Originally published in Peace Review 2007. Given that more and more people are beginning to recognize the extent to which the media and the government manufacture the news -- indeed, the extent to which they are constantly manufacturing history itself -- I thought it would be worth dusting it off and putting it up here on the blog.
"You'd have to be really fucking dumb to get lost on that road."
- unnamed Florida National Guardsman on duty in Iraq, expressing astonishment that Pfc. Jennifer Lynch and her team got lost and taken prisoner
PFC Jessica Lynch came home to a small town in West Virginia that was bursting at the seams with flags, bunting, and the inevitable yellow ribbons. The local residents who lined the town’s main street to wave on Jessica’s triumphal parade were outnumbered by the media, who were in a virtual swoon over the absolute perfection of this slice of pure, uncut Americana.
Speaking to the crowd after her hometown victory parade, Lynch said she was "thankful to several Iraqi citizens who helped save my life while I was in their hospital." A very class act, a very beau geste – and quite possibly her last utterance as a real, live human being.
What the media gave us on television was not the homecoming of a banged-up soldier. Rather, it was the latest episode in a national spectacle, manufactured by the U.S. government, deployed by a compliant media, and devoured by the public with the same slack-jawed credulity with which they tended to suck up the latest story line in professional wrestling.
Lynch’s story was the story of a terrified young soldier in a bad situation. It was the story of an Iraqi hospital, and the staff that did what they could with what they had to care for the wounded supply clerk. It was the story of how to generate a pure simulacrum, a perfect copy of an original that never existed. It was the story of how a person becomes a small node in the simulation. How very convenient, then, that “she basically has amnesia and has mentally blocked out the horrible things we strongly believe she went through."
“What we have witnessed is the greatest work of art there has ever been!”
Karlheinz Stockhausen, speaking of the events of 9/11
The attacks of September 11, 2001, will prove to be as significant in America as the events of Algeria or May ’68 were in France. A generation of American discourse and action will have to be filtered and strained through the funhouse prism of 9/11. The attacks have succeeded, as Baudrillard noted, in turning America into a vengeful police state hell-bent on a project to dominate the world through sheer brute force. To be precise, through the spectacle of sheer brute force. Because it is critically important to understand that what one is dealing with in America now is precisely the visual spectacle. Reality has not been devalued; it has simply been rendered irrelevant.
A new, hard truth has been missed – possibly ignored, possibly deliberately – by both the American public and the American media. Quite simply, the administration of George W. Bush is the first in American history to use manufactured propaganda and spectacle as the sole means of communication. I believe that to think of it in terms of “deception” is to dangerously miss the point. The Bush administration is, quite simply, unmatched experts of the world of simulation, masters of supplanting the “merely real” with the wholesale deployment of the manufactured hyperreal spectacle.
The star of the show, George W. Bush, replaces the real world with a sort of “sketch”, a simplistic visual suggestion, drawn with a palette of loud, primary colors. He eliminates complexity and disperses ambiguity. Both the press and the people love him for this. But he would be a bumbling, ineffectual fool were it not for his team of experts in the art of the simulation.
These are no lucky amateurs. The White House communications staff is packed with people from network television background, people with ready-for-prime-time expertise in lighting, camera angles, story line, and the importance of backdrops. They understand, in short, the concept of deploying the spectacle. One pundit commented, “They know how to build a set”, which is very much to the point. The entire war, and the entire world, is their theatre, the symbolism without the content, a pure simulacrum.
The “war” on terror, as manufactured and deployed by the Bush team, bears the same relation to the “merely real” war as a pornographic video does to “merely real” sex. But – and this is the key point – the Bush wars generate high quality porno.
“They used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff.”
- PFC Jessica Lynch
The terrorists on 9/11 produced what is, in fact, arguably the most stunning visual spectacle in recent centuries. It would not be enough for America to respond only in the realm of the real. As Baudrillard pointed out, “A symbolic challenge” was thrown down and accepted by America, but this war could not be fought in the realm of the real. It could only be fought inside the simulation. It is only winnable in the realm of the hyperreal.
The thing that strikes the outside observer is the manic, giddy, self-consciously “heartfelt” nature of the American simulation. Everyone behaves as if the cameras are always rolling. In June 2003, we read an apparently unironic news story about a regiment of US armored troops psyching themselves up for a strike against Iraqi defenders by blasting Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries through loudspeakers. We have here a truly telling example of the self-referential, recursive nature of a war that manufactures itself out of a deep well of uniquely American mythic images. It is necessary to give the Bush team credit: they are the first administration to consciously, exuberantly, and completely cut loose the mooring lines between their propaganda and the real world. No longer needing to create any ties, however tenuous, to anything in the real world, their simulation is free to manufacture itself out of pure mythos and faerie dust. In Baudrillard’s formulation, “the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum---not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.” If the simulation no longer needs to close the loop by referring back to the merely real, then the simulation can be used to manufacture anything – including meaning itself.
A story was told in the wake of 9/11 about a young man who watched the towers start to fall down from his Manhattan rooftop. As they were in mid-collapse, he left the roof to go inside to turn on his TV, hoping it would make him "understand." The public finally gets the message: the spectacle is what makes sense; the mere reality of the towers collapsing outside the young man’s window is simply a datum; it needs to be fed whole into the simulation in order for it to mean anything.
This manufactured meaning is constantly feeding into the manufacturing apparatus. The America that never was, the America of John Ford westerns and Frank Capra’s heartwarming slices of Americana, are a bottomless well of meaning from which the raw material of the simulacra can be drawn. Think, for instance, of all those homespun articles and pictures of George W. Bush “at home on the ranch” in Crawford, TX. The simulacrum stars Bush as just another sun-hardened ranch hand, comfortable and happy on the family spread but called to reluctant duty in the “big city” to save America from Evildoers. The only thing wrong with this picture is that it’s completely manufactured. The Crawford ranch is nothing more than an elaborate stage-set. Built in 2000, it serves the purpose for which it had been constructed by serving as a quintessentially American backdrop for Bush’s 2000 election bid. Most of the time, the “ranch” sits there, empty, like a set awaiting the arrival of the cast. Indeed, the town of Crawford was itself essentially manufactured as a backdrop for the Bush presidency. Before 2000, only about 400 people lived in the town. The Crawford Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture wasn’t even formed until after the “ranch” was finished. The people in the town are extras in an infrequent but recurring set piece: “The President escapes the burdens of his War On Terror by relaxing briefly at the family ranch.”
At a speech promoting his economic plan, White House communications staff experts even went so far as to ask people in the crowd behind Bush to take off their ties, so they would look more like ordinary working stiffs who would purportedly benefit from the Bush tax cut. These high-powered businessmen (and they were, overwhelmingly, men – white men, to be precise) also understood their roles as “extras” in a “scene”, and they were happy to play along.
One can trot out episode after episode, presenting them all with an increasing sense of predictable monotony. One has seen every one of these spectacles before. In the movies. On TV. The stagecraft is evocative, surprisingly subtle, but not so subtle that even the least among the audience won’t recognize the (mythic) original in the simulacrum.
Such a glorious spectacle required a top-down, damn-the-costs commitment from the Bush team to provide nothing but high-quality porno for the proles. The designers who built the $250,000 set in Qatar from which CENTCOM General “Tommy” Franks gave his daily explanation of the current state of the world also built sets for Disney, MSNBC, and “Good Morning America”.
Given such expertly executed spectacle, and given the American public’s essentially pubescent love affair with war as such, it is to be expected that it would be in war where the Bush spectacle would find its most willing spectators.
And nowhere is this stagecraft more artfully deployed than on that ultimate stage set.
In Afghanistan, one saw images of Special Forces troops on horseback with unmanned drones flying cover overhead. Those of us who still read will find the imagery evocative of Dune. Others will think of the Star Wars battle on the ice world. The hyperreal is big enough to encapsulate all contradictions and render them beautiful. Still, Afghanistan was somehow unsatisfying as a spectacle. It lacked scale and epic sweep, it did not resonate deeply enough. It was not until Iraq that the manufacturers of the simulation found a story line worthy of deploying their spectacle on a massive scale.
"The U.S. government wasn't alone in their actions. They were co-conspirators with the media ..."
For a speech delivered at Mount Rushmore, Bush’s media staff positioned the platform so that the cameras caught Bush in profile, his face perfectly aligned with the four presidents carved in stone. Perfectly aligned. One can almost hear the words of poor mad Colonel Kurtz: “ …and I thought to myself, My God! The genius of that!” This is why the media and the public love this guy. The spectacle provides endless reams of usable footage. The spectacle keeps a lot of talking heads employed. As far as the media is concerned, Bush’s simulation is simply great for business.
The new, explicit partnership between the government and the media has evolved very quickly, and has had surprisingly few startup glitches. Listening to the “embedded” reporting during the Iraq war, one could not help but be struck by the fact that the reporters sounded like soldiers, not reporters. They constantly used “we” when referring to the military unit in which they were embedded. These reporters had jumped on the team, and their bosses – and their viewing public – were completely OK with that. A post-war analysis of output generated by the “embeds” showed that 90% of their reporting was either positive or neutral.
From the government’s point of view, this ability to control the single most important aspect of their spectacle was a win of enormous magnitude (one wonders if the anonymous Pentagon bureaucrat who cooked up the “embedding” idea got a medal, or a promotion). Control of the downstream feed from the complicit media to the supine public was imperative if the parameters of the simulation were to be prevented from spinning out of control in some random, disastrous fashion.
The major vector for random disruption of the seamless hyperreality of the spectacle was those media outlets that were not on board, that were not on the team, that were not 101% committed to The Big Win. “Degrading” this steady drip-drip-drip bleeding of reality into the simulation became a full-time obsession for the American government. This obsession quickly expanded from known-hostile media (al-Jazeera is, in its own way, every bit as biased as Fox News) and soon took as its target any media that were not on the same page as the government. According to retired US Army Col. Sam Gardiner, “we will even go after friends if they are against what we are doing or want to do.”
Almost as soon as the shooting started, American proconsul L. Paul Bremer began to try and lock down the Iraqi media, along with any foreign media on the ground in Iraq. It is to the undying credit of these reporters that they, unlike the American media, resisted this pressure to get on board – often successfully. The inane claim that negative reporting would give “aid and comfort to the enemy” may have worked on the American press (who needed damned little convincing, in any case), but it was wasted on members of the Iraqi, Middle Eastern, and European press, the majority of whom saw enough of the reality on the ground to find the whole concept of “the enemy” highly problematic, at best.
America’s vaunted “free press” shamed itself in the period from 9/11 to the present. They saw the incredible potential, the visual goldmine, the opportunity to “win share” – all they had to do in return was to report what they were told to report, and not ask any questions. This the American media did, with breathtaking enthusiasm and without exception.
“A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains, but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas.”
I was eating my lunch in the break room during the war in Iraq. A co-worker, watching the big-screen TV in the corner, called over: “Coalition forces have crossed the Euphrates.” I responded, puzzled: “You mean American forces?”
He looked at me sadly and shook his head. It was obvious that I was beyond hope. To this otherwise intelligent man, the fiction of a “Coalition” was more real than the reality that the Iraq War was a US operation (with a smattering of Brits). The hyperreal is always more real, because it is more familiar. It is referential, pointing to items in America’s visual mythos in a way that the random mess of “real war” could not possibly approach.
Since 9/11, the American public has traded crusty skepticism for credulous ingestion of whatever spectacle the government deploys at any given moment – not because they particularly believe it, but because, like professional wrestling, it’s just a lot more fun if you play along.
The great and terrible beauty of the bloody shirt of 9/11 has inspired most Americans to line up in front of the tube to soak up the spectacle. In his speech to Congress shortly after 9/11, Bush announced that it was his plan to wage a war of ideas. This has not happened. He is ill equipped to wage a war of ideas.
However, it is naïve to think this was ever about ideas. Bush’s one, overarching genius is his ability to use American symbolism, the elements of the American mythos, to give Americans an alibi. If the greatest country on Earth is engaged in a battle to the death with Pure Evil, then all constraints are lifted. Anything is permitted.
In a country where 46% of the citizens are self-described ‘evangelicals’, the dizzying array of American freedoms – and the consequences of those freedoms – is often horrifying to many Americans. Profanity and nudity on TV, gay marriage and adoption, “Feces Madonna” and Mapplethorpe, on and on and on. They look at American society, at America’s ‘freedoms’, and they hate what they see. These Americans have more in common with their purported enemy than they can ever admit to themselves. This is the secret heart of darkness in post-9/11 America. But it is a secret that all but a few of the most extreme Americans must hide, even from themselves. The beauty of the simulation – complete, coherent, inspiring, heartwarming, glorious – is that it stupefies, it helps Americans to forget. Better to think about the spectacle of “our American heroes at war” than to wallow in the contingent and doubt-provoking realm of the real.
Which lures us, not surprisingly, back to where we began, to that exciting and archetypal American war drama, the stirring tale of The Lady Rambo, the episode known as “Saving Private Lynch”. We owe it to ourselves to give this tale a close look. The process by which this spectacle was manufactured and deployed has much to teach us.
“I couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart in Palestine, West Virginia. I joined the Army to get out of my home town.”
PFC Jessica Lynch
The reporters covering the Coalition Media Center in Qatar were rousted out of their beds in the wee hours of April 2, 2003. General Vincent Brooks had an exciting story to tell:
"Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a US Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq," Brooks told the sleepy reporters. He paused, as if waiting for something. As if on cue, one of the extras in the scene (in the person of CNN correspondent Tom Mintier) chimed in helpfully: “ We understand that there is video taken by a combat camera team. Can you show us that video?"
Perfectly staged, perfectly executed. Within hours, news organizations across America were running with the story of a "daring raid" in "hostile territory." The Los Angeles Times report informed their rapt readers that the Special Forces rescuers endured a "blaze of gunfire" at the hospital. The New York Times' first story was somewhat more sedate, but by the time it unveiled its second report on the story, they were reporting that "the rescue team took fire from buildings within the compound, but the troops fired back and quickly made their way into the hospital." The perfectly manufactured, gritty, green-lit footage of Lynch being rushed out of the hospital and onto a waiting chopper was played over and over again, with the mindless repetitiveness of a porno loop. It would quickly become one of the major defining images of the war – which was precisely the point.
By the second day of the deployment, all the major news outlets were reporting that the Virginia supply clerk had fought fiercely against her captors, citing anonymous government sources who were saying that Lynch "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers" after Iraqi soldiers ambushed her supply convoy, "firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition." The story soon was getting endless “News Alert” television and radio play. On NBC, Forrest Sawyer reported that "Lynch continued firing at Iraqi troops even after she was wounded," while Robin Roberts on ABC's Good Morning America announced that Lynch "fought fiercely," "shooting several Iraqis" and "emptying her weapon before being stabbed and finally taken prisoner."
One must give credit to the foreign press (most especially the European and British media) for maintaining a sane degree of distance and skepticism about the substance of this story. It soon became apparent to any viewer or reader not living in America that the reports of Lynch’s capture and the “daring rescue” had no basis in reality. She did not fire her weapon, and she was neither shot nor stabbed. Most significantly, news outlets such as the BBC and Associated Press took the trouble to actually visit the hospital from which Lynch was “rescued” to find out the reality on the ground. Iraqi doctors at the hospital reported that Iraqi soldiers had fled the scene days before the “rescue”, and hospital personnel had in fact tried to return Lynch to American lines more than once, only to be turned back. It was "like a Hollywood film," Dr. Harith al-Houssona, a physician at the hospital, told the BBC on May 18. "They shout, 'Go, go, go!', with guns and blanks...and the sound of explosions. They make a show...action moves like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan...with jumping and shouting, breaking the door." He probably did not realize the significance of his insight: “they make a show.”
Jessica Lynch, a blue-collar West Virginian who joined the Army because she could not get a job at her local Wal-Mart, got a Bronze medal, a book deal, and a made-for-TV movie because she got knocked out. She never fired her weapon. She never dived into the midst of a horde of Elite Republican Guards, screaming a wild Amazonian battle cry. She never threw herself against a gang of Fedayeen Evildoers, a Bowie knife clenched in her teeth and a live grenade in each hand. What really happened was this: she rolled her vehicle, and got knocked out.
Of course, we understand by now that “what really happened” totally misses the point. Itwas obvious to the media that this glorious simulation was selling like crack. Fox News, which threw off even the merest pretense of objectivity during the war, was pulling bigger market share by far than any other station. When ABC attempted to go back over the ground and do some objective reporting based on how the “rescue” looked to Iraqi hospital staff, they got hundreds of called complaining that ABC was “undercutting the military.”
It was clear to the American media that the American public wanted the simulation, not the reality. The spectacle “meant” more (in every sense of the word) to the American public than did the mere reality. The American press, with its highly attuned nose, quickly sensed which way the wind was blowing and enthusiastically adjusted their reporting.
Jessica Lynch as simulacrum “works”, for everyone in the loop. The media is consciously complicit in the deployment of the government-manufactured simulation. The American public is complicit in the unthinking consumption of the simulation. No one is innocent.
Jessica Lynch has been seized and extradited to a place outside of the world. Jessica Lynch is a Rorschach test of what Americans want to believe about war, and about themselves. She is an empty vessel upon which Americans can project their own fantasies, whether they be flag-waving patriotic, pro-war, anti-war, feminist, anti-feminist, anything. She is a protean simulacrum, many copies, none of them referring back to any original. How much more interesting, how much more useful, they all find Jessica Lynch the simulacrum compared to the dirt-poor supply clerk who couldn’t get a job at the local Wal-Mart.
“It no longer matters in America whether something is true or false. The population has been conditioned to accept anything: sentimental stories, lies, atomic bomb threats.”
John MacArthur, Harper’s Magazine
As I sit here hammering away on my keyboard, a television talking head comforts America, explaining that despite the gassy plume of black smoke rising from the latest truck bomb site, things are going just fine in Iraq. Despite the endless violence, he assures the American public that “the show” will go on. He reveals more than he knows. It is, indeed, a show. And it will, indeed, go on. Life is so much more enjoyable and so much more meaningful when the simulation is playing on the TV.
A colleague asked me a question yesterday: “Do you really believe that Bush, Cheney, Powell, and all them would actually lie so much and so often to the American people?” One is unable to simply answer, “Yes”. They are not lying, they are manufacturing the hyperreal. "The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is the hyperreal… which is entirely in simulation." Baudrillard is probably sitting in his flat in Paris nodding his head as he watches the realization of his insight from Amerique, that in America “there are no lies, there is only simulation.”
The “war on terror” is not a war in any conventional sense, armies clashing in combat, cities falling, refugees on the road. It is really about the mining of a rich mythos in order to manufacture public opinion. The war is not about defending civilization, it is about engineering attitudes and manufacturing consent. Even more: it is about manufacturing discourse, manufacturing the permissible way of speaking about the simulation. We see the manufacturing of neologisms that reflect a degree of subtlety and direction that cannot fail to impress.
To pick one example among the many sweet treats in this manufactured discourse, let’s pluck the word “degrade”. One constantly heard that “Coalition forces are degrading the Republican Guard divisions.” This discourse of the new simulation lacks the vocabulary to do proper justice to a trench on the side of a road leading towards Baghdad, stacked high with unburied, stinking bodies. Body parts, to be precise. “Degrading their capability” is how one translates that into the language that is spoken inside the simulation.
An anonymous Army officer on the ground (no doubt in an unguarded moment) gave us a small, succinct Rosetta Stone for mapping discourse from the simulation into words that are meaningful in the real world:
“It’s slaughter. It’s murder. It’s clubbing baby harp seals.”
By one estimate, over 10,000 Iraqi soldiers died in the war in Iraq. Yet we never got to see those stacks of body parts, sweltering in that ditch. They existed in the real world, but never bled through to into the simulacrum. Where did all those burned, stinking bodies go? And perhaps even more important: what did all those bodies mean?