Seven Years of (Unconvincing) Lies in 39 Minutes: A Primer

Monday, 19 April 2010 11:51 By Dr Matthew Feldman, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

A short primer, "When to Lie and How," if brought out in an attractive and not too expensive a form, would no doubt command a large scale, and would prove of real practical service to many earnest and deep-thinking people.

- Oscar Wilde, "The Decay of Lying"

No wonder the US military said the tape was lost.

Those murderous images leave you gasping for air like a punch in the gut at boot camp. Then you hear a bit of cackling, some banter, and more shooting. Dahr Jamail reported in Truthout that a dozen people were killed in the massacre, including two Reuters news staff, with another two children wounded but (amazingly) alive. The US troops sounded as if they were having fun, like aiming for high-score on an arcade game.

Since war and occupation have killed far more in excess of  one million Iraqis in this illegal war (and rendered another few million others homeless), the July 2007 events don't add up to much. An Apache gunship using sauntering Iraqis for target practice, then blasting a vanload of rescuers and children trying to help a wounded, writhing man as an encore. Big deal. Happens all the time in Iraq. Except that this was recorded. And not lost, thanks the courageous Wikileaks' anonymous source.

Cue momentary hand-wringing by the mainstream media - a bit too much force here, maybe a logistical failure there? - then back to news-as-titillation for us all.

So it goes in Iraq.

But not so fast, claims Andrew Cockburn. The video is but the tip of the iceberg, for "this was fiction, from start to finish": In the wake of the lethal onslaught, the U.S. military denied that any error had taken place, its version of events faithfully cited by The New York Times under the headline "2 Iraqi Journalists Killed as US Forces Clash With Militias": "According to the (US military's) statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades."

Huh? Not on the 39-minute video I watched.

After so long, my outrage has become numbed to the years of terror that we, yes we, have reigned on that already-benighted people. Then again, it's pretty easy to put the-war-that-is-not-a-war out of mind half a world away: amidst all the lies, the sexing up and the dumbing down; amidst our workaday deceptions that an American occupation has helped, is helping, or ever could help Iraq by doing anything short of leaving and paying substantial reparations.

Truly, all that remains is to mock this mockery of "liberation."

Now entering the seventh year of "pacification" in Iraq, these fictions are only getting worse. Not in terms of morality, mind you - that Rubicon was crossed even before this illegal invasion was launched - but these aren't even good lies any longer. These are lazy lies. Indeed, these are the worst kinds of lies, thought Oscar Wilde, so artless as to be disbelieved when expressed.

Wilde's wit was legendary, at least until Europe's self-immolation attempt during the Great War adjudged it too shallow. Interwar society had little to laugh about - or just took itself altogether too seriously, as Wilde might retort. Fittingly, his celebrated dialogue quoted above, "The Decay of Lying," jibed that politicians "never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie?"

A fine lie? At 120 years since its publication in Victorian England, I doubt our politicians know any longer, if they even knew in Wilde's day. Given recent evidence, since our military certainly can't tell the difference between a news camera and a rocket launcher, asking them for comment is about as useful as asking Bin Laden (remember him?) about his views on the recent passage of US health care reform. With both, you can only get propaganda. Bad propaganda.

For example, for that corresponding story on 13 July 2007 - one that could have been written by the disgraced  Judith Miller - intrepid journalists from the New York Times beat a trail to the US military for comment on the helicopter shootings.

"'There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,' said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for . . ." well, a spokesman for nothing like the truth about what happened. Good one, Colonel. Well, not really.

Wait - no question? Ok then, let's try an assertion: we can't even lie well to cover up our crimes in Iraq these days and have them stay covered up. I mean lost? The US military hasn't lost anything since Vietnam.

The stories of late have all the imagination of a tired and stupid bureaucracy simply going through the motions. In the early days, at least I could watch the humorous lies of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf - the Orwellian Iraqi information minister during the 2003 invasion, also known as  "Comical Ali" - to soften the blow. His imaginative creations were the only funny part of a "liberation" that never, at any time, had truth on its side.

And what's worse, the lies these days are mirthless. They are no more than dead air, stale and lifeless. They are stillborn lies.

Of course, lies launched us into Operation Iraqi Freedom in the first place. Remember those silly Uranium tubes from Niger, that spectral WMD? Deception, moreover, has kept us afloat when soggy, from a fish-hooked "Coalition of the Willing" to the "bad apples" floating around at Abu Ghraib. Today, under a new administration, also claiming to be leaving Iraq at some point this century, our pack of lies has simply been reshuffled and dealt to us again. No need for new cards here; our war (cheer)leaders are counting on America's willful ignorance and moral abeyance regarding Iraq.

Which finally returns us to Wilde's didactic dialogue, cheekily arguing "that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." Wilde felt that artifice - fiction and imagination, those tools of the writer's trade - is the proper aim of art. But he apparently also felt threatened by reality muscling in on fiction's moral terrain - little did he know that it was to be with all the swagger and fearlessness of an Apache helicopter gunner in Iraq. For Oscar Wilde, fictional lies were thoughtful and sensitive things, while "establishment lies" were rarely worth the paper on which they were printed.

Disagree with Wilde at your intellectual peril. Look again, for instance, at this clip from Stanley Kubrick's anti-war classic, "Full Metal Jacket." In the famous "Get some" scene, set in a helicopter flying across war-torn Vietnam, a murderous machine-gunner notes that killing women and children is harder to do - but only logistically; morality naturally plays no part here. In the film's brilliant sketch of that war, the Catch-22 invoked was, at least, an honest one: "Anyone who runs is a VC; anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined VC!"

It was Private Joker, memorably punched in the gut for mocking Drill Instructor Hartman at the start of the film, who elicited these statements. Wilde, I think, would have approved of Matthew Modine's irreverent character in the film. And vice-versa, as the former said: "Life holds the mirror up to Art, and . . . realizes in fact what has been dreamed in fiction."

Touche. Short of claiming that anyone with brown skin in Iraq is an insurgent; or short of quoting from that very helicopter scene in "Full Metal Jacket" - which our military seems to re-enact on a weekly basis in Iraq - the machine-gunners in the video frighteningly echoed Wilde's sense of life imitating art.

Right down to the itch to kill innocent people while laughing about it.

As for lying, I wonder if the troops could benefit from Wilde's wisdom - so clearly lost on their commanders. For my support, something a little more artfully duplicitous is needed than the tired pentagram: "We were justified in invading; the occupation is legal; we are the good guys; it would be even worse without us there; we are leaving soon."

The above assumes there is no foreseeable end to our pissing on truth in Iraq, let alone on the Iraqi people. So I won't ask for honesty from our establishment figures - any more than I would from creative artists discussing their creations. I just want better lies than that of a schoolgirl without lunch money. If a single videotape can, yet again, reveal our up-the-chain fictions to the world regarding our presence in Iraq, then a training manual on "When to lie and how" is, truly, urgently needed.

In lieu of such an unlikely text being commissioned for use, I have a simpler request for our mainstream media, politicians and especially the US military. You guys like sound bites, right? Then how about this: When it comes to Iraq, could you please invent some believable lies for us?

Because the fictions these days are just laughable. 

Dr Matthew Feldman

Dr. Matthew Feldman is Senior Lecturer in 20th century history at the University of Northampton, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford¹s Rothermere American Institute, and an editor of Wiley-Blackwell’s online journal Compass: Political Religions; he also directs Northampton¹s Radicalism and New Media research network, and co-edits Continuum Books’ new monograph series, Historicising Modernism. 

Last modified on Monday, 19 April 2010 15:05