Sovereignty Shattered By Brute Force

“My job in Vietnam was to kill people. By the time I was first injured in combat (two or three months into my tour), I had already been directly responsible for the deaths of several hundred people. And today, each day, I can still see many of their faces.”

So writes Claude Anshin Thomas of his role as a crew chief on US assault helicopters in the Vietnam war. Thomas recounts one particular incident among many:

“We flew in with a heavy-fire team… opened fire, and without thought destroyed the entire village. We destroyed everything. The killing was complete madness. There was nothing there that was not the enemy. We killed everything that moved: men, women, children, water buffalo, dogs, chickens. Without any feeling, without any thought. Simply out of this madness. We destroyed buildings, trees, wagons, baskets, everything. All that remained when we were finished were dead bodies, fire, and smoke. It was all like a dream; it didn’t feel real. Yet every act that I was committing was very real.” (Thomas, At Hell’s Gate – A Soldier’s Journey From War To Peace, Shambhala, 2004, p.20)

Like veterans of every conflict on all sides, the war never ended for Thomas. The suffering he had inflicted and experienced drove him to further violence, hatred, self-hatred, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, homelessness, the brink of suicide and other torments. In his book, At Hell’s Gate – A Soldier’s Journey From War To Peace, Thomas describes how he found sanity in awareness and acceptance of his suffering, and in compassion for himself and others. Having ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk, Thomas has devoted his life to peace activism, visiting war zones around the world, and completing a 5,000-mile peace pilgrimage from Auschwitz in Poland to Vietnam.

Thomas has a key message for all of us about the real nature and origins of violence:

“It is important to realise that veterans are not the only ones who bear responsibility for the atrocities of war. Nonveterans sanction war, support the waging of war, supported troops being sent to Vietnam – and it is nonveterans who so often turn their backs on the returning soldiers in an effort to avoid their own complicity in the war… But if we look deeply into this matter, we can know that those who don‘t fight are not separate from those who fight; we are all responsible for war. War is not something that happens external to us; it is an extension of us, its roots within our very nature. It happens within all of us.” (Ibid, pp.50-51)

What does it say about our culture, after all, Thomas asks, that we seem to thrive on violence, both staged and real; that our DVD shops and film channels are simply packed with killing?

Journalists and politicians also experience the dream-like sense that their actions are disconnected from the suffering they cause. But their actions, also, are very real.

It is astonishing to reflect, for example, that our mass media system is not in fact state-controlled. Who could guess from the unvarying support of our media corporations for mass violence committed by our government and its allies? From their eager demonisation of leaders and countries labelled ‘enemies’ of the state? From their consistent indifference to the mass death of our victims? As Respect MP George Galloway recently told one hapless Sky News interviewer:

“You don’t give a damn. You don’t even know about the Palestinian families. You don’t even know that they exist… Because you believe, whether you know it or not, that Israeli blood is more valuable than the blood of Lebanese or Palestinians. That’s the truth, and the discerning of your viewers already know it.” (Galloway, Sky News, 0,,galloway_060806-31200-bb,00.asx)

But do journalists see themselves as instruments of a killing machine? The idea strikes them as preposterous – they are just doing a job like anyone else.

In 1999, the journalist John Gray joined a government-inspired chorus of media outrage:

“Air power alone cannot stop ethnic massacres. Hi-tech weaponry can inflict considerable damage on the military infrastructures of government that sanction such savagery. They cannot round up the ethnic militias which commit the atrocities. For that, the boots of a disciplined army need to be firmly on the ground. The logic of Nato intervention in Kosovo points inexorably to the use of ground troops.” (Gray, ‘Bring on the boot,’ The Guardian, March 31, 1999)

In response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the Times (London) called for “a worldwide expression of anger at a small nation’s sovereignty rudely shattered by brute force”. (Leader, ‘Iraq’s naked villainy,’ The Times, August 3, 1990)

The cause in Kuwait was “simple on a world scale”, the Times observed five months later, “the defence of the weak against aggression by the strong”. (Leader, ‘No mock heroics,’ The Times, January 18, 1991)

As John Pilger recently wrote so well:

“How silent are these crusaders now, their selective compassion reserved demonstrably for causes of state, ‘our’ causes.” (Pilger, ‘Bloodshed and hope,’ Guardian Unlimited, July 28, 2006)

Thus, Mary Dejevsky, who writes, tragicomically, this week in the Independent:

“As a die-hard opponent of the war in Iraq – a war that flouted the will of the UN, ignored history, relied on faulty intelligence and has now reaped the whirlwind – I regret that the anti-war movement has aligned itself so swiftly, and so uncritically, with those who object to Israeli action against Hizbollah.” (Dejevsky, ‘Israel has an entitlement to defend its security,’ The Independent, August 9, 2006)

Imagine Dejevsky declaring herself a “die-hard opponent of the war” in 2002 and early 2003, when it mattered. The suggestion that the war merely flouted the UN, ignored history, and relied on faulty intelligence, indicates the truth of Dejevsky’s “die-hard” opposition to what was in fact the supreme war crime. Dejevsky adds:

“It is easy from the comparative safety of Britain or the US to assert with all confidence that Israel’s action against Hizbollah has been ‘disproportionate‘… However contentious its origins, however, Israel has the same right as any other state to national security and the same right to defend its borders.”

And it is easy to toss exhausted platitudes in the face of mass death – children blasted and buried in their hundreds, a million lives shattered – when the blood is of a lesser value.

Anyone who recommended a ground invasion of Israel in response to Lebanon’s “sovereignty rudely shattered by brute force“ would of course be deemed quite mad by our media.

In November 2002, we raised many a liberal hackle when we observed that the Guardian’s George Monbiot had written:

“… if war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that…” (Monbiot, ‘See you in court, Tony,‘ The Guardian, November 26, 2002)

We noted that Monbiot would doubtless deny to his last breath that his support for an assault against just this shattered Third World country as a last resort had anything to do with the relentless effusions of the Bush/Blair propaganda machine. (Media Alert Update: Iraq – Panorama Editor and Guardian Editor Respond )

Monbiot‘s comments, however, were symptomatic of the insidious power of state propaganda to shape reality – our sense of what is conceivable and reasonable – in a society where conformity is relentlessly rewarded and dissent heavily punished.

Noam Chomsky has suggested that, but for the catastrophic turn of events in Iraq, Venezuela might well have been the next target for US-UK “humanitarian intervention“. In which case, who can doubt that our press would have filled with assertions that, alas, military intervention was the only way to save the Venezuelan people from dictatorship? Currently, of course, no such suggestions are being made – the idea seems bizarre to most people – but that would quickly change if the state propaganda machine cranked into action.

An Elemental Struggle

Earlier this month, Tony Blair declared:

“What is happening today out in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and beyond is an elemental struggle about the values that will shape our future.

“It is in part a struggle between what I will call reactionary Islam and moderate mainstream Islam but its implications go far wider.” (‘Blair calls for complete rethink of Middle East policy,’ Press Association, August 1, 2006)

In the real world, the struggle is not “elemental” but merely political. Robert Pape, author of the forthcoming book, Dying to Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It, writes:

“Researching my book, which covered all 462 suicide bombings around the globe, I had colleagues scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and biographies of the Hizbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birth places and other personal data for 38. We were shocked to find that only eight were Islamic fundamentalists; 27 were from leftist political groups such as the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union; three were Christians, including a female secondary school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.

“What these suicide attackers – and their heirs today – shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation.” (Pape, ‘What we still don’t understand about Hizbollah,’ The Observer, August 6, 2006)

Responding to Blair’s latest lesson in sixth form ethics, Patrick Wintour and Ewen MacAskill wrote in the Guardian:

“Tony Blair will face down his critics today over his controversial handling of the Middle East crisis by insisting that he has been working throughout for a ceasefire in Lebanon and that his position has been misunderstood. He will argue at a Downing Street press conference that he wanted a ceasefire, but only if it was coupled with a clear understanding that the Hizbullah militia would be disarmed. Mr Blair, who returned from his US trip yesterday, will say that he is trying to secure a durable settlement, rather than a short-term fix which would leave armed militias operating on the border of Israel.” (Wintour and MacAskill, ‘Blair: You’ve misunderstood me over the Middle East,’ The Guardian, August 3, 2006)

As Vietnam veteran Claude Anshin Thomas suggests, it is absurd to believe that violence is just about the pilots who drop the bombs, or the soldiers who fire the guns. Violence is born in bias, in prejudicial compassion and indifference to others. Wintour and MacAskill became part of the killing machine by reporting as uncontroversial, as unworthy of comment, Blair’s insistence that just Hezbollah – dismissed as “armed militias” – should be disarmed. Would the Guardian provide some kind of ‘balancing’ comment, some alternative viewpoint, if a world leader suggested that agreement was impossible until the Israeli Defence Force had been completely disarmed while Hezbollah retained its weapons? If these weapons constituted one of the world’s premier military machines, including several hundred nuclear weapons?

This is how ‘objective’ news reporting consistently fuels violence – the ‘controversial’ voices of our ’enemies’ are balanced by counter-arguments, the ‘respectable’ voices of our leaders are not. This directly conditions us to support mass violence over and over again, decade after decade.

Thus BBC online reported US-UK obstructionism at the Middle East summit in Rome in an article entitled ‘”World backs Lebanon offensive”’. The article reported: “Israel says diplomats’ failure to call for a halt to its Lebanon offensive… has given it the green light to continue.” The BBC cited Israel’s Justice Minister Haim Ramon:

“We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world… To continue the operation.” (‘”World backs Lebanon offensive,’” BBC Online, July 27, 2006)

Not only did the BBC’s title give credence to this outrageous lie but no contradictory viewpoints were provided anywhere in the piece. Ramon was even given space to argue, again without challenge: “All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah.”

Three days later, 28 of these “terrorists”, including 16 children, were bombed to death in Qana.

Crushing The Scorpions

In an August 7 discussion, ironically, of the power of propaganda, the BBC’s Newsnight programme focused on alleged tampering of photographs of Israeli attacks on Beirut. Had a photographer added an extra flare falling from an Israeli bomber for dramatic effect? Did the same photographer alter clouds of smoke to make them seem more ominous? Had Hezbollah propagandists needlessly carried the body of a dead child around in Qana to ensure journalists got the picture?

More importantly, but undiscussed – what was the moral value of promoting scepticism, based on such trivial concerns, towards the overwhelming evidence of the undeniable catastrophe that has befallen Lebanon? What was the moral value of muddying the reality that the Lebanese child really had been killed by an Israeli attack on Qana? Can we imagine a discussion of whether the fiery colours at the heart of the fireball from the second jet to hit the World Trade Centre on 9/11 was enhanced for effect? Would journalists have highlighted the issue on national television, or would they have dismissed it out of hand? How can we explain the difference? The answer lies in the value of blood.

The BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner reported that Israeli critics likened the Israeli army’s campaign against Hezbollah to someone “using a sledgehammer to kill a scorpion” – “quite a good analogy”, Gardner observed. (BBC News 24, August 1, 2006)

Imagine the furore if a BBC journalist expressed approval for a Hezbollah description of Israeli forces as vermin to be crushed. But Hezbollah, like Hamas and insurgents in Iraq, are consistently treated as less than human by our media. It rarely occurs to journalists to bother to estimate Hezbollah’s military casualties, for example. Every last Israeli or British military death is worthy news – but not the dead on the other side. For the same reason, the “scorpions” are reflexively depicted as crazed fanatics responding to “fundamentalist values” rather than genuine political grievances. This is convenient as it obviates the need to consider rationally our own role in these grievances. Much better to talk of “values“ when the political realities are so ugly.

On the day of one particular attack in Iraq, the BBC told us this week, four US soldiers had been drinking whisky and practising golf strokes at a checkpoint south of Baghdad. According to sworn testimony, one of the soldiers, Steven Green, said he “wanted to go to a house and kill some Iraqis“. The BBC report added:

“The four eventually went to a house about 200 metres away and put the parents and their five-year old daughter in the bedroom, but kept the older girl in the living room.

“According to Mr Barker’s statement, he and Mr Cortez took it in turns to rape or attempt to rape her.

“Mr Barker heard shots from the bedroom, and Steven Green emerged with an AK-47 in his hand saying ‘They’re all dead. I just killed them.’

“According to the testimony, Mr Green then also raped the girl and shot her dead. Her body was doused in kerosene and set alight.” (‘Troops “took turns” to rape Iraqi,’ 1/hi/world/middle_east/5253160.stm August 7, 2006)

Who was responsible for this atrocity? Was it the young troops drowning in the madness and death of a ferocious war, sent by cynics to kill and die for the ugliest of causes? What about the people who sent them and supported their sending – people sitting in air-conditioned offices, not under constant threat of violent death, not required to witness the killing and maiming of close friends?

What was the BBC’s role? As we have documented many times, the BBC, like the rest of the media, is a powerful conditioning force that has made the Iraq war possible. Endless ‘objective’ BBC reports have passed on Blair’s obvious lies as impassioned sincerity. Endless reports avoided even the most childishly obvious objections to claims about weapons of mass destruction, about alleged Iraqi obstructionism, and about alleged benevolent US-UK dreams of democracy. BBC journalists did not physically rape and kill the 14-year-old Iraqi girl, but they helped create the conditions out of which that violence emerged – they share responsibility with those four US soldiers. That seems inconceivable to a journalist sitting at a desk in a London office, but it is the reality.

The Guardian’s Emma Brockes claims to have experienced a personal epiphany regarding the chaotic state of the world. One night last week, she writes, the 10’clock news was packed with endless horrors: Israel sending troops and tanks into Lebanon, people crawling out of bomb-damaged housing, three British soldiers killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, a further British soldier killed in a mortar attack in Iraq, and so on. Brockes’s conclusion is that we are in deep trouble. Her response:

“There is nothing to do, of course, or at least there is nothing constructive to do.” (Brockes, ‘Oh God (redux),’ The Guardian, August 5, 2006)

This from the journalist who, last November, did her utmost to smear the efforts of an individual, Noam Chomsky, who has moved mountains in precisely ‘doing something’.

But Brockes is exactly wrong – it is impossible for nothing to be done. To do ‘nothing’ means ‘getting on with our lives’, which means focusing primarily on our personal needs and the needs of the people closest to us. And this matters, Claude Anshin Thomas reminds us, because everything is interconnected. If we reserve our compassion for a select few – ourselves, our family, our troops, our civilian victims of violence – then we are acting to place other men, women and children beyond the circle of compassion. That means they are more likely to be bombed, shot, incinerated, raped and killed to serve our needs. That is the reality that faces everyone who does and says anything – journalists very much included.

And of course there is plenty that can be done in the other direction. We can withdraw support from dangerously delusional leaders like Tony Blair, from compromised newspapers and conformist journalists who support violence. We can resign, as Labour MP Jim Sheridan has courageously done. We can educate ourselves and others to see options beyond the fraudulent ‘tough choices’ of realpolitik. We can refuse to cooperate – we can obstruct, protest, resist and build alternative movements to change the world around us.

We can strengthen compassion in ourselves and others based on the undeniable truth that all blood, all suffering, all heartbreak, is equal. We can learn even to be outraged at our ingrained tendency to act in our own favour as though this were not the case. We can learn to act on the understanding that the interests of two, three, 100, 1 million people really do take precedence over the interests of one – ourselves.

If this were not absolutely, demonstrably the case, the world’s propaganda machines – which thunder so relentlessly, so ruthlessly, in their determination to manipulate us – would be silent and still.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Mary Dejevsky
Email: [email protected]

Write to BBC online editor Steve Herrmann
Email: [email protected]

Write to BBC Newsnight editor Peter Barron
Email: [email protected]

Write to director of BBC News, Helen Boaden
Email: [email protected]

Write to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Email: [email protected]