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This war is a festival of lies and they will only get worse - 9/11

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Guardian Unlimited

This war is a festival of lies and they will only get worse

Anything we see of the impact of US strikes will be strictly controlled.

Peter Preston
Monday October 8, 2001
The Guardian

So it begins. The flashes of light in the night sky, the distant explosions, the appearance of a "relentless" George Bush talking command and control. We slowly remember what war is like; but we need to remember, too, that truth is the first casualty of conflict, that the briefers, bureaucrats and politicians who act as reasonably "reliable sources" in peace are operating now under different house rules. That they have become wholly unreliable by design.

Sit back and apply commonsense to the tales of the first 26 days. Troops massing at this or that frontier post. Air strikes "imminent" (three weeks ago) or "within 48 hours" (eight days ago). SAS teams already staging search-and-destroy missions inside Afghanistan. Commonsense asks a difficult question. Would anyone with braid on his shoulders, anyone who really knows, tell a journalist such things if they were true? Why not send Osama bin Laden a postcard instead?

Those of us who yomped through the Ministry of Defence in the Falklands soon got the changed hang of things. Top chaps in dark suits would summon up the full authority of their office and lie like troopers. Who, on reflection, could blame them? General Galtieri took the Guardian and the Telegraph on subscription. If journalists needed scoops, they'd better be fed some duff ones.

The Falklands war was more than a distant side-show. It hugely impressed the Pentagon. Ensure that reporters are cooped up on aircraft carriers or minded by MoD male nurses far from the front and, as long as you keep decent clamps on back at the political ranch, there is total information control. Grenada and Panama proved the point and the Gulf was its apotheosis, war watched from afar by video screen. Globalisation meant being further away from, not nearer, the action. More space, less truth.

How, then, will this latest, very curious conflict be played out? Pull down the handbooks from their dusty shelves and start pondering. For we are going by the book.

The start of the horror - the destruction of the twin towers - was uncontrolled disaster: for the thousands of innocents who died, for dreams of security and illusions of intelligence. The world watched in stunned fascination. The world was out of control. One task in the days since September 11 has been to regain equilibrium.

The building of this fabled international coalition against terrorism may or may not prove vital in the end. But, shuttling from summit to summit, it has certainly filled in the time while the military mammoths got their lugubrious act together. There's been a Gulf-style pause. Now, as bombing begins, we can begin to sense a pattern.

Would Galtieri pull his troops off the Falklands as the task force sailed ever closer? He had that chance. He failed to take it. Would Saddam quit Kuwait as billions of dollars rolled into the desert? He had the chance. Will the Taliban give up Bin Laden and save their regime? That, obviously, has been the descant of the past couple of weeks. The answer is now written in the night over Kabul.

Meanwhile the control freaks have had their thinking caps on. The world's correspondents (one factor) are there in force and deployed: Uzbekistan, Quetta, Peshawar, and the Afghan enclave where the Northern Alliance rules. But, save for the deeply unfortunate Ms Ridley and a handful of Afghan agency reporters, they aren't in Taliban country, let alone camped outside Bin Laden's rural retreat. Suicidal peril and impossibility co-joined.

Better still, the Taliban themselves seem to be PR mutts. They can't field a Tariq Aziz figure looking grave, just a deputy ambassador in Islamabad looking perplexed. They have already (losing Bin Laden, then miraculously finding him again) blown what credibility they had. In their self-imposed isolation, they won't be able to take western camera teams to inspect any civilian casualties of air attack. No wrecked Baghdad hospitals; no Serbian buses burned on a bridge. They are sitting, silent targets. That won't stop protest waves round the Arab world today, nor will it necessarily catch Bin Laden. But it does mean that the only clear TV evidence of effectiveness, however carefully selected, will come from the Americans and the Brits. Happenstance has played to the handbook rules.

What can go wrong? Plenty, naturally - even apart from bombs gone astray. Bin Laden himself, as yesterday's television interview showed, has a malign gift for PR. He could stage a dismaying series of catch-me-if-you-can for the cameras. Proof of his death or capture will need to be absolute before the briefers celebrate. More terrorist onslaughts are high on the agenda. More American lives in places like Saudi Arabia lie on the line. Hostage-taking (as Jimmy Carter might add) could wreck every equation.

Even so, because restraint equals thinking time, a measure of control has returned. The war of perception, vital after September 11, is on a more even keel. The perception is that governments still govern and can seem to call the shots. The HQ hope must be that some finite battle in an unseen field far away will soon be enough to end any shooting war and, with a little help from the Pakistani secret service, leave al-Qaida headless.

But then the dissonances of difference begin to impinge. The FBI and CIA, caught ludicrously short by 19 men with penknives, are obliged to exalt the potency of Bin Laden's network. Poison gas, germ warfare, nukes? Some or all of these visions may have a sliver of reality to them, but they also conveniently turn a low-tech enemy into a Bond villain like Ernst Stavro Blofeld. (Indeed, yesterday's Sunday Times did just that.)

You may call this reacting to a challenge, and so it is. But it is also, in the nature of spin, the inflation of the adversary who wounded you. Warnings of risk from Scotland Yard become as fearsome as Met Office gale forecasts after 1987. No danger knowingly understressed. No briefer, by training or profession, is more usually unreliable than a secret agent covering his back, and the tale he tells is likely to be self-serving tosh.

The trouble is that, even as the jets go in, this is also an amorphous war of jaw-jaw. The braided ones, clutching their handbook, may have devised a scenario they have a prospect of commanding and controlling. We will be, as we were last night, distant spectators of this enterprise. We can only hope it succeeds, and hope as well that we can maintain a decent perspective, a balance of understanding. But that needs thought and fact as well as cheers. Keep calm, or at least, calmer. But believe nothing implicitly, especially from the Blofeld blowhards. Travel carefully and carry a big waste basket.

Further Reading:

F..W.. Magazine || 9/11: The Archive - The 'Lighter' Side of the New World Order?