To the editors:
In “Media for War?” (Hot Type, February 22), Michael Miner told of a letter he had received from an unnamed correspondent who complained to him that U.S. media coverage of the gulf war has been “prowar,” and that Miner should therefore use his Hot Type forum to criticize this bias. “The fact that public debate about the war has been limited to the right wing and the extremely right wing is frightening to me and many others,” Miner reports his correspondent as having written. Consequently, Miner ought to “put some feet to the fire,” so to speak, and do some critical barking of his own, back at this nation’s muzzled watchdogs.
But wait a minute, Miner countered. Surely this is “heartfelt overstatement.” The U.S. media haven’t been as prowar as his correspondent, X, believes. And though it’s true the media haven’t produced “the kind of sharp leftist analysis of American militarism” that X is looking for, they haven’t all been unabashedly “Yankee Doodle,” either.
Miner gave two broad reasons why he disagrees with X. First, “Desert Storm remains a military operation that seems to be unfolding according to plan,” he explained. “That being so, the war’s still at the point where any daily paper is going to try a lot harder to cover it than to dig up fresh arguments why it’s wrong.” Second, Miner cited the Chicago Sun-Times’s February 13 edition as a counterexample to X’s case. Miner thinks that the Sun-Times’s reporting in general, and its editorials and commentaries in particular, have been dissident enough to refute the charge that the U.S. media are prowar.
Well, I happen to disagree with Miner (without exactly agreeing with his correspondent, however, who I feel has misstated his/her criticism of the U.S. media, thus leaving himself/herself open to the sort of defense of the media, and indirectly of the war itself, in which Miner engaged). So let’s take Miner’s counterexamples, and counter them with some criticisms of our own.
There is one, and only one, principled reason to oppose the gulf war: because it is unjust. The United States (with a number of lesser powers tagging along with it) is attacking Iraq for the same cynical motive that Iraq first attacked Kuwait: self-aggrandizement, power, and wealth, though I should add that the United States has an astronomically greater killing machine, and has therefore caused a much greater amount of death and destruction across Iraq than Iraq ever did to Kuwait.
Now principled opponents to the war recognize this point, and have framed their dissenting views accordingly. The slogan, “No blood for oil,” is but one expression of this recognition. Thus I would like to distinguish between the principled and what I’ll call the pragmatic critics of the war. I’ve just discussed the principled camp. How about the pragmatic camp? When its members criticize the war, it’s not because they feel Washington has no legitimate right to try to control the Middle East’s energy reserves. Nor is it because they feel the resort to military action (except in instances of national self-defense) is unjust. Rather, they make the assumption, first, that Washington does have the right to control the Middle East’s energy reserves (instead of bad Arabs such as the Iraqis); and only secondarily do they then begin to raise some doubts that Washington’s resort to military action will best enable it to achieve that goal. Among the critics of the war at the Sun-Times (with the possible exception of Vernon Jarrett and Andrew Greeley, and I have my doubts about each of them, too), no one has deviated from framing his or her opposition to it on the pragmatic terms that I’ve just outlined. No one.
A better illustration of what I mean by principled and pragmatic critics can be found in Senator Sam Nunn’s Chicago Tribune op-ed, “Gulf war can’t be ‘gray area’ conflict,” published on January 12–four days before the attack on Iraq began. Explained the Senator: “At the heart of the debate on the floor of the House and the Senate is a deeply felt difference of opinion–not over the ends of U.S. policy in the crisis, but over the means of attaining them. I continue to favor President Bush’s original strategy–economic sanctions, a continued military threat and patience.”
Aside from the fact that George Bush has never had any intention of settling for a strategy that would fall short of the obliteration of Iraq, Nunn’s comments highlight the difference between the principled and the pragmatic camps. Whereas pragmatic critics (e.g., Nunn and those columns in the Sun-Times mentioned by Miner) raise boring, secondary doubts about the best means of attaining the ends of U.S. policy (i.e., the control of oil); it remains the principled critics alone who raise the important questions about the justice of the ends of U.S. policy, and who as a consequence must be excluded from the U.S. media. Since the media have a deep and unshakable commitment to attaining the same ends of U.S. policy that the Bush administration has designed its war against Iraq to attain, the media must do whatever they can to prevent the voices of the principled opposition from being heard. In this way, the media serve the material needs of domestic power by serving the ideological needs of those prosecuting the war. And in this sense, the media are clearly prowar. Which is what Miner’s unknown correspondent was correct to try to bring to his attention–though the belief that it’s a matter of the Right versus the Left is beside the point.
Postscript. The morning after the U.S.-led destruction of Iraq had begun, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial titled “War in the cradle of civilization,” in which it was asserted that “Ruthless concentration of will and fire can be a form of kindness,” and that “war makes an essential virtue of the willingness to spill blood.” So it would seem that Michael Miner is right about the Sun-Times after all. Compared to the Genghis Khan who wrote these lines for the Trib, the Sun-Times couldn’t possibly cook up an editorial as jingoistic and bloodlusting as that.