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Lying About War

Dusty Sklar
September 22, 2017

by Dusty Sklar

DEMOCRATIC AND REPUBLICAN presidents alike have this in common: They lie to us about war.

Even Barack Obama, upright as he seems, lied to us about U.S. intervention in Libya’s 2011 civil war. When Obama addressed the nation on March 28, 2011, he told us that the task assigned our forces was “to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger and to establish a no-fly zone. . . . Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” The American public agreed: According to the Pew Research Center, at the time the public was “divided over the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone -- 44% favor this action while 45% are opposed. Yet just 16% favor bombing Libyan air defenses -- 77% oppose bombing the sites. And large majorities reject providing arms to anti-government groups (69%) and sending troops into Libya (82%).” Strikes against Qaddafi himself were nevertheless made, from the very beginning of our involvement there, demonstrating that there was a sizable gap between what policymakers told us about their aims and the orders they gave to the military. The Obama administration insisted that its only aim was to protect Libyan civilians, but its actions told another story: It was seeking regime change.

During the Benghazi hearing, Republican Representative Peter Roskan questioned then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about a video clip which read: “We came, we saw, he [Qaddafi] died.” “Is that Clinton doctrine?” Roskan asked. Clinton’s answer: “No, that was an expression of relief that the military mission undertaken by NATO and our other partners had achieved its end.” Evidently, public support for the Libyan mission would have diminished had we known the truth.

The outcome, instead, is that North Korea is now pursuing nuclear weapons in the name of preempting all possibilities of U.S.-backed regime change, a la Libya, in their country, and our world is closer to nuclear disaster than it has been for more than half a century.

WE’RE ALL well aware by now of the lies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair regarding the onset of the war against Iraq. Many of us were suspicious about those lies as soon as war was announced. Millions all over the Western world took to the streets to try to keep the war from happening. The classified Downing Street Memo (also known as the Smoking Gun Memo) made public by the British journalist Michael Smith in the Sunday Times in May 2005 confirmed the deliberate deceptions in which Bush, Cheney, and their inner circle engaged to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The memo was recorded in a secret meeting on July 23, 2002 of senior British defense and intelligence officials discussing classified U.S. policy on the build-up to the war. It expresses the view of M16 head Matthew Rycroft, who had recently visited Washington, that “Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein through military action.” Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw felt that Bush had “made up his mind” to go to war, even though “the case was thin” and there were no legitimate grounds for doing so. Clearly it was Bush’s long-standing intention to invade Iraq, which he began to do with an air campaign almost a year before the March 2003 invasion and months before Congressional approval for the use of force.

Matters were similar in George H. W. Bush’s Persian Gulf war in 1991, presumably designed to reverse the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. Norman Schwarzkopf, in his autobiography, It Doesn’t take a Hero, wrote that Colin Powell told him: “I think we can go to war if they invaded Saudi Arabia. I doubt if we would go to war over Kuwait.” But in a matter of days, his assessment proved wrong. Government officials declared that up to 265,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks had massed at the border, threatening to invade Saudi Arabia, the main U.S. oil supplier. The U.S. government claims relied heavily on classified satellite photos.

Jean Heller, a journalist at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida (who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize five times), managed to get hold of two commercial Soviet satellite images of the site. They showed no sign of troops or tanks. All that was visible was empty desert. The St. Petersburg Times engaged two experts for analysis, one a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who specialized in desert warfare. They reported seeing U.S. jet fighters, but no sign of an Iraqi build-up. “We could see the main road leading right through Kuwait, south to Saudi Arabia,” they said, “but it was covered with sand banks from the wind and it was clear that no army had moved over it. We could see empty barracks where you would have expected these thousands of troops to be billeted, but they were deserted as well.”

In the end, Heller felt that “if the story had appeared in the New York Times or the Washington Post, all hell would have broken loose. But here we are, a newspaper in Florida, the retirement capital of the world, and what are we supposed to know?”

Another lie, circulated in the fall of 1990 and disseminated by the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, which was working for the Kuwait government, swayed members of Congress and the American public. A 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, Niyirah al Sabah, tearfully described how as a volunteer in a Kuwait maternity ward, she had seen Iraqi troops storm her hospital, steal the incubators, and leave 312 babies “on the cold floor to die.”

Seven U.S. senators later referred to her story during speeches backing a pro-war resolution. President Bush senior cited her story five times, saying that such “ghastly atrocities” were like “Hitler revisited.” The motion for war passed.

Weeks before the bombing campaign started, press reporters began to question the incubator tale. Niyirah turned out to have been coached. She was the daughter of the Kuwait ambassador to the U.S. “We didn’t know it wasn’t true at the time,” Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security adviser, insisted in a 1995 interview, but, he allowed, “It was useful in mobilizing public opinion.”

MANY AMERICANS are now aware of the lies, right from the start, that our government fed us during the Vietnam War, our longest and least popular conflict, which cost 58,000 American and some three million Vietnamese lives.

On August 5, 1964, the headline in the Washington Post read “American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers. Move Taken to Halt New Aggression.” The New York Times reported: “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.” The official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had launched an “unprovoked attack” against a U.S. destroyer on “routine patrol” in the Tonkin Gulf on August 2, and that North Vietnamese PT boats had deliberately attacked a team of U.S. ships two days later.

The truth was that the U.S. destroyer was actually occupied in aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers, together with coordinated attacks on North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force. There was no second attack by North Vietnam on U.S. ships.

As the historian Daniel Hallin writes in The Uncensored War, “The day before, two attacks on North Vietnam . . . had taken place . . . part of a campaign of increasing military pressure on the North that the U.S. had been pursuing since early 1964.” Furthermore, “It was generally known ... that ‘covert’ operations against North Vietnam, carried out by South Vietnamese forces with U.S. support and direction, had been going on for some time.”

Nevertheless, on the night of August 4, President Johnson went on national television to announce a momentous escalation in the war: air strikes against North Vietnam. Three days later, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing LBJ “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

It neither prevented further aggression nor further lies, which were passed on by the mass media.

American history is full of other instances of suspect rationales for war:

Henry Kissinger’s lies about the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile as a likely communist dictatorship, despite the CIA’s own reports that Chilean press remained free, that other political parties were functioning without harassment, that trade union elections and local elections were being held without hindrance— lies that justified a U.S.-led fascist overthrow that eliminated democracy in Chile altogether.

Lies by both the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations regarding the bloody carnage of El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, in which information about human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government was withheld from Congress while at least 75,000 Salvadorans were killed. In 1993, a United Nations Truth Commission found that “Salvadoran Army, the security forces and death squads committed the vast majority of the atrocities,” according to the New York Times. “This does not lessen the guilt of leftist rebels for killing four U.S. marines in 1985, or their murder of 11 mayors and some 400 other civilians. But most of the blood was shed by soldiers armed by the U.S.”

Ronald Reagan’s 1983 lies about a Soviet submarine base and air base supposedly being built in Grenada under the eye of Maurice Bishop — lies used to justify a U.S. Marine assault on the island and the overthrow of Bishop.

Reagan’s propaganda assault against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, which justified millions of dollars of aid and military advice, legal and illegal, to the paramilitary contras in the 1980s. A senior U.S. official described this propaganda war in the Miami Herald as “a vast psychological warfare operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in enemy territory.”

We are led or pushed into wars by endless misinformation that takes advantage of our credulity, our deference to authority, our ongoing faith in the fundamental nobility of the American cause — and our inability to do much to halt such wars or prevent their eruption. Worst of all, if and when the truth comes out, none of the liars are held to account -- certainly not as criminals, usually not even as “experts” who have compromised their expertise or their moral authority.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.