regime. But you wouldn't know it if you watched the mass media spectacle that is modern America.

The famous playwright Arthur Miller is reported to have said that an era only comes to an end when its basic illusions are exhausted. The era of U.S. imperial policy and war hubris is not over. The illusions of much of the population in the goodness and right of the government, and the elite that staffs the top layers of government, remain alive, and seemingly oblivious to change. Yet underneath it all, the worm of change and transformation silently gnaws, and the presitigious apparatus that girds the temples and monuments of power awaits its Ozymandian moment.

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