The preface (pp. xiiii-xiv; I have omitted footnotes, which you can find in the original text) reads:
The Afghanistan Papers: Decades of Deceit
In December 2019, The Washington Post released an in-depth report titled “At War With the Truth.” The report based its findings on a trove of internal documents from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) regarding the status of the U.S. government’s war in Afghanistan. Among other things, the Afghanistan Papers highlighted that high-ranking U.S. leaders held the view that the war was unwinnable and took steps to keep this information from the American public and Congress. As John Sopko, the head of SIGAR put it, the Afghanistan Papers showed that “the American people have constantly been lied to.”
This was consistent with prior warnings regarding deception by the U.S. government regarding the Afghanistan War. Over a decade ago, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, a veteran of the Afghanistan War, wrote the following:
Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the US Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable. This deception has damaged America’s credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan. It has likely cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars Congress might not otherwise have appropriated had it known the truth, and our senior leaders’ behavior has almost certainly extended the duration of this war. The single greatest penalty our Nation has suffered, however, has been that we have lost the blood, limbs and lives of tens of thousands of American Service Members with little to no gain to our country as a consequence of this deception.
What Davis and the Afghanistan Papers highlight is the systematic use of propaganda by the U.S. government. Propaganda involves the dissemination of biased or false information to promote a political cause championed by the propagandist. Its purpose is to manipulate the beliefs of the recipients to align with the aims of the propagandist even if those goals are at odds with the interests of the target audience.
The purpose of this book is to explain how propaganda operates in democratic politics and why it matters for citizens. Our focus is on government-produced propaganda targeting the domestic populace within the United States in the post-9/11 period. We show that the U.S. government has purposefully provided partial and misleading information about the actual threats to the security of U.S. persons while contributing to a broader culture of militarism, which holds that a powerful military apparatus is necessary to protect and promote freedom and order at home and abroad.
Government propaganda is a direct threat to freedom and liberty because it empowers a small political elite who wields awesome discretionary powers to shape policies while keeping citizens in the dark about the underlying realities and the array of alternative options available. In doing so, propaganda aims to shift the relationship between the citizenry and the state. Instead of the consent of the governed being the driving force behind the state’s operations, private citizens are viewed as opposition that must be manipulated to achieve the propagandists’ goals. As we will discuss, these issues are especially pertinent in matters of national security, where the government jealously guards its monopoly on privileged access to information. This monopoly on information enables those in power to present information to the public in a manner conducive to achieving their desired ends in the name of the “public interest.”
As the Afghanistan Papers remind us, the dissemination of war-related propaganda by the U.S. government is alive and well. In what follows we explore how the government’s propaganda machine operates and the threat it poses to a free society.
In the histories of the Vietnam War, decision makers have been described as getting things wrong with disastrous consequences because they depended upon formative experiences that were of no use when dealing with events in Vietnam.
As well, histories of events in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan underline that American (and in the case of Afghanistan also NATO) involvement proceeded according to similar formative experiences. Powerful decision makers saw the world as viewed solely through Western eyes.
The histories and cultures of the world regions that Western military forces were stepping into either were ignored, or else were beyond their comprehension.
Many books are available about Vietnam aside from the many that deal with the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it is also known, of course). A book I’ve recently been reading is Vietnam (2021) by James Sullivan.
The book features photography by a National Geographic photographer. Such a style of photography has in the past created distances between what is photographed and what exists. In this book, that problem does not appear to occur. Among other topics of interest, this travel book describes underground tunnels that tourists can visit, where villagers lived during the war to escape the American bombing runs.
A blurb reads:
Vietnam is host to a unique mix of natural beauty and cultural diversity. It has one of the most ancient cultures of Southeast Asia, with relics of its rich history found at tourist-friendly sites such as the Hindu temples of My Son and Ponagar Tower. Its landscape ranges from mountain passes to lush rice fields and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches stretched along 1,860 miles (3,000 km) of tropical coast. This comprehensive and beautiful illustrated guidebook offers walking and driving itineraries to well-known wonders and hidden treasures within the country, as well as useful maps to navigate your way. Active travelers will find plenty of opportunities to stretch their legs with self-guided walks through the shops of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, along the legendary Mandarin Road, and through tunnels used by Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Thrill seekers can find adventures from kite-surfing in Mui Ne to spotting tigers in Chu Mom Ray Park. And for a taste of authentic Vietnam culture, visit the markets of the mountain tribes. With practical information on when to go, where to stay, what to eat, and what to do, this is the ultimate guide to the best of Vietnam.
“Cultures clash, but love conquers, with some fascinating twists and plenty of intimate details.” –Kirkus Reviews
James Sullivan’s Over the Moat details his travels in Vietnam to bicycle from Saigon to Hanoi. He has just finished graduate school and has an assignment to write a magazine story about a country that is still subject to a U.S. trade embargo. But in Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, the planned three-month bike trip in the fall of 1992 takes a detour.
Here, in a city spliced by the famed Perfume River and filled with French baroque villas, he finds himself bicycling over a moat to visit a beautiful shop girl who lives amid the ruins of the last imperial dynasty of Vietnam. She falls for him, but there’s a catch. Several other suitors are vying for her hand, and one of them is an official with the city’s police force.Over the Moat is the story of Sullivan’s efforts to win Thuy’s favor while immersing himself in Vietnamese culture, of kindly insinuating himself in Thuy’s colorful and warm family, and of learning how to create a common language based on love and understanding.
All of which reminds me that we are dealing with climate change and the pandemic.
When I think about how best to address climate change, it also occurs to me that formative experiences stemming from what has been called the European Enlightenment have given rise to many global projects with disastrous consequences.
I refer to the historical European drive to colonize the planet, the attempt (which has been futile because nature will not put up with it) to achieve dominance (dominion) over nature, and the attempt to decimate and assimilate (again, the attempt has failed thanks to strong resistance) Indigenous peoples worldwide.
Propaganda on behalf of the fossil fuel industry has contributed to climate change for many decades.
The histories and historiographies related to the past four hundred years are now being revised. That’s what I like to think about, when I seek to make sense of history.