Why are we surprised by war lies?

Those shocked by the 'sexed-up' evidence against Iraq appear to have forgotten about the twentieth century.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Stop the press: ‘British Prime Minister Exaggerates Case For War!’ Hold the front page: ‘Journalist Sexes Up News Report!’ Read all about it: ‘Bear Shits In Woods!’

Why are so many shocked by revelations that UK prime minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush exaggerated Saddam’s threat in order to justify going to war? In Britain, the Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of Ministry of Defence scientist David Kelly has pored over government emails, phone logs and minutes, in an effort to determine who ‘sexed up’ Britain’s dossier against Iraq. Yesterday’s evidence at Hutton – where BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan admitted that he sexed up his own reports on what Kelly did and didn’t say about the dossier – generated shock-horror headlines (‘Sack the hack’), as if journalists never exaggerate or embellish.

In the USA, commentators and opposition politicians have called for Bush to be impeached for his ‘shocking lies’ about Iraq. One Democrat presidential candidate says there is ‘nothing worse’ than taking a nation into war on false pretences. This morning, former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix hit the headlines by criticising Bush and Blair’s ‘culture of hyping’. ‘Advertisers will advertise a refrigerator in terms they don’t quite believe in, but you expect governments to be more serious and have more credibility’, said Blix – which is a bit rich from a man who, unlike the British and American governments, has never been elected, and who derives his authority on the world stage from the notion that states like Iraq and North Korea are potentially dangerous and in need of some thorough weapons inspections (1).

Why should we, in the words of Blix, expect governments to be more ‘serious’ and ‘credible’ during a time of war? Have these journalists, politicians and unelected Swedish businessmen forgotten about the twentieth century? Have we forgotten the words spoken by American Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917, that ‘the first casualty when war comes is truth’? From the Boer War of 1899 to the Kosovo War of 1999, British and American leaders have lied, exaggerated and invented for the purposes of launching and justifying military ventures. Indeed, if we take a step back and apply some historical perspective, Bush and Blair’s Iraq exaggerations look like minor crimes when compared to the all-out lies of earlier eras – lies that some of today’s outraged reporters and politicians often accepted and repeated.

In the first major conflict of the twentieth century – the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, between the British Empire and the Boers of South Africa – the British government pulled out all the stops to demonise the Boers as ‘barbarians’. British ministers and officials sought to justify an unpopular war in defence of the British Empire’s interests as a decent British attempt to put down the ‘rebellious’ Boers. In the words of investigative journalist Phillip Knightley, in his excellent The First Casualty, ‘the government did everything it could to mobilise public opinion for Queen and Country’, which involved ‘creating animosity against the enemy with a timeless ploy – the atrocity story’ (2).

The British government, assisted by loyal newspapers, simply invented atrocity stories. British audiences were told that the cold-blooded Boers ‘sometimes ate parts of their victims’ – and because there was no evidence to back up such claims, newspaper reports were often accompanied by graphic drawings that imagined what might have occurred. In the early months of the war, a government-backed newsreel showed shocking footage of a Red Cross tent under fire from the Boers, as brave British doctors and nurses tried desperately to treat a wounded British soldier – except that the film was a fake, shot with actors on Hampstead Heath in north London, thousands of miles from the fighting in South Africa (3).

Journalists played their part in depicting the Boers as ruthless killers. One such journalist was 25-year-old Winston Churchill, who, although he was in South Africa as a reporter for the Morning Post, sometimes joined British operations against the Boers using his trusted ‘Mauser pistol’ – ‘in contravention of a War Office ruling that no man should be both correspondent and soldier’ (4). Such was the willingness of reporters to tell lies, damn lies and atrocity stories about the Boers, that Edgar Wallace of the Daily Mail was told by the British government to tone down his articles, after he wrote ‘such vivid atrocity stories on such flimsy evidence’ (5).

British war propaganda reached new heights in the First World War from 1914 to 1918. Again, a war to defend the British Empire’s power and profits was depicted as a necessary action against a ruthless aggressor – this time the German Kaiser and his bloodthirsty troops. The British set up the Parliamentary War Aims Committee, which was charged with convincing the British public that Britain was being reluctantly pulled into war by the barbarism of the Germans in Europe and elsewhere. Lord Northcliffe, the then proprietor of The Times and the Daily Mail, dutifully told his editors that, ‘The Allies must never be tired of insisting that they were the victims of a deliberate aggression’.

The Parliamentary War Aims Committee played a central role in spreading myths and rumours about the Germans’ conduct in Europe. The British public were fed a diet of wild claims and untruths. They were told that during the German invasion of Belgium, ‘nuns were violated, children mutilated and thousands of men lined up and slaughtered’ (6); and that after the fall of Antwerp, local priests who had tolled the bells to warn of the Germans’ advance were strung up and used as clappers on the very same bells (7). British ministers argued that Britain had a ‘moral obligation’ to protect poor beleaguered Belgium from the rapine Hun (8).

As for dodgy dossiers – in 1915, a committee of lawyers and historians under Lord Bryce, Britain’s former ambassador to the USA, produced the ‘Bryce Report’ into alleged German atrocities. ‘Murder, lust and pillage’, said the report, ‘on a scale unparalleled in any war between civilised nations during the last three centuries’ (9). The report contained stories of how German officers had publicly gang-raped 20 Belgian girls in a marketplace, how eight German soldiers had bayoneted a two-year-old child, and how one soldier had sliced off a Belgian peasant girl’s breasts. The newspapers had a field day in response to such stories, carrying illustrations of Germans beheading babies and eating their flesh.

The Bryce Report was translated into 30 languages, and used to show the world that Britain was defending plucky Belgium against the lunatic Germans, rather than defending its own interests. Yet in 1922, a Belgian commission of enquiry failed to corroborate a single major allegation in the Bryce Report. By then, however, the British had published the ‘Blue Book’, a back catalogue of German atrocities in Africa as well as in Europe – another publication that was heavy on rhetoric and light on evidence.

American war propaganda came into play in the Second World War. Questionable claims were used to justify both America’s response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and its atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

On 7 December 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked the headquarters of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Then US President Franklin Roosevelt condemned Japan for its ‘surprise offensive’ and ‘unprovoked and dastardly attack’. It became widely accepted that America was reluctantly drawn into war by the Japanese. Yet evidence that has emerged since suggests that America knew that its hostile trade sanctions against the Japanese over the previous decade were likely to provoke some form of attack, and even that US officials may have had prior knowledge of Japan’s plans to bomb America.

On 25 November 1941, just two weeks before Pearl Harbor, there was a top-level meeting at the White House where, according to then US secretary for war Henry Stimson, President Roosevelt ignored the agenda and ‘brought up entirely the relations with the Japanese’. ‘He brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked, perhaps [as soon as] next Monday’, wrote Stimson in his diary, ‘for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what should we do. The question was how we should manoeuvre them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves’ (10).

In Britain, Churchill’s government concurred that some kind of Japanese attack was bound to take place. ‘America provoked Japan to such an extent that the Japanese were forced to attack Pearl Harbor’, said Captain Oliver Lytletton, production minister in Churchill’s cabinet, in 1944: ‘It is a travesty on history ever to say that America was forced into war.’

Likewise, the Americans justified their atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as a ‘regrettable’ but necessary act, to speed the end of the Second World War. Then President Harry Truman claimed that, ‘The only language [the Japanese] seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast’ (11). Much of the US media ran with this ‘beast’ line, depicting the Japanese as apes or vermin, intent on destroying the civilised world.

Yet, again, evidence suggests that US intelligence officials had been aware that Japan was on the verge of surrendering. After the Second World War, the US government’s own Strategic Bombing Survey concluded: ‘Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.’ (12)

In the 1960s, America’s Vietnam War was launched on the back of a lie. On 2 August 1964, US officials claimed that communist forces from North Vietnam had launched an ‘unprovoked attack’ on a US destroyer ship that was on a routine patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, on 4 August, US officials said that the Northern Vietnamese followed up with another ‘deliberate attack’ on two more US ships. Yet the first Vietnamese attack on 2 August was in response to American hostility, not a routine patrol – and the second attack on 4 August never even occurred. It was a fabrication.

US scholar Daniel C Hallin points out that the day before the Vietnamese attacked US ships on 2 August, ‘two attacks on North Vietnam…had taken place’, which were ‘part of a campaign of increasing military pressure on the North that the United States had been pursuing since early 1964’ (13). The second alleged Vietnamese attack, however, was an outright invention of US officials, who were keen to convince the American public that US forces should take action against the Vietnamese communists.

It had the desired effect on American newspapers. The Los Angeles Times encouraged Americans to ‘face the fact that the communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities’ (14). The New York Times praised President Lyndon Johnson’s speech on 4 August 1964, in which he repeated the Gulf of Tonkin lie, for its ‘sombre facts’ (15).

In more recent times, myths and fabrications were used to justify America and Britain’s Gulf War of 1991. In a war in which US and UK officials made numerous outrageous claims about the Iraqis, perhaps the most shocking was the story of Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait taking babies from incubators and leaving them to die on hospital floors. As Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber point out in their new book Weapons of Mass Deception, ‘The story was widely believed at the time of its telling, and was not discredited until after the war ended’ (16).

Of course, no such thing happened. The ‘babies thrown from incubators’ story was the invention of PR firms and Kuwaiti officials. Nine days after the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, the government-in-exile of Kuwait, with the support of the USA, signed a contract with a global PR firm. The firm was charged with ‘persuading Americans that they should support a war to reclaim [Kuwait] from Iraq’ (17). A group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait was set up, which was granted $11.9million by the Kuwaiti government – $10.8million of which went directly to PR men in the form of fees (18).

On 10 October 1990, there was a Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington. There, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl called Nayirah gave a moving testimony of how she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers running riot in a Kuwaiti Hospital. ‘They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die’, she said. It later transpired, after the story had made its way around the world, that little Nayirah was the daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the USA, and that she had been coached by media experts (19). Two Kuwaiti doctors pointed out that where Nayirah had spoken of ‘hundreds’ of incubators being emptied of babies, in fact there were only a handful of incubators in the whole of Kuwait.

During Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s Kosovo War of 1999, British and American officials made claims about Serb atrocities that later proved to be untrue – yet they were repeated by much of the media at the time. On 16 May 1999, US defence secretary William Cohen claimed that the Yugoslav army had killed up to 100,000 Kosovo Albanian men of military age. On 17 June 1999, Geoff Hoon, then minister of state in the UK Foreign Office, claimed that 10,000 people had been killed by the Serbs in more than 100 massacres, although ‘the final toll may be much worse’. Tony Blair claimed that Yugoslavia was ‘set on a Hitler-style genocide equivalent to the extermination of the Jews during World War Two’ (20).

Yet four years later, as Neil Clark pointed out in the Spectator in June this year, ‘The total body count of civilians killed in Kosovo in the period 1997 to 1999 is still fewer than 3000, a figure that includes not only those killed in open fighting and during NATO air strikes, but also an unidentified number of Serbs’ (21). At the Trepca mine in Kosovo – where in 1999 NATO claimed that 700 bodies were dumped, in a place that the media said would ‘live alongside…Belsen, Auschwitz and Treblinka’ – UN investigators have found nothing (22).

Many of those who today criticise the British and American governments for exaggerating the threat of Saddam’s Iraq not only accepted the Kosovo propaganda – they played a role in formulating it. Labour MP Robin Cook, who resigned earlier this year over the Iraq war, was foreign secretary during Kosovo and, as one headline put it, helped to ‘mislead the public on Kosovo massacres’. Clare Short, another Labour cabinet member who resigned over Iraq, also supported the Kosovo war as a necessary stand against Serbia’s ‘genocide’. As for the media, currently obsessing over who is to blame for Britain’s dodgy dossier on Iraq, they were happy to run with headlines like ‘Another Holocaust’ and ‘Europe’s genocide’ in 1999, complete with aerial shots showing the locations of Kosovo’s alleged mass graves.

In comparison with this earlier war propaganda, the questionable evidence used to justify Gulf War II looks less like conscious and conspiratorial lying, than a case of moral myopia. The Blair government’s 45-minutes claims, the Bush administration’s unconvincing claims of a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda – these do not rank up there with Britain’s First World War ‘Bryce Report’ or America’s Gulf of Tonkin lie. Rather, this looks like a case of Bush and Blair seeing what they want to see, picking the ‘evidence’ that best suits their claims to moral authority against Iraq and other ‘evil’ states.

Today, it is not so much the seriousness of Bush and Blair’s exaggerations that explains why the pre-war evidence has dominated the headlines and public debate – rather, the changing relationship between the political elite and the media has created fault-lines between sections of the establishment over numerous issues, including war. Where both sides generally supported wars in the past, today there are public and messy clashes over such heated issues. Consequently, the current critique of Bush and Blair’s evidence often appears as a cynical kneejerk response rather than a principled challenge to war and misinformation.

Of course, Bush and Blair should still be challenged. But we would do well to inject the debate with some realism and perspective, rather than behaving like naive children shocked that grown-ups do such bad, bad things.

(1) Blix attacks ‘spin and hype’ of Iraq weapons claims, Reuters, 18 September 2003

(2) The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley, Prion Books, 2000

(3) The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley, Prion Books, 2000

(4) The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley, Prion Books, 2000

(5) The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley, Prion Books, 2000

(6) ‘Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’, Spectator, 4 September 1999

(7) ‘Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’, Spectator, 4 September 1999

(8) The causes of World War One,, 21 June 2003

(9) The Bryce Report: Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, His Britannic Majesty’s Government, 1915

(10) See Pearl Harbor: the prequel, by Daniel Nassim

(11) Letter from President Truman to Mr Samuel McCrea Cavert, 11 August 1945

(12) Responses to dropping the bomb, Nuclear Files, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2003

(13) 30-year anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie launched Vietnam War, Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Media Beat, FAIR, 27 July 1994

(14) 30-year anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie launched Vietnam War, Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Media Beat, FAIR, 27 July 1994

(15) 30-year anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie launched Vietnam War, Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Media Beat, FAIR, 27 July 1994

(16) Weapons of Mass Deception, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Constable and Robinson Ltd, 2003

(17) Weapons of Mass Deception, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Constable and Robinson Ltd, 2003

(18) Weapons of Mass Deception, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Constable and Robinson Ltd, 2003

(19) Weapons of Mass Deception, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Constable and Robinson Ltd, 2003

(20) ‘How the battle lines were drawn’, Neil Clark, Spectator, 14 June 2003

(21) ‘How the battle lines were drawn’, Neil Clark, Spectator, 14 June 2003

(22) ‘How the battle lines were drawn’, Neil Clark, Spectator, 14 June 2003

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Topics Politics


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