It was the respected U.S. Army General, George S. Patton Junior who famously said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”. His extensive experience of war gives gravity to his insight.
Today, even after so many official lies when we speak about reasons to go to war it seems that there must be total public compliance. It’s now apparently unpatriotic to ever question official narratives so, all dissenting voices must be totally crushed.
But where does this absolutism logically lead? And how do we resist a militarised, herd mentality that will lead to bigger geopolitical conflicts that could end in mutually assured destruction?
The co-director of the Organization for Propaganda Studies, Dr Piers Robinson and lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester, Tara McCormack, joined with Renegade Inc. to discuss these and other related issues.
The ability of war propagandists to crush dissent within society is made easier during epochs in which political mobilizations against the said propaganda are less prevalent. Certainly, what is widely perceived, historically, to be an anti-war movement in the UK has failed over recent decades to materialize into a recognized political force.
Tara McCormack agrees that this is a real problem for the millions of citizens who oppose war:
“If you look back 60s/70s/80s to be anti-war, anti-Western militarism, was an understood political position. In the mainstream media, you would have people like John Pilger and – before they became fully bought out by the security services – papers like the Guardian. To take a political stance against war would be a respected position in academia. You had the LSE and people like Tariq Ali. It might not have been the biggest movement but it was a respected, understood political position and you had a criticism of Western foreign policy that was made in a broader political framework.”
McCormack contends that up to, and including this period, there remained an underlying critique of Western foreign policy among academics and activists. According to the university lecturer, the framing of war as a problematic Western-driven imperialist narrative began to shift following the break-up of the Soviet Union:
“In the ’90s many people on the left entirely moved away from any kind of criticism of Western war. There was an embrace of NATO and the notion that our bombs are good, can liberate and bring human rights. And I think that’s a real problem”, says McCormack.
There were exceptions – Tony Benn and Tam Dalywell among them in opposition, for example, to the war in Kosovo in 1999 – but the anti-war movement was small. “I was involved. We stood up and said, ‘this is wrong’, says McCormack. However, unlike the critiques of the Cold War, today these kinds of core political positions and arguments have largely disappeared. The ideological Western foreign policy discourse – post-Soviet communism – has instead been framed by a compliant corporate agenda-driven media in which ‘end of history’ triumphalism has attempted to supplant all dissenting voices who oppose the inner circles’ simplistic Manichean version of history.
The narrowing political discourse
Dr Piers Robinson has experienced, first hand, the impacts of a narrowing of the political discourse around issues of war and peace. The purpose of media smears against dissenting voices like Robinson, is to discredit the reputation of the messenger:
“It’s about destroying their credibility so that what they’re saying will not be listened to”, says Robinson, who adds a caveat: “I don’t think that everyone who engages in smearing people necessarily know exactly what they’re up to in that respect, but some people do and know this is a kind of dirty PR tactic and so on.”
But also – perhaps most importantly – they are designed to intimidate the individuals concerned.
As Robinson puts it:
“Do you really want to be trolled, smeared, and have nasty newspaper articles written about you? And what might your employer think about that even if it’s a good university which has a robust defence of freedom of speech? You know, it’s not necessarily the kind of thing that is going to get people popping the champagne in the PR department. So all of those things create a huge amount of pressure and that’s what they’re designed to do. They’re designed to undermine people. It’s obviously not a rational process, it’s not logical, there’s no reasoned debate going on here.”
Essentially, what is being described, is the age-old ad hominem technique of playing the man not the ball – a tactic that, in Robinson’s view, has intensified over recent years. This, in no small part, is due to the changing nature of politics that has increasingly become more extreme.
The co-director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies, highlights the Wests belligerent warfighting strategy over many years in order to emphasize his point:
“If it were suggested to me and others in the ’90s or ’80s that we, say, were actually going to be invading Iraq with tanks and soldiers in 2003, we would have been taken aback. So these are extreme, highly destructive, policies which are being pushed through. And in that situation how do you control dissent? You can’t do it any more through reasoned discussion”, posits Robinson.
Instead, the tactics of the political and media establishment is to control debate and the information environment through the use of smears against credible dissenting voices.
“People in positions of power”, says Robinson, “don’t want facts to surface. They don’t want people to realize what’s going on and so people have to be taken out and they have to employ nasty tactics to do it. The tobacco industry engaged in that kind of stuff in the ’70s and ’80s trying to close down the emerging scientific consensus on tobacco’s harmful effects and lung cancer links. And there were some pretty dirty [smear] tactics [of attack] being employed against scientists and academics that range from a fairly straightforward public relations aspect – nice, positive, fluffy, public relations persuading people – and then there’s the kind of nastier side of it…discrediting people, looking for dirt – digging for dirt”, adds Robinson.
The academic concurs that this has a chilling effect on the wider community:
“This is about demonizing and marginalizing people who are often telling the truth and who are often telling uncomfortable truths. This happened to [Chomsky]. In the 1970s he was accused, I think, of things such as holocaust/genocide denial and being pro-communist and so on. This has all been used before…just to try and close you down”, says Robinson.
However, although the dirty tricks, smears and unfounded attacks can be harmful to truth-tellers on a personal level in the short-term, in the long run, the said individuals are invariably vindicated while those engaged in the attacks, by contrast, are discredited. The longevity of somebody of the standing of John Pilger, is evidence that those whose quest is to bring power to account, will tend to stay the course while muckrakers rapidly sink into oblivion.
Ultimately, says, Robinson, “you ride through it and it becomes a badge of honour. We can always say if you’re not being attacked like this as an academic then you’re not doing your job as an academic.”
Lack of critical insight
The fact that Robinson represents one among an increasingly tiny minority of marginalized dissenting voices in academia, is indicative of the kind of political shifts that Tara McCormack outlined at the beginning of this article.
Robinson references the war in Syria as an illustration of the lack any substantive critical insight in relation to the conflict and the intellectual justifications that gave rise to it:
“If you think about it, it’s absolutely incredible when you look at the war in Syria this is, you know, 7/8 years long war with massive involvement from Western countries, Gulf state allies and so on and look at a number of academics who even have the faintest idea of what’s actually going on, it’s remarkable”, says Robinson. The academic was one of the few dissenting voices prepared to raise his head above the parapet in regards to the well publicised Douma incident.
But Robinson and colleagues had also raised critical questions in relation to other chemical weapons allegations levelled at the Syrian government led by president Bashar al-Assad, long before the infamous Douma incident:
“In terms of the working group, a number of us had been looking at chemical weapon allegations in Syria prior to Douma and there was already plenty of reasons to question the dominant narrative that the Syrian government was carrying out chemical weapons attacks on its own people. So there’s already questions in our mind and evidence that there were problems and then, of course, Douma happened”, says Robinson.
At this point:
“France, US and UK were pushing a narrative that it was the Syrian government who were responsible. The usual voices – the Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat and so on – were pushing the idea that it was the Syrian government. And of course, you know, at the time the position was that, “well we need this to be looked at properly, objectively, it needs to be a proper investigation rather than to jump the gun”.
“But of course they jumped the gun and they bombed within seven days and then attacked us relentlessly for having raised questions and in a sense that just made it even more suspicious that there’s something going on here. They didn’t even want to wait for the OPCW report.”
Following the final publication of the report in 2019, Robinson noted that there were significant anomalies in it. The academic outlines these key anomalies:
“First and foremost the ideal or the kind of explanation of how the cylinders [alleged to have contained the poisonous gas] had arrived at their locations was unpersuasive – to put it mildly. The OPCW report clearly implied that the cylinders had been dropped by helicopters and that they had fallen into apartments and that’s where the chlorine gas had leaked from.”
“The number two anomaly”, says Robinson, “was that the OPCW investigation found only chlorine present at the location of the apartment block where the deceased civilians were found. So therefore, the OPCW implied that these people were killed by chlorine. But the report also noted that they appeared to have died due to some kind of fast-acting nerve agent, because chlorine doesn’t kill rapidly. So you had a stark inconsistency in the report in terms of how the people had died.”
“The third big problem”, says Robinson, “were the hospital scenes. I mean, we knew because Riam Dalati from the BBC has claimed, and still continues to claim, the hospital scenes were staged. And you look at the Douma Report and there are indications that the hospital scenes were staged. So you add all those things together and you’ve got a lot of very serious questions about what really happened and increasing, ultimately, the probability that it was a staged event.”
“And then, of course, the key thing is that you have the OPCW report coming out and then within a few weeks of that you have the leaking of an internal engineering report carried out by people who were the team in Douma. It was obviously leaked to us and we published it. But that report was essentially the opposite conclusion of the OPCW report.
The conclusion was that the cylinders were most probably put there by hand not dropped by helicopters. The problem that we have identified in the OPCW and that we have identified both through obviously leaked material – but also looking at earlier cases – is that you have an organization which has been set up in terms of the Syrian investigations in a way which allows them to rely upon opposition groups for information and that has ultimately fed through to reports which wouldn’t stand up in a normal criminal court.
It therefore follows, that information which has not been independently verified and has entered the public domain, cannot possibly be relied upon for its authenticity.
Robinson credibly suggests that “you have some kind of pressure going on [and apparently] have the placement of officials into key positions…which mean that the interests of France, the UK and the US are being reflected by essentially the organization itself. And we all know from anybody who works in a big organization, that if you put the right people in key positions, they can ensure that things go in a particular direction. And this is what we understand has exactly happened with Douma.”
Here, Robinson is suggesting that the credibility of the OPCW has been undermined as a result of the corruption of its internal procedures.
In other words:
“There was an engineering report carried out by the people who were sent in which clearly concluded that you have some kind of staged event most likely to have occurred there and that documentation gets suppressed and ruled out of the final report. That’s why there’s the ongoing controversy and questions.”
Robinson legitimately claims that the corruption of the OPCW can potentially result in a far big issue:
If you have an organization such as the OPCW which is effectively corrupted by major powers in the international system they can then use the OPCW to create a justification for attacking another country and for war.
Tara McCormack envisages this kind of corruption of a major institution as indicative of the potential corruption (and hence compromising) of other international institutions. It’s a problem that she sees as being insurmountable:
“I think you always have this problem with international institutions effectively that the powerful states can to some extent push the agenda”, says McCormack. “I mean I’m just thinking about, say, Iraq – you know, when the weapons inspectors turfed them out saying, ‘no, you know, the weapons inspectors are also spying for Israel’. Of course, there was a great denial [at the time]. But, you know, three years after the Iraq war that was established as a fact.”
So it’s not new to have these kinds of international organizations and mechanisms that essentially can be corrupted and follow a Western agenda rather than actually try and find out what has happened.
Robinson takes slight issue with McCormack in terms of there being no apparent answer to the question of corruption within the system. “People need to speak out. Indeed, this clearly has already happened in terms of the documents being leaked from the OPCW. And frankly, you know, in terms of OPCW, the Non-Aligned Movement, Russia, China, India, they as states and actors can put pressure to get the OPCW reformed. Rather than just going, ‘well ok, we all know that the Syria stuff was manipulated’, they can say, ‘well no, we need to properly confront this in the organization’.
Tara McCormack doesn’t share Robinson’s optimism, pointing to the House of Commons report on Libya and the Chilcot report in relation to Iraq as examples where the establishment viewed the damning outcomes resulting from disastrous foreign interventions as ‘historical accidents’. “I worry that any emerging OPCW scandal will be just another Chilcot and then we move on. I mean, you would literally think when you look at the reports about Syria, Iraq didn’t happen…The public are consistently far less belligerent than the political establishment. The problem is, there’s a huge gap between public attitudes. So there isn’t a coherent, vocal anti-war movement but generally, people don’t think war is a good idea”, says McCormack.
Closing the gap
The conclusion appears to be that unless the gap between the public’s opposition to war and the establishing lusting for it, is closed, Western exceptionalism and military adventurism and imperialism will continue unabated.
However, as Robinson points out:
“These things only go on for a certain period of time. War, fighting and imperialism, can exist for a certain period of time and at some point, establishment forces become exhausted with this. And I think that’s probably the point we’re at at the moment. I guess what I’m saying here is I think circumstances…are going to force the voices such as myself and Tara and others to actually come to the fore. Ultimately, we’ll start to cohere and then we will provide a more robust analysis and a check to what’s going on. The awareness of the skepticism about the mass media now is at a record level. The institution here is collapsed in many ways.”
In this regard, McCormack and Robinson are in agreement. However, in the view of the former, public skepticism with the traditional media is offset by indifference which is where powerless stems from. Ultimately, the political class are not listening to the people and, crucially, says Robinson:
“We’re not at a point of mobilization. People feel disempowered and so on. That’s the next step when people realize that the system is not working, things are broke or it’s neoliberalism or war etc. I think that realization is there now. The next step is some kind of mobilization which then starts to affect political change.”
“I think 10 to 15 years down the line if everything goes the way that I hope it will, I think people will look back on this period as a terrible moment in Western history where we were involved in initiating, instigating and fueling war after war after war. At some point that has to come to an end.”