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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.