by Pat Holt
Wednesday, December 11, 2002
THE VALUE OF DISSENT: FOUR BOOKS AND A MOVIE
A NERVE STRUCK BY 'LIVE FROM BAGHDAD'
THE VALUE OF DISSENT: FOUR BOOKS AND A MOVIE
THE MOVIE: A NERVE STRUCK BY 'LIVE FROM BAGHDAD'
Well, last Sunday's HBO movie, "Live from Baghdad" struck a nerve in many readers' minds (see Letters below). Me, too: I felt that The script, based on CNN producer Robert Wiener's book of the same name (he co-wrote the movie) seems to have deliberately misrepresented the story about Iraqi soldiers hauling babies out of incubators in Kuwait (see #352).
Its depiction of a wait-a-minute-I've-got-a-wife-and-two-kids "romance" between Wiener and his associate Ingrid Formanek was unnecessary and an insult to the audience's intelligence. And as former CNN reporter Doug James indicates in his letter below, behind-the-scenes consequences of at least one CNN deal with the Iraqi government were far more brutal than portrayed.
The one aspect of press coverage in 1991 that the movie did seem to cover accurately was the image of American and British journalists cooped up in a 5-star hotel, playing in the swimming pool and throwing parties for themselves as if the only news worth hearing (for them, at least) was who was sleeping with whom.
Thanks to New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges, evidence exists to show that pressures on reporters *not* to find and cover the news outside their hotel was enormous.
As Hedges explains in his stunning new book, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" (Public Affairs; 211 pages; $23), at the beginning of his assignment in the Gulf War, he was told to sign a document "that said I would abide by the severe restrictions placed on the press by the U.S. military.
"The restrictions authorized 'pool reporters' to be escorted by the military on field trips. The rest of the press would sit in hotel rooms and rewrite the bland copy filed by the pool or use the pool video and photos."
Hedges simply "violated the agreement the next morning" by covering combat stories on his own. He writes of spending the rest of the war "dodging military police and trying to talk my way into [military] units" in a "forlorn and lonely struggle against the heavy press control."
As we might expect, during a war like this - and there's no evidence the coming war in Iraq will be any exception - "the handful [of reporters] who actually head out into the field have a bitter enmity with the hotel-room warriors." The reason, though, is a surprise to me.
I thought the press was immobilized and exploited by the U.S. government, but according to Hedges: "The notion that the press was used in the war is incorrect. The press wanted to be used. It saw itself as part of the war effort."
Not only part of the war effort, but part of the "myth-making" effort as well, says Hedges, a former Harvard divinity student turned admitted war junkie who only recently has seen his life transformed.
Hedges' wartime credentials read like a Chuck Norris wish list: As a young reporter, he plunged into "the insurgencies in El Salvador, where I spent five years, then went on to Guatemala and Nicaragua and Colombia, through the first intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, the civil war in Sudan and Yemen, the uprisings in Algeria and the Punjab, the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausesecu, the Gulf War, the Kurdish rebellion in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, the war in Bosnia, and finally to Kosovo."
He's had his share of being trapped in ambushes, thrown in prison, deported, fired upon and "shelled for days." In the worst of it, he has prayed to God, "if you get me out of here, I will never do this again" - only to do it again, to immerse himself in the fear and filth of war, to drink himself into oblivion after many near-death encounters and to find a way to return to battlefields over and over.
But then one day, in the "normal" course of travel from one war zone to the next, Hedges admits he found himself "in a frenzy of rage and anguish" while standing at an airport KLM counter in Costa Rica "because of a perceived slight by a hapless airline clerk."
Blinded by anger, he leapt over the KLM counter and beat the airline clerk to the floor. "Blood streamed down his face and mine. I refused to wipe the dried stains off my cheeks on the flight to Madrid, and I carry a scar on my face from where he thrust his pen into my cheek. War's sickness had become mine."
Admissions like that make us believe Hedges, who's not only witnessed the worst of war but has studied humanity's perceived reasons behind war (from the Greeks to Freud). He is eloquent about the many "myths" of war - how enemies must be demonized while soldiers must be held up to a model of heroism they can't possibly achieve.
And he is one of the few authors of a book on war who can still startle us with eye-opening generalizations like this:
But to me, the most profound and unexpected statement Hedges makes is that Americans have bought the myth of the "clean" war.
We - meaning both the administration and its citizenry - have come to believe that foreign countries can be brought "into compliance" with our United Nations-backed demands by using long-distance missiles that allow for minimum damage to our side and precise (when they work) placement of bombs that don't hurt many civilians on "their" side. We believe there will be no consequences to this, Hedges says.
Our understanding of "clean" war is very limited because, for one thing, when the media is corralled in a hotel pulling reports from a common press "pool," the news reports we get back never show the reality of these wars; we never see what "collateral damage" really means. We never understand at a gut level how the sanctions imposed on Iraq - the most severe in history - can cause the deaths of 500,000 children.
That number of 500,000 dead children, by the way, is not arbitrary. It has been acknowledged as fact by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said in 1996 that imposing sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children was "a very hard choice," but, she added, "we think the price is worth it."
It would take a controversial liberal like Noam Chomsky to point out the irony of that remark by Madeleine Albright. "So, that's the way in which we deal with Iraqi human rights violations," he said in a 1999 speech - "by killing 500,000 Iraqi children. *We're* willing to pay that price. That's nice to hear."
Chomsky is one of many writers and speakers who have contributed to "Iraq Under Seige: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War," edited in a newly revised edition by Anthony Arnove (South End Press; 262 pages; $16 paperback).
I remember nearly falling off my chair in 2000, when the book was first published, at revelations that ranged from the consequences of *continued* sanctions to the fact that Americans were *still* bombing Iraq and killing civilians and had been since the supposed end of Desert Storm.
In the updated version, Arnove, a contributor to ZNet, The Nation and Financial Times, writes: "The truth is that the war on the people of Iraq has been going on now for 12 years ... The US military has also bombed Iraq with deadly cluster-bombs," which will - he refers to William Arkin, writing for the website (not the newspaper) of the Washington Post - "kill and wound innocent civilians for years to come."
Cluster bombs release 145 anti-armor and anti-incendiary "bomblets" that are "aimed" at areas "the size of a football field with six bombs falling in every 1,000 square feet, writes Arkin. "So much for precision. Once ejected, the bomblets, each the size of a soda can, simply fall freely at the mercy of local winds." About 5 percent don't explode - they lie there, "highly volatile on the ground," waiting for a child to pick them up.
It's very interesting that by 1999, "the United States government noted that it faced a 'dilemma' in its aerial campaign against Iraq," writes Arnove. " 'After eight years of enforcing a no-fly zone in northern [and southern] Iraq, few military targets remain,' explained the Wall Street Journal. 'We're down to the last outhouse,' one unnamed U.S. official protested."
Language like that - geared to make Americans feel modern and civilized (remember the jokes about SCUD missiles hitting the backside of goats in Afghanistan? - makes one learn to listen with increased skepticism to all the "unnamed [and named] U.S. officials."
What are the consequences of a "clean" war from the American standpoint? As Robert Fisk reports, children in the southern part of Iraq have experienced "a fourfold increase in cancer," probably from the Allied use of depleted uranium shells in the 1991 war. "Many of the children dying of leukemia and lymphoma cancer were not even born when the war took place."
Like others in the book, Fisk calls American policy on Iraq "infantile" and looks with scorn at the exploitation of mythic war, which causes leaders to mouth contradictions and think they can get away with it. "Just before he bombed them, George Bush told the Iraqis that he had 'no quarrel with the Iraqi people.' " So, later, did England's Tony Blair.
Why, then, are we so close to war with Iraq again? Anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz observes that oil isn't the only reason that Americans and British want to invade Iraq. "I suspect that Iraq's resistance to the US government-led privatization program for the world was equally troubling to Washington," she writes.
After the Iran-Iraq war, "Iraq swiftly turned its attention to helping define a new economic shape for the region . . [It] saw itself as the leading champion of Arab nationalism," something she notes the United States couldn't control.
Meanwhile the same questions keep emerging. Why did Iraq order the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) on weapons inspection to leave the country? "On the surface, it seemed that Iraq was blatantly obstructing the work of the UN inspectors," writes University of Massachusetts professor emeritus Naseer Aruri.
"But the revelations about Washington's use of UNSCOM members to spy on Iraq, published 16 months later in the Washington Post and Boston Globe, revealed that Iraq's suspicions about spying were well founded." The fear in 1997 was that UNSCOM spying could "enable the Pentagon to pinpoint targets for its bombers." Who is to say UNSCOM is not similarly "rigged" today
Again, too, comes the question of the "need to preemptively attack Iraq." As Condoleezza Rice mentioned in August of this year, "there is a very powerful moral case for regime change." This is myth-making, Aruri observes "despite the absence of any evidence that links Iraq to terrorism or proves that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction."
A few weeks ago I wrote about two books that claim to expose the Bush administration's "lie" about 9/11 (see #351).
But now, since it's been announced that the author, French writer Thierry Meyssan, will visit the United States probably this month, I hope that he won't be met with the near-riots that plagued another author, William Langewiesche, over his post-9/11 book, "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.
Heaven knows the "worst" thing Langewiesche did in his investigation of the cleanup of Ground Zero was to accuse a few New York firefighters of looting a Gap store minutes after the attacks of 9/11.
Meyssan, of course, angers just about everybody (though his books have been steady bestsellers in Europe for months) by accusing the entire Bush administration of lying. He says it wasn't a Boeing but an American cruise missile that crashed into the pentagon and insists it was not Osama bin Laden who conceived the attacks but elements within the U.S. government.
While I've suggested that Meyssan writes like the crackpot he has been called since his findings were first published last spring, now that 9/11: The Big Lie and Pentagate are finally available in the United States, it's useful to see the kind of self-serving myths under which he operates.
Here's an amusing example: As you probably remember, President George W. Bush was visiting a Florida school on the morning of 9/11. A famous photograph now exists showing the look on Bush's face when he learned that the World Trade Center was under attack. Later he was asked about the state of his emotions at the time. According to White House press releases quoted by Meyssan, Bush answered as follows:
"I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower - the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly, myself, and I said, well, there's one terrible pilot. I said, it must have been a horrible accident.
"But I was whisked off there, I didn't have much time to think about it. And I was sitting in the classroom, and Andy Card, my Chief of Staff ... walked in and said, 'A second plane has hit the tower, America is under attack."
You can imagine Meyssan's joy at the fact that Bush says he saw the *first* plane hit. TV cameras did not cover the first plane because nobody knew an attack was on the way. It was the *second* plane that news teams captured live on television.
But Meyssan is a pouncer: The minute he spies anything that doesn't sound right, he leaps on it and says, See? This proves my theory! when it doesn't do any such thing. Here's how Meyssan pounces on Bush: "So therefore, according to his own declaration, the President of the United States saw pictures of the first crash before the second had taken place."
And how could Bush have watched the first plane's attack on TV when there was no TV coverage of the event? Meyssan says that "it must thus have been secret images transmitted to him" through a special television set up in the school by secret government technicians. "That means [U.S. intelligence services] must have been informed beforehand," says Meyssan.
Well, perhaps Meyssan will benefit from his trip to the United States and learn something about the ways of the present administration. Americans who have grown accustomed to George W. Bush know that the President was probably just mixed up about the attack he witnessed, so focused was he on delivering his talk to an audience of six-year-olds.
The Importance of Meyssan's Research
So with the greatest skepticism we plow *past* Meyssan's conspiracy overdrive and encounter, with the most critical eye possible, the questions he raises in the second book as well as the first.
After all, we know from the JFK assassination, Watergate, Iran/Contra, Elvis Presley's "death" and those aliens in Roswell, New Mexico, that if questions raised at the time of a crisis aren't answered, they will *never* go away. Here are a few that Meyssan asks about 9/11 that may fall into that category:
These are just a few of the questions that struck me as having staying power unless they are answered. Meyssan refers to them as "incoherencies of the official version of the attacks," and he published his second book, "Pentagate," to answer critics who themselves tried to answer his questions and denigrate his research in the first book, "9/11: The Big Lie."
I don't agree with Meyssan's conclusions, but what keeps bothering me is the all-too-tidy fit of the Bush administrations' (elder and junior) obsession with oil and the the present *use* of the 9/11 attacks to follow a conservative agenda to subvert civil liberties, especially freedom of speech and privacy.
And it certainly seems more than a coincidence, as all the books mentioned here observe, that this Bush administration has led us to the brink of war in January of 2003, just as the previous Bush administration led us to the brink of way in January of 1991. I know all the theory about optimal winter conditions for U.S. nighttime technology - that's a strategy, not a reason.
Thank heaven a number of books besides these show us how to listen and think critically about a war that the traditional press seems to be cheering on, if not helping to sell. On the Internet, aside from TomPaine.com, WorkingAssets.com and other challenging commentary and news gathering, there is also that brilliant digest of alternative news sources, Alternet.com. All prove that dissent is both healthy and important whenever we are told to jump on a bandwagon racing to war.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Robert Wiener's entertaining but highly self-serving "Live from Baghdad," which aired on HBO on Saturday night, mixed both fact and fiction with a distinctly casual disregard for the truth. I did not mind being portrayed as a composite for the first half of the movie, but when Richard Roth (a real life CNN reporter who currently covers the United Nations) miraculously took my place in the war-torn streets of occupied Kuwait City, I was somewhat taken aback. Why would a journalist of Roth's reputation willingly allow himself to be portrayed covering a real event that he did not cover? Why would CNN executive Eason Jordan allow one of his staff to be portrayed in such a blatant lie? It seems that, indeed, truth is the first casualty of war.
It was I, not Richard Roth, who was the CNN correspondent accompanying producer Robert Wiener to Kuwait City that day and it is I who must still live with the consequences. The doctor whom I interviewed just prior to our forced return to Baghdad was (according to later reports on CNN itself) summarily executed by Iraqi soldiers shortly after we were driven away. (In most movies, this tragic but dramatic outcome would have been a key scene. It was not shown in "Live from Baghdad.")
Pressured by Eason Jordan and others in Atlanta to "get the big story," Wiener allowed himself to be duped by Iraq's Information Minister (now Foreign Minister) Naji Sabri Al Hadithi into going to Kuwait City to dispel reports that invading soldiers took babies out of incubators and smashed their heads against hospital walls. I allowed myself to be duped by Wiener who did not reveal full details of his agreement with the Information Minister until we were on the ground in Kuwait City. That deal restricted me from reporting on anything that was not directly linked to the hospital story - otherwise CNN would "never get an interview with Saddam."
Eason Jordan, upon discovering that Robert had made such a deal, described it as "the darkest day in CNN's history," although he then also agreed, after the fact, to abide by the rules. Despite my expressed willingness to report anything and everything, I was told to deal only with the events at the hospital. My report dealt with the situation as honestly as possible, stating clearly that we had been invited to Kuwait City to discover the truth for ourselves about the incubator allegations. In an on camera stand-up, I noted that unfortunately we were not allowed to stay long enough to discover anything about what happened. Despite this, CNN subsequently got its interview with Saddam Hussein. The fact that an innocent person apparently died as a result of the network's all-consuming desire to "get the big story" should never be forgotten.
Holt responds: I'm still reeling from the news that the doctor was executed. In the movie it didn't seem that the doctor did anything other than what he was told. Or did you feel he was portrayed more subtly than he should have been?
Doug James responds: Following the interview things moved very quickly. We were shunted out of the hospital but Robert insisted on my being able to shoot a quick on camera standup outside, which I was allowed to do. It has never been clear to me what caused the sudden shift in plans on the part of the Iraqis. We had been told that we would be able to visit several hospitals and interview whomever we liked. I thought that perhaps the doctor in question just wasn't convincing enough to satisfy the Ministry of Information but then, he was supposed to have been just the first of many we were to interview. If, in fact, the incubator story never happened as originally portrayed in the media, this would be a particularly odd turn of events. I could only speculate as to why our visit might have ended so suddenly and that wouldn't add much to the truth. Perhaps you could ask Richard Roth. Sorry, I forgot....he wasn't really there.
As for the fate of the doctor. I discovered this only at the end of the ground war when I entered Kuwait City with the U.S. 1st Infantry Division which had fought its way through Saudi Arabia. Another CNN reporter had gone back to the hospital after the liberation and was told the doctor had been murdered after we left. CNN aired this story but it kind of disappeared in the continuing coverage of the day. In fairness, Robert tells this story in his book on which the movie is based. However, I always felt he never told the full details of why we got to go to occupied Kuwait in the first place.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote: "As everyone from TV critics to FAIR's analysts has noted, the airing of 'Live from Baghdad' could not be more timely. The United States is on the verge of war against Iraq, and the campaign to prove Bush's 'axis of evil' has been operating like a house afire."
Perpetuating the inaccuracy of the pulling babies out of incubators story was frankly the least offensive thing about the "Live From Baghdad" film, which was blatantly obscene in its disregard for human suffering. FAIR should be far more concerned about the gross self-congratulatory portrayal of parachute journalists who in the face of human devastation care only about the "story" and whether or not they beat out Dan Rather.
Even Keaton's guilt over perhaps being responsible for the fate of a hostage after doing an exclusive interview with the guy had more to do with HIS (Keaton's character's) suffering than anything that might (it didn't) have happened to the hostage.
The scene of the bombing of Baghdad contrasting the journalists' thrill at pulling off a coup [beating out the networks] was so disturbingly at odds with reality that I watched it with my mouth open in disbelief. That the movie didn't even feel the need to comment on this - to have had at least one character pipe up and say, "Wait a minute, guys, what in god's name are we doing feeling so good about ourselves at this moment?" was extraordinary.
But then wasn't that war all about entertainment - seeing bombs as Fourth of July fireworks with no regard to consequences - as just another show trying to beat out the ratings? Didn't the writers/producers/director have a narrative if not moral responsibility to establish context? Why war in the first place? Even if you believed/believe that there was/is a reason (more than oil) to the bombing - Saddam is cruel and dangerous; the Iraqis are suffering under tyranny and sanctions; Democracy would benefit Iraqis - shouldn't it be shown? And in turn show the reason why some people thought it was all bullshit - anything but just a story about journalists and Ted Turner patting themselves on the back for doing.... what - reporting a war from a hotel suite?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About your story regarding FAIR's criticism of "Live from Baghdad" for not revealing that the story about Iraqi soldiers pulling babies out of incubators in Kuwait was false: You have fallen into the same mode as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who have criticized books based on someone else's interpretation without having read the book or in this case, seen the program. How did this happen to you? I am disappointed.
Holt responds: Egad, I never meant to censor the movie and am sorry if that's the way it sounded. In fact I stripped the column I had written to put the FAIR piece on top so that we could all watch the movie the next day and decide for ourselves - or at least that was my hope. It does seem clear that FAIR was right: The young girl who testified that Iraqi soldiers were responsible for this brutal act appeared to be legitimate in the movie, when author/scriptwriter Robert Wiener knew she was not; no mention was made that the idea for this testimony was dreamed up in large part by the Washington, D.C., public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton; had I not read that Amnesty International and other groups investigated the accusation and found no evidence to support it, I would have come away thinking of Iraqi soldiers as taking part in the "evil monster" Suddam Hussein has created.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Thanks so much for leading off with your "Live From Baghdad" piece. I thought it was an excellent film in many ways, but was absolutely outraged that they repeated this incubator lie, which was proven false 10 years ago, as though it were the gospel truth. What's next from HBO? A great film that just happens to drop in news that the Holocaust never happened?
Especially at a time like this, as you point out, repeating of this kind of incendiary lie has life and death consequences. And if HBO has any integrity, they should do a piece on the exposure that this incubator accusation was a lie and promote it as much as they did the airing of "Live From Baghdad."
A better comparison to the outrageousness of what HBO did would be the outrage in this country a month or so ago when a prominent Arab network aired a program based on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a well-known anti-Jewish slander that was proven false almost a century ago, but continues to be promoted by those with an anti-Jewish agenda. What HBO did, repeating an anti-Iraqi slander, proven false 10 years ago, is no less outrageous.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Does any writer manage to get the print-on-demand (POD) clause out of a publishing contract?
The POD clause allows readers to special order a book that is no longer in paper copies in stores and, for a higher price, receive a computer-generated model of the book that looks a lot like the original. Some authors and readers welcome this arrangement because, theoretically, it enables the continued publication of any book. The problem is, it doesn't really. The book isn't really *in print* -- no reader who doesn't already know it exists will ever encounter it. But it's not strictly out of print either, the status that under the old system would have reverted the rights to the author, who could have tried to sell it to another house or publish it herself. POD lets publishers keep the rights to books they don't intend to keep in print, just in case the author gets famous in the future. But for the author, POD is tantamount to tossing the book onto a back shelf in a virtual warehouse, forever.
Right now I'm fretting that when my agent sells the paperback rights to my book, the house will briefly publish, then stop printing more books but hold onto the rights, and after that, it will never again see the light of day.
Dear Holt Uncensored
What a pleasure it was to read your warm reminiscence of Ellen, the editorial assistant at Houghton Mifflin's New York office in the early 1970s, and especially of her inspired work as Don DeLillo's first editor. I know her best from a brief time prior to then, when she worked briefly in the Boston office. Though nominally my editorial assistant, she was much my superior in her instinct for good fiction and literature in general. I recall her recognizing Don's first novel "Americana" and editing it and pushing for its publication. By the time it came out, she was in New York, still Don's ardent champion through at least two further novels. It's a joy and privilege to have worked with her. Some people instinctively know good fiction and work hard for it, and she's one of them.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your item on slush piles: One publisher recently told me that he has no time to read the unsolicited manuscripts that arrive weekly. So the unpaid, untrained intern reads them and decides if they are publishable. (Don't worry, the junior editor then rejects them).
Many UK agents are now admitting they don't accept unsolicited MSS. I love this. So writers needing someone to introduce them to reluctant publishers now have to find someone to introduce them to the reluctant agent first.
The question is, then, how on earth do you get published if you are not already in the business? Easy. You become a celebrity in an unrelated field first. Then watch the six-figure advances flood in.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In replying to my complaint about penal commissions paid by publishers to bookshops and the stifling effect of the practice, Michael Walsh signed off, "Used to work retail. Had lint in my pockets." It was unfair and impolite of me to tar all bookshops with the same brush. There are many - notably in the independent section - struggling with admirable courage and who have readers and talented authors uppermost in their minds. It seems to me that Michael Walsh must have been one of them, and I hope my generalization didn't cause offence to him and other fine and fair operators. I'm sure there would be no argument, though, that the vast majority of retail outlets for books play havoc with independent publishing by demanding outrageous commissions and with a sale-or-return policy that small houses like my own just can't carry.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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