The charge of the media brigade: John Pilger on the Pentagon's PR

Behind the Pentagon’s façade of honourable motives for invading other countries lies a history of violence and PR

Washington: The TV anchorwoman was conducting a split-screen interview with a journalist who had volunteered to be a witness at the execution of a man on death row in Utah for 25 years. "He had a choice," said the journalist, "lethal injection or firing squad." "Wow!" said the anchorwoman. Cue a blizzard of commercials for fast food, tooth whitener, stomach stapling, the new Cadillac. This was followed by a reporter in Afghanistan sweating in a flak jacket. "Hey, it's hot," he said on the split screen. "Take care," said the anchorwoman. "Coming up" was a reality show in which the camera watched a man serving solitary confinement in a prison's "hell hole".

The next morning I arrived at the Pentagon for an interview with one of President Barack Obama's senior war-making officials. There was a long walk along shiny corridors hung with pictures of generals and admirals festooned in ribbons. The interview room was purpose-built. It was blue, ice cold, windowless and featureless except for a flag and two chairs: props to create the illusion of a place of authority. The last time I was in a similar room at the Pentagon, a colonel called Hum stopped my interview with another war-making official when I asked why so many innocent civilians were being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then it was in the thousands; now it is more than a million. "Stop tape!" he had ordered.

Information warriors

This time there was no Colonel Hum, merely a polite dismissal of soldiers' testimony that it was a "common occurrence" that troops were ordered to "kill every motherfucker". The Pentagon, says the Associated Press, spent $4.7bn in 2009 alone on public relations: that is, winning the hearts and minds not of recalcitrant Afghan tribesmen, but of Americans. This is known as "information dominance" and PR people are "information warriors".

American imperial power flows through a media culture to which the word imperial is anathema. Colonial campaigns are really "wars of perception", wrote the present commander, General David Petraeus, in which the media popularise the terms and conditions. "Narrative" is the accredited word because it is postmodern and bereft of context and truth. The narrative of Iraq is that the war is won, and the narrative of Afghanistan is that it is a "good war". That neither is true is beside the point. They promote a "grand narrative" of a constant threat and the need for permanent war. "We are living in a world of cascading and intertwined threats," wrote the celebrated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "that have the potential to turn our country upside down at any moment."

Friedman supports an attack on Iran, whose independence is intolerable. This is the psychopathic vanity of great power that Martin Luther King described as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world". He was then shot dead.

The psychopathic is applauded across popular, corporate culture, from the TV death watch of a man choosing a firing squad over lethal injection to the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker and a new acclaimed war documentary, Restrepo. The directors of both films deny and dignify the violence of invasion as "apolitical". And yet, behind the cartoon façade is serious purpose. The US is engaged militarily in 75 countries. There are said to be as many as 900 US military bases across the world, many at the gateways to the sources of fossil fuels.

But there is a problem. Most Americans are opposed to these wars and to the billions of dollars spent on them. That their brainwashing so often fails is America's greatest virtue. This is frequently due to courageous mavericks, especially those who emerge from the centrifuge of power. In 1971, the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which put the lie to almost everything two presidents had claimed about Vietnam. Many of these insiders are not even renegades. I have a section in my address book filled with the names of former CIA officers who have spoken out. They have no equivalent in Britain.

Imperialism's face

In 1993, C Philip Liechty, the CIA's operations officer in Jakarta at the time of Indonesia's murderous invasion of East Timor, described to me how President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had given the dictator Suharto a green light, secretly supplying the arms and logistics he needed. As the first reports of massacres landed on his desk, Liechty began to turn. "It was wrong," he said. "I felt badly."

Melvin Goodman is now a scholar at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He was in the CIA for more than 40 years and rose to be a senior Soviet analyst. When we met the other day, he described the conduct of the cold war as a series of gross exaggerations of Soviet "aggressiveness" that wilfully ignored the intelligence that the Soviets were committed to avoid nuclear war at all costs. Declassified official files on both sides of the Atlantic support this view. "What mattered to the hardliners in Washington," Goodman said, "was how a perceived threat could be exploited." The present secretary of defence, Robert Gates, as deputy director of the CIA in the 1980s, was one of those who had hyped the "Soviet menace" and is, says Goodman, doing the same today "on Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran".

Little has changed. In America, in 1939, W H Auden wrote:

As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives [. . .]
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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Is the Catholic Church about to welcome the LGBT community?

Something beneath the surface is shifting in the Catholic Church regarding its attitude to gay people, as its Synod on the Family gets underway.

Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!

The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.

Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening...

Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.

Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”.  Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.

What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”.  Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It's key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.

This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.

Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.

Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people's lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to  evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.

Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.

So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.

Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.

Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.

Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.

In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin "temptations" that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to "chart a middle course between 'hostile inflexibility' to the letter of the law and a 'false sense of mercy'”.

Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.

In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.

The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.

Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.

That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!

Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.