PRINT April 1991


Being “Economical with the Truth”

THE PUBLIC FACE OF the war in Britain and the United States seems, as far as one can tell from this side of the Atlantic, to have been nearly the same. The best proof of this came in an interview on BBC radio with three American foreign editors. The British interviewer expressed the general opinion among his colleagues that American military spokesmen were more forthcoming than their British counterparts; the Americans countered with their belief that the reverse was true. An unfamiliar accent produces the illusion of more information and more sense, when the product is exactly the same.

The shift between accents, and the prominent role given British information officers in the daily briefing spectacle, also contributed to the desired image of international consensus behind war aims and strategies that went on being determined by Washington. It helped the British to accept the questionable premise that this was their war—as did the disproportionate losses of British pilots and planes in the especially hazardous, low-altitude bombing to which they were assigned. For the home front, this was Battle of Britain stuff, the old pluck and daring of the RAF. Support for the war effort elicited by the pollsters’ questions remained solidly up in the 80-percent bracket, which is about as near to unanimity as democratic public opinion will allow. Television commentary reflected this perceived consensus by deferring continually to retired military officers, civilian “security” analysts, and reliably right-wing politicians. Only very rarely did one of the designated experts begin to question the logic of the war, nor were organized antiwar protests given more than perfunctory attention.

The picture in America, as I understand it from friends’ reports, was more or less the same. But the apparent popular mandate for massive bombardment in Iraq had, I think, significantly different meanings in the two societies. If generals always fight the last war, so do societies, and here the previous crusades haunting public feeling were different. For America, it was Vietnam, as it was in the progressive escalation during the last decade of military action abroad, from Libya through Grenada and Panama—Iraq being the last step in a successful remilitarization of American foreign policy by Republican administrations. Despite Bush’s opportunistic likening of Saddam Hussein to Hitler (a decade of murder and mustard gas in Iraq never having prompted that thought beforehand), analogies to World War II seemed abstract by comparison. The American precedent was negative: this would be the war that Vietnam was not, local in its objectives and effects, with no nonsense about helping unreliable clients like the South Vietnamese to win on their own and no enterprising journalists offering pictures and accounts that contradict official reality.

The operative British precedent, by contrast, was 1938–45—Munich, Dunkirk, the Blitz, and El Alamein. Long before the war began, even before the November buildup tacitly sealed the decision to attack, any expressed reservation about combat in Iraq was likely to provoke a response along the lines of “if only we’d stopped Hitler at the start, when we had the chance.” This spontaneous likening of the two moments in British history sustained a different attitude toward the fighting troops in the gulf; one heard far less talk here of public opinion faltering should casualties get heavy. Unlike the lies or delusions contained in Bush’s intoning of “not-another-Vietnam” (the liberals, the media, the intellectuals tied our hands then), British assent to the war contained a greater measure of realism. The older generation of Britons remembers the Second World War as a time of collective sacrifice, when domestic life suffered dislocations and everyday hardship largely unknown on the American home front. The demands of wartime entailed—indeed depended upon—Labour party participation and a commitment to full employment as the price of national unity. The romance of the war for most Britons lies in the idea of a time when shortages and danger brought the society together, laying the foundation for the postwar social compact embodied in the welfare state.

Where Vietnam tainted—by exploiting to no good purpose—the comparable feelings of Americans, the Falklands War of 1982 revived and preserved them here. It was the Labour leader Michael Foot, not Margaret Thatcher, who first sounded the cry for reconquest of that conspicuously useless group of islands by likening the bloodless Argentine occupation to the fascist assault on British sovereignty in 1940 (no matter that Britain had for some years been trying to divest itself of responsibility for the Falklands and only two years before had denied British citizenship to their inhabitants). Foot’s intervention had the effect of foreclosing any more measured response to Argentina’s provocation, and from that moment his party’s fortunes were held hostage by the war, to its terrible cost and Britain’s as well. Unlike Churchill, who had been forced to accept a coalition government with Labour during wartime, Thatcher was able to monopolize the conduct of her little war and thus to take all the credit for Britain’s lucky success. She turned the trick of making the Labour leadership seem “soft” on the Argentine dictator because none of its members could hope to match her sheer pleasure in domination, amplified daily in the headlines of Rupert Murdoch’s friendly tabloid, the Sun (“GOTCHA!” was its memorable banner when 300 Argentines went down with the battleship Belgrano). Labour’s unreflecting revival of the link between wartime socialist patriotism and Churchill’s attachment to empire, intended as an attack on Thatcher’s demonstrable failure to anticipate the crisis, in the end allowed her successfully to paint the opposition party as outside the boundaries of the new national unity. And in the name of that unity she set about dismantling the social compact of 1940.

One of the many denials of history in circulation was the repeated assertion by press and broadcast commentators that Labour “wavered” over the Falklands and thus sacrificed its public credibility in foreign policy. For this reason, the current Labour leadership was terrified of being outflanked on the issue of support for the war, though it was just as excluded from meaningful participation as it was in the Falklands crisis (doubly so in that the Conservative government had virtually nothing to say about it either). In contrast to the freedom of dissenting voices and votes in the American Congressional debate before the war, current leader Neil Kinnock sacked three shadow ministers for expressing the mildest doubts about the wisdom of the air bombardment of Iraq; another was excluded from any future Labour cabinet. Roy Hattersley, who remains in place as shadow home secretary, has written wistfully of Senator Sam Nunn’s ability to stand against Bush’s January war deadline without being automatically accused of “treachery and treason,” or sacrificing any of his hawkish credibility. Hattersley knows, and so does everyone else, that such an expression in the British Parliament would have been summarily shouted down by the puerile heckling that prevails on the Tory back benches, and that there would have been worse to come the next day in comment from most of the press.

Wholly understandable and positive historical memories of national consensus were thus turned again, as in 1982, to brutish partisan ends. Exactly the same phrases were heard. Murdoch’s Sun, which boasts one of the largest circulations in Britain, became once more “The Paper That Backs Our Boys,” and the “evil” of General Galtieri became Saddam Hussein’s. The newspapers that a majority of people read are fiercely conservative and recognized no obligation to report opposition to the war as anything but an object of ridicule. Broadcast journalism, which tries for an American-style “objectivity” in reporting, nevertheless took its cues from the government and from parliamentary debate in constructing the issues. If Labour is offering no dissent, then television will make little room for it.

Newsnight on BBC2, Britain’s equivalent to the McNeil-Lehrer Report in tone and audience, provided a good example of these limitations in a segment devoted to weekend antiwar protests in the United States and Germany. It began with a quick history of the popular movement against the war in Vietnam, the tone of which suggested that viewers might find this an exotic and inexplicable phenomenon—despite Britain’s own antiwar marches of the late 1960s and its vigorous tradition of demonstrations against nuclear weapons. In the ensuing panel discussion, a right-wing academic characterized—without challenge—the British opposition to the gulf war as a negligible fringe of “beards,” then went on to suggest, his mind apparently on the cold south Atlantic, that women on the march should be home knitting winter woolens for the troops. The only permitted antiwar spokesperson was a German, who gave a good account of himself (and showed a superior command of the English language) but unwittingly served in this setup to make articulate dissent seem the preserve of the old national enemy. Such is the complacency of the BBC that the most substantial warning against the run up to war was mounted early in the winter by a mole among its anonymous film programmers: within a short span, we had the chance to see Southern Comfort (overconfident American reservists find themselves mired in a ground war they never bargained for), Lawrence of Arabia (romantic British adventure in the desert leads to dashed hopes), and Apocalypse Now (self-explanatory).

The whole sorry exchange on Newsnight expressed something deeper, I think, than the general atmosphere of Thatcherite intimidation; it manifested the relative absence of a local tradition of dissent in British wartime and the corresponding lack of an understood language, even an imagination, of an effective politics of protest. Yet there were some signs that the war managers of the last decade were nervous that their appropriation of the spirit of 1940 would be unpersuasive if tested against too much reality. When the troops returning from the Falklands were given their victory parade through the City of London, the wounded were given no place in the public festivities (only after some outcry was a meeting hastily arranged—to take place after the ceremony—between Thatcher and six selected soldiers who had been maimed or blinded in the war). The gulf conflict produced an absurd instance of this kind of caution within the art world. The Victoria and Albert Museum postponed the opening of an exhibition entitled “The Art of Death,” which was to have examined art and artifacts associated with English funerary customs from 1500 to 1800 (emphasis added). Speaking for the trustees, the museum’s director had cited possible accusations of “insensitivity” in the event of heavy British casualties in the gulf. The chairman of the trustees is Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, a close Thatcher confidant during the Falklands, who is most famous for having introduced the phrase “economical with the truth” into contemporary political language.

Press reports of the postponement prompted a letter of support to Nigel Llewellyn, the show’s curator, from one member of the general public whose sensitivities Armstrong and the V&A are so concerned to shield. It read in part, “Let’s pray for a miracle that this potty war ends soon, and along with it the muddled thinking of museum trustees. What a soppy lot they are!” If only this kind of ordinary good sense were more public and more magnified. Compare it to the reflections of the recently knighted Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, the editor of the opinion pages in the Sunday Telegraph: “But how to do justice to. . . all the ennobling stirrings that can lead a man to steel his will to the point where he can tear another man’s guts out with a clear conscience? In this respect making war has something in common with making love. Neither action looks as good as it feels.” The frothing lunacy of the “respectable” British right always comes as a shock to American ears, conjuring up the ramblings of gun nuts and Klansmen. As in 1982, these were the voices celebrating a capacity for fighting supposedly innate in the British spirit. This time around, however, a sense of grim necessity rather than enthusiasm characterized the broad public mood, and there were some signs of worry over Britain’s isolation from its more cautious partners in the European Community: what does it mean, after all, when a Briton finds him- or herself scolding Germany for not being sufficiently warlike?

The bellicose tabloids in fact saw their circulation drop once the war began. Everywhere there was an unmistakable sense of relief that Thatcher is no longer in office, and despite political acquiescence over war policy, a disinclination to buy in to her rhetorical extremism (perpetuated in print by die-hard loyalists like Worsthorne) and absence of any sense of proportion. The colorless John Major was seen to be having “a good war” precisely because he declined opportunities to posture and bully. (The Thatcherites, in the meantime, found some comfort in the notion that it was their fallen leader who, on encountering Bush in Aspen immediately after the Iraqi invasion, gave him a good talking-to and steeled his nerve for a properly Falklands-style response.)

The reports of the civilian massacre in the Amiriya shelter—with their ineradicable pictures of what could happen at the other end of those clean laser-guided strikes—introduced the first clear signs of doubt into mainstream commentary. But that momentary shock failed to translate itself into comparable outrage over the relentless destruction—far from the theater of battle—of the basic means of life for Iraqi society, which will impose years of suffering and want on the living. The virtually unopposed incursion into Iraq (which is happening as we go to press) is likely to remove the issue from the public debate. As a result, it may take far longer for the price of exclusive reliance on violent intimidation to be reckoned. At every turn, Bush and his obedient British allies have let Saddam Hussein’s diplomatic ineptitude foreclose the option of diplomacy for all parties; it is plain that they were spoiling for a fight anyway, but they ended up letting a man of violence dictate the terms of the conflict and in the process sacrificed leverage everywhere else. To take just one of a dozen areas where that leverage will soon be missed: there is hardly a centimeter of difference—in terms of cruelty, tribal atavism, murderous repression, and propensity for aggression against neighbors—between Saddam and Syria’s Assad. Yet Assad, for the small risk of joining the alliance against an old regional rival, comes away from the war holding priceless IOUs, recklessly surrendered by Bush and Baker, which he will certainly try to redeem. Iraq was built up during the 1980s as a counter to Iran; now America and its allies have attempted to remedy that mistake with the same shortsighted tactic. How long before Assad oversteps, and another “necessary” war ensues? Yet reaction to the Iraqi defeat—and I am certain Britain’s is the same as America’s—persists in the childish fantasy that the region’s chronic brutality and anarchy can be resolved by the elimination of one man.

Thomas Crow is a professor of art history at the University of Sussex, England.