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Friday, July 13, 2007

Can You Recognize Propaganda When You See it?

 
Michael Yon is a (very) freelance reporter in Iraq. He has a blog where he solicits support for his mission in Iraq. The mission is to bring the "truth" to the American public. Why does he do it?
I do it because we need to see this clearly: what happens in and to Iraq is a defining moment for our nation, and the world. This enemy is smart and they are deadly, but they are also losing. Iraq can become a strong and free nation. But it will take the constant application of pressure over time to stem the flow of blood. If we back off too soon, they will rebound. If we cut our losses and run, they will follow us home. Peace can prevail here, if we can use our strength to maintain our progress.
It's sort of refreshing to see a "journalist" who lays his cards on the table. At least he doesn't pretend to be objective, like many other journalists.

But, having declared his intentions, it falls upon his readers to interpret his writings with a great deal of skepticism. That doesn't seem to have happened recently when his story about "baked Iraqi boys" attracted the attention of the right-wing warmongers in the USA and elsewhere. It spread like wildfire.

Here's what Michael Yon wrote on July 5, 2007 [Baqubah Update: 05 July 2007].
At a meeting today in Baqubah one Iraqi official I spoke with framed the al Qaeda infiltration and influence in the province. Although he spoke freely before a group of Iraqi and American commanders, including Staff Major General Abdul Kareem al Robai who commands Iraqi forces in Diyala, and LTC Fred Johnson, the deputy commander of 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, the Iraqi official asked that I withhold his identity from publication. His opinion, shared by others present, is that al Qaeda came to Baqubah and united many of the otherwise independent criminal gangs.

Speaking through an American interpreter, Lieutenant David Wallach who is a native Arabic speaker, the Iraqi official related how al Qaeda united these gangs who then became absorbed into “al Qaeda.” They recruited boys born during the years 1991, 92 and 93 who were each given weapons, including pistols, a bicycle and a phone (with phone cards paid) and a salary of $100 per month, all courtesy of al Qaeda. These boys were used for kidnapping, torturing and murdering people.

At first, he said, they would only target Shia, but over time the new al Qaeda directed attacks against Sunni, and then anyone who thought differently. The official reported that on a couple of occasions in Baqubah, al Qaeda invited to lunch families they wanted to convert to their way of thinking. In each instance, the family had a boy, he said, who was about 11 years old. As LT David Wallach interpreted the man’s words, I saw Wallach go blank and silent. He stopped interpreting for a moment. I asked Wallach, “What did he say?” Wallach said that at these luncheons, the families were sat down to eat. And then their boy was brought in with his mouth stuffed. The boy had been baked. Al Qaeda served the boy to his family.
We're used to thinking of propaganda as something that's just made up by a disinformation committee whose job it is to discredit and demonize the enemy. But that's not how effective propaganda works. The best kinds of stories are those that can be attributed to an apparently reliable but unnamed source such as an "Iraqi official." That way you can repeat it ad nauseum without invoking any of the normal skepticism that a journalist should use. This is how we learned about rape rooms [Rape Rooms: A Chronology] and weapons of mass destruction. In some cases the source is identified but later exposed a liar (e.g. the Kuwait incubator story [ The Lie]). It doesn't seem to matter if a story turns out to be untrue once it has served its purpose.

Remember that the point of propaganda is to make your enemy look as evil as possible. That's how you justify killing them and sacrificing the lives of your troops. Both sides do it. In the case of the insurgents, the propaganda consists of endless stories about the brutality of the occupying forces and this includes stories that are just as horrible as the one quoted above.

The key for rational people is to recognize that the "good guys" aren't all that "good" and the "bad" guys aren't all bad. War is hell.

[Hat Tip: Canadian Cynic]

11 comments :

  1. But, having declared his intentions, it falls upon his readers to interpret his writings with a great deal of skepticism.

    True. And while some readers of that particular dispatch did not do that, others did.

    One of Yon's later dispatches contains an interesting snippet related to the story in question: whether it's true or not (and I do not believe it's true - it sounds like an urban legend, a story that the unnamed official got from somebody else and passed on to Yon), many Iraqis find it plausible. Hell, I find it a little plausible considering some of the other things I've read about how al-Qaeda in Iraq behaves. I certainly find it more plausible than a sweeping conclusion that any tales of atrocities by the insurgency are all propaganda with no basis in reality.

    Remember that the point of propaganda is to make your enemy look as evil as possible.

    No, it isn't. The point of propaganda is to persuade people to support your side, or at least not support the other side. If friendly persuasion works, fine. If not ... there are less friendly methods. Fear is an extremely powerful unfriendly method. If accusing the other side of atrocities will persuade people, propagandists will do so. If committing atrocities yourself will persuade people, propagandists will do so. If you doubt that, then simply consider the exercise in extortion known as a "protection racket:" you pay up and don't go to the cops, or else your store/family/something else valuable will get smashed/burned/ bombed/killed.

    The insurgents' bombing campaign in Iraq is nothing but a protection racket on an enormous scale: support them, and you're safe; support the government and you risk getting killed. The only real difference between marketplace bombings and the "baked boy" story is that this time the violence is more personal, more direct, and therefore more sickening. That should not be enough to make it less believable -- not to you, not to me, not to anyone who was alive on 9/11/2001. The lack of any direct evidence makes it not-believable. The resemblance to the blood libel and other horror stories common in the Muslim culture makes it not-believable. But not the level of savagery that it implies. There's nothing whatever unbelievable about that, not in a culture that still executes criminals by stoning or beheading, and where murdering innocents by the score is considered a virtuous act.

    The key for rational people is to recognize that the "good guys" aren't all that "good" and the "bad" guys aren't all bad.

    Interesting choice of phrasing. One might almost get the idea you're trying to draw a moral equivalence between American soldiers who kill guilty adults to protect innocent kids, and al_Qaeda bombers who kill innocent kids.

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  2. wolfwalker says,

    Interesting choice of phrasing. One might almost get the idea you're trying to draw a moral equivalence between American soldiers who kill guilty adults to protect innocent kids, and al_Qaeda bombers who kill innocent kids.

    Interesting choice of phrasing. One might almost get the impression that you're trying to make a moral distinction between the good guys and the bad guys.

    Where's the moral distinction when you know for a fact that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has led to a breakdown in civil order and the deaths of more than 100,000 innocent Iraqi citizens? What's the reason for assuming that your side occupies the moral high ground when you know full well that there's no connection between 9/11, which you mention in your comment, and Iraq?

    One other thing, you have fallen head-over-heels into the trap of assuming that all Iraqi insurgents are al Qaeda. That's clear evidence of the success of American propaganda.

    BTW, what do you make of this story [US atrocity] where US soldiers stalked, raped, and murdered an Iraqi woman then burned her corpse after killing three other members of her family? Do you assume that it's the way all American troops behave? Many Iraqis do.

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  3. Where's the moral distinction when you know for a fact that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has led to a breakdown in civil order and the deaths of more than 100,000 innocent Iraqi citizens?

    Even assuming that number is correct, most of those dead Iraqis died at the hands of other Iraqis. Who, then, is truly responsible for their deaths? The ones who were trying to do the right thing and fell afoul of unintended consequences, or the ones who intentionally and maliciously kill for personal gain, in direct violation of what their culture says is right?

    What's the reason for assuming that your side occupies the moral high ground when you know full well that there's no connection between 9/11, which you mention in your comment, and Iraq?

    Because there is a connection. NOT a direct connection, but a connection nonetheless. We aren't just at war with al_Qaeda. We're at war with islamist terrorists of all stripes. The 9/11 atrocities were carried out by islamist terrorists. Saddam worked with islamist terrorists. He gave them arms, funds, advice, training, a safe haven. He was certainly involved in the first World Trade Center bombing. He may have been involved in the Oklahoma City bombing. The pattern is clear and obvious: Saddam was a supporter of anti-American terrorism, and we had every right to take him down as part of our war against terrorists.

    BTW, what do you make of this story

    That it deserves to be investigated, and if it actually happened then those responsible should be prosecuted and sentenced to whatever punishment is appropriate. I believe the Uniform Code of Military Justice allows for the death penalty in such cases.

    By the by, did you hear that the case against one of the chief figures in the Haditha incident has fallen apart, and the case officer involved has recommended against a court-martial? The story told by the prosecution simply didn't add up.

    Do you assume that it's the way all American troops behave? Many Iraqis do.

    And many more don't. So what? Do you? It's fairly obvious that the person who wrote that article did -- which, ironically enough, argues for the article being propaganda, not news reporting, and therefore no more reliable as a source than the unnamed official who told Yon that story.

    Being fair to both sides is a bitch sometimes, ain't it? ;-)

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  4. wolfwalker says,

    Being fair to both sides is a bitch sometimes, ain't it? ;-)

    Yes, it seems to be a very difficult task for some people. When we hear of American troops behaving badly we tend to dismiss it as the actions of a few bad apples. It doesn't represent the entire army.

    When we hear of a few insurgents behaving badly we tend to attribute it to the entire group. Isn't that strange?

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  5. Geez, Larry, I know you can do better than this.

    They treat their "bad apples" as heroes and martyrs, give them promotions and honors, and glorify their actions with internet videos and photographs. We treat "bad apples" as criminals and put them in jail. A substantial difference, I would say.

    Which, to return to your post's original topic, is one good way to recognize propaganda when you see it: An entity that demonstrably tries to act with some sort of honor and integrity is more likely to tell the truth and to eschew propagandistic tactics. The fact that the war is in such bad odor among the American public right now is itself evidence of which side is using propaganda effectively.

    And please don't try to argue that in this case the public is seeing through the propaganda. We're talking about the the same American populace of which a majority believes in ghosts, monsters, homeopathy, benevolent governments, creationism, and assorted other nonsense. Do you really think that on this one issue, those same people can think clearly enough to see the real situation?

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  6. wolfwalker says,

    They treat their "bad apples" as heroes and martyrs, give them promotions and honors, and glorify their actions with internet videos and photographs. We treat "bad apples" as criminals and put them in jail. A substantial difference, I would say.

    Really? Did the insurgents who presumably baked the 11 year old boys get treated as heroes and martyrs? Do you have a reference for that?

    We're not talking about typical insurgent tactics here. Almost everyone understands the morality of those actions because we've been sympathetic towards such tactics in the past (e.g., French resistance, American revolution, American civil war). The only new feature is suicide bombings.

    It's not so much the suicide part that we don't understand though, because we've glorified all kinds of suicide missions in our literature and movies. Our suicide mission soldiers are heroes and martyrs just like theirs.

    What we're talking about is the attempt to turn your enemy into someone who is not only opposed to you but evil as well. (Have you heard about the axis of evil?) If you can turn them into evil, immoral human beings who deserve to die then the moral of your troops is protected when they have to do the kinds of things that happen in a war.

    Which, to return to your post's original topic, is one good way to recognize propaganda when you see it: An entity that demonstrably tries to act with some sort of honor and integrity is more likely to tell the truth and to eschew propagandistic tactics.

    Which side is acting with honor and integrity? Haven't you already fallen for the American propaganda by assuming that your side has a hammerlock on honesty and integrity? Do you honestly believe that the invasion and occupation of Iraq shows that you occupy the moral high ground?

    The fact that the war is in such bad odor among the American public right now is itself evidence of which side is using propaganda effectively.

    Yes, I agree that the people of the Middle East have done a very effective job. They've gotten their message across in the face of massive obstacles. We've reached the point in the West where we're beginning to listen to the underlying causes of discontent in the Middle East.

    Who knows, maybe in a few years the American (and Canadian etc.) public will be able to discuss the causes of 9/11 without just blindly assuming that it was evildoers who were attacking our freedom.

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  7. Larry, your ignorance of history is showing.

    There are no new tactics being used by the Iraqi insurgents. Not one. Even suicide bombing has precedents. Muslim terrorists have been doing that sort of thing for almost a quarter century -- the Lebanon barracks bombing in 1983 was carried out by a suicide bomber driving a truck bomb.

    The only thing new about the insurgency is that the enemy has learned how to effectively manipulate the media to their advantage. After twenty years of watching the Western intelligentsia malign and defame its own culture and its defenders, the terrorists have figured out that if they use the right buzzwords in their videos and press releases and public speeches, then useful idiots in the West will readily draw a parallel between uniformed soldiers who kill the guilty to protect the innocent, and terrorists who kill the innocent to empower the guilty.

    Haven't you already fallen for the American propaganda by assuming that your side has a hammerlock on honesty and integrity?

    Haven't you fallen for the terrorists' anti-American, anti-Western propaganda by assuming that acts of mass murder like 9/11 and the African embassy bombings can somehow be justified on the basis that the targets were American? Do you really believe that you don't have the right to oppose their desire to murder you and yours, simply because that desire is based in religion? You're so aggressive about denouncing the verbal assaults committed by Christian fundamentalism, yet so passive about denouncing the real attacks committed by Muslim fundamentalists? If 9/11 had been committed by Christian fundamentalists angry about the so-called 'war against Christianity,' would you be so ready to believe it was justified?

    Larry, you're like most liberals: you're so determined not to be taken in by your government's propaganda that you've forgotten how to skeptically analyze the enemy's propaganda. So, in the end, the answer to the question you asked is No, you can't recognize propaganda when you see it. But I can, precisely because I do remember that neither side can be assumed to be good or bad. I've never forgotten that skepticism has to work both ways, or it isn't true skepticism anymore. I don't believe anything that either side tells me without checking the facts -- all the facts. You should do the same.

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  8. How very conservative to asume that one can't think that both sides are wrong.

    To think that by identifying the cause of 9/11 you agree with the action.

    Reality is not that polarized.

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  9. Larry,

    I wonder what it would be like to be a professor in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or Syria, etc. If you had been born there, I wonder how well your skeptics meetings would be welcomed and how much you would be permitted to pursue materialistic evolution or create a pro-evolution blog. Sharing your opinions on a blog is a right and privilege provided and respected by people in free countries and Christians like me, not the ones you defend by your criticism of the U.S. in Iraq. As a Canadian once told me, "We appreciate it that the U.S. is willing to do the dirty work."

    The tyranny in Iraq has been going on ever since Roosevelt made a deal with King Saud in the middle of WWII, in order to get enough oil to survive a fascist assault on freedom in the world. Ever since then, a small but bloodthirsty band of tribal perverts has been threatening, intimidating, kidnapping, torturing and murdering innocent defenseless people, and holding their own religion hostage. Are you old enough to remember the hundreds of hijacked civilian airliners, the Munich Olympics, or Leon Klinghoffer? Tyranny is to the world as cancer is to the body.

    Why don't you stick to your profession, where your expertise has depth, instead of indulging in shallow loose political rhetoric?

    Dragon

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  10. Dear Dragon,

    The question was "Can you recognize propaganda when you see it?"

    Thank-you for showing us your answer.

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  11. Of course this is an easy one. If you were to figure out who has more credibility on what is going on, on the ground, in Iraq -- would you pick the tenured professor in Canada? Or would you pick the guy who is in Iraq...

    And on issues of war, would you pick the tenured professor of biochemistry in Canada, or the soldier...

    Much as you on the left try, you really are going to have a tough time with this one. Baking a child, serving the boy with fruit in his mouth, isn't nearly as extreme as other actions these thugs have taken. Actual prior acts, not speculation, are far worse than this.

    Fruit in the mouth, baked, implies the boy was likely dead before they set the pre-heat to 350... Since the goal was terror and to show the parents the baked boy, the method of death or the death itself wasn't the key issue, so like the boy was shot or stabbed, a quick death. Unlike the prior acts, such as sawing off heads of living people where the slow, painful, and bloody death was the key point.

    The shock with the boys was baking them, the shock of prior acts was the death itself.

    So the tenured professor (of biochemistry) is actually suggesting the islamic terrorists are not actually getting nicer, more tame. Because they aren't baking boys.

    Of course that's not his goal. His goal is to suggest that he and islamic thugs are one and the same. Just guys, all equal. Although the islamic thugs are a bit miffed due to actions taken by the West, namely the US. Otherwise islamic thugs and tenured Canadian professors are identical...

    In a sense they are, as I consider both to be useless. Though you can throw in most tenured professors worldwide.

    islam has a nice track record. The odds are strong that another massive terrorist action against civilians will occur in the not to distant future.

    As long as it's a given, I can only hope that the building hit is filled with media types ("mainstream"), tenured professors, Hollywood / entertainment types, and key liberal-left politicians.

    I'd almost be willing to leave a piece of my heart to islam if I could get a snapshot of the moment inside. Where one can sees the shock and awe of the moment -- when that collection of morons understands it was wrong.

    That would almost be worth it. And since we will be hit again, might as well be a hit on those who deserve it.

    Harsh huh, you are astonished eh? How could someone wish that on anyone?? Please, your type wishes it on others daily. And when your objectives and goals are turned into policy, you do bring this on others.

    Remember, Clinton was the touchy-feelie president who "the world loved," remember?? But that's when the islamic thugs planned 911. And if they had their way, "911" would have occurred late in the Clinton presidency or much earlier in the Bush Administration. the islamic thugs had no idea there was a Bush when they started the plans for their acts.

    Had we dropped a few bombs on the thugs heads (along with the heads of their wives, girlfriends, boy friends and children) back in the 1990's, 09/11/2001 would have been like most other days. But that would have required a Clinton who was more like Bush.

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