excerpted from the book

Distant Voices

by John Pilger

Vintage Books, 1993, paper


... the power in the democracies is enforced not with tanks but with illusions, notably that of free expression: in which the voice of the people is heard but what it says is subject to a rich variety of controls. Writing in the 1920s, the American sage Walter Lippmann called this the 'manufacture of consent' (i.e. brainwashing). 'The common interests', he wrote, 'very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialised class'. The public is to be 'put in its place' as 'interested spectators'.' In this way, illusions of 'consensus' are created, rendering a free society ,passive and obedient.

In 1977 the banned Czech writer Zdener Urbanak told me, 'You in the West have a problem. You are unsure when you are being lied to, when you are being tricked. We do not suffer from this; and unlike you, we have acquired the skill -of reading between the lines.

... during 1985 - the year of the Ethiopian famine and of 'Live Aid' ... the hungriest countries in Africa gave twice as much money to us in the West as we gave to them: billions of dollars just in. interest payments.

The majority of humanity are not news, merely mute and incompetent stick figures that flit across the television screen. They do not argue or fight back. They are not brave. They do not have a vision. They do not conceive models of development that suit them. They do not form community and other grass-roots organisations that seek to surmount the obstacles to a better life.

'Never', wrote Jeremy Seabrook about the Western media, 'is there a celebration of the survival, the resourcefulness and humanity of those who live in the city slums; nowhere is there mention of the generosity of the poorest, of the capacity for altruism of those who have nothing, of the wisdom, endurance and tenacity of people displaced from forests, hills or pastures by western-inspired patterns of development.

Ninety per cent of international news published by the world's press comes from the 'big four' Western news agencies. They are United Press International (UP!), Associated Press (AP), Reuter and Agence France Presse (AFP). Two are American, one is British, one is French. Their output is supplemented by the transnational giants: from Murdoch to Times-Warner to CNN. Almost all of these are American. The largest news agency, UP!, gets 80 per cent of its funding from US newspapers. A survey in the mid 1980s found that UP! devoted 71 per cent of its coverage to the United States, 9.6 per cent to Europe, 5.9 per cent to Asia, 3.2 per cent to Latin America, 3 per cent to the Middle East and 1.8 per cent to Africa."

Old empires live on with the 'big four'. AFP is strongest in French-speaking Africa. AP and UPI are in the Americas and Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, which the United States dominated in the post-war period, and Reuter maintains its influence in the former Commonwealth. 'No other single factor', said Reuter chairman Roderick Jones in 1930, 'has contributed so much to the maintenance of British ' prestige...'.

... Terrorism is almost never associated with the West, only with the Third World. It is not important that the US Government trains terrorist armies and its agents run death squads. The State of Israel is not described, like the Libyan regime, as a sponsor of terrorism: only Arabs are terrorists.

During most of the Vietnam War the Vietcong, who were southern Vietnamese, were portrayed as 'communist aggressors'. The Americans, to my knowledge, were never referred to in the mainstream media as invaders.

At the height of the First World War Lloyd George, the prime minister, confided to C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian: 'If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know, and they can't know."

Like the Gulf now, Vietnam was a war of rampant technology directed against a Third World people. It was a war in which the United States dispatched its greatest ever land army, dropped the greatest tonnage of bombs in the history of warfare, pursued a military strategy deliberately aimed at forcing millions of people to abandon their homes and used chemicals in a manner that profoundly changed the environment and genetic order. Some two-and-a-half million people were killed, and many more maimed Land otherwise ruined.

March 8, 1991

What ought to have been the main news event of the past week was that as many as 200,000 Iraqis may have been killed in the war in the Gulf, compared with an estimated 2,000 killed in Kuwait and 131 Allied dead. The war was a one-sided bloodfest, won at a distance with the power of money and superior technology pitted against a small Third World nation.

Moreover, it now appears that a large number of the Iraqi dead were slaughtered - and the word is precisely meant during the brief land war launched by Washington after Iraq had agreed in Moscow to an unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. And most of these were in retreat, ordered to withdraw, trying to get home They were, as Cohn Hughes wrote in the Independent, 'shot in the back'."

So 'ring your churchbells' and 'rejoice' in such a 'great victory': a military operation of 'almost aesthetic beauty'... and so on, and on, ad naüseam.

'The glee', wrote Cohn Hughes, 'with which American pilots returning to their carriers spoke of the "duck shoot" presented by columns of Iraqis retreating from Kuwait City [has] troubled many humanitarians who otherwise supported the Allied objectives. Naturally, it is sickening to witness a routed, army being shot in the back.' This 'duck shoot', suggested Hughes, 'risked staining the Allied clean-fighting war record'. But no; it seems the Iraqis were to blame for being shot in the back; an Oxford don, Professor Adam Roberts, told the paper that the Allies 'were well within the rules of international conduct'. The Independent reported the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis on its front page, while inside a leading article referred to 'miraculously light casualties'.

Yet the Independent was the only British newspaper to give consistent, substantial coverage to this slaughter. 'The retreating forces huddling on the Basra beachhead', reported Karl Waidron, 'were under permanent attack yesterday from the air. Iranian pilots, patrolling their border 10 miles away, described the rout as a "rat shoot", with roaming Allied jets strafing both banks. 149 Waidron described the scene as 'Iraq's Dunkirk'.

The Iraqi casualty figures are critical to the 'great victory'. Leave them out and the Murdoch comic version applies: Western technology, and Western heroism, has triumphed. Put them in and the picture bleeds and darkens; and questions are raised, or ought to be, about the 'civilised values' for which 'we' fought. The Guardian announced the death of 150,000 Iraqis in the body of a piece on page three. The Times and Telegraph performed a similar burial. The next day, the Telegraph referred to a 'massacre' on the road to Basra. American pilots were said to have likened their attack on the convoy to 'shooting fish in a barrel'. Ducks, rats and now fish were massacred. No blame was apportioned."

On the contrary, most newspapers carried prominently a photograph of a US Army medic attending a wounded Iraqi soldier. Here was the supreme image of tenderness and magnanimity, a 'lifeline' as the Mirror called it: the antithesis of what had actually happened. Such a consensus was, to my knowledge, interrupted only once.

During a discussion about the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, the BBC's Radio Four delivered a remarkable live report from Stephen Sackur on the road to Basra. Clearly moved and perhaps angered by what he had seen, this one reporter did as few have done or been allowed to do. He dropped the 'we' and 'them'. He separated ordinary Iraqis from the tyrant oppressing them. He converted the ducks, rats and fish into human beings. The incinerated figures had been trying to get home, he said. Among them were civilians, including contract workers from the Indian subcontinent; he saw the labels on their suitcases.

However, on the evening television news bulletins there was no Stephen Sackut Kate Adie described the 'evidence of the horrible confusion' that was both 'devastating' and 'pathetic'. The camera panned across the 'loot' - toys, bottles of perfume, hair curlers: pathetic indeed - strewn among the blackened dead. There had first been a 'battle', we were told. Battle? A US Marine lieutenant looked distressed. They had no air -cove; he said: nothing with which to defend themselves. 'It was not very professional at all,' he said, ambiguously; and he was not asked to clarify that.

Apart from his words, I could find none, written or spoken, that expressed clearly the nature of this crime, this mass murder that was there for all eyes to see, and without the Iraqi Ministry of Information to 'supervise' those eyes. One recalls the interrogation by satellite that the BBC's man in Baghdad, Jeremy Bowen, had to endure following his harrowing and personally courageous report of the bombing of the air-raid bunker in which hundreds of women and children died. 'Are you absolutely certain it wasn't a military bunker?' he was asked, or words to that effect. No such interrogation inconvenienced his colleagues on the road to Basra. The question, 'Are you absolutely certain that Allied planes did this deliberately to people running away?' was never put.

Thus, self-censorship remains the most virulent form. At the time of writing, the message of a war with 'miraculously light casualties' drones on and on. There is a radio report of the trauma suffered by British troops who had to bury the victims of the atrocity on the Basra road. In the commentary, there is no recognition of the victims' human rights even in death; and no acknowledgement of the trauma awaiting tens of thousands of Iraqi families for whom there will be no proper process of grief, not even a dog-tag.

Like the bulldozers that cleared the evidence on the Basra road, the propagandists here now attempt to clear away the debris of our memories. They hope that glimpses we had of the human consequences of the greatest aerial bombardment in history (a record announced with obvious pride) will not form the basis for a retrospective of the criminal nature of the relentless assault on populated areas as part of the application of criminal solutions to political problems. These must be struck from the record, in the manner of modern Stalinism, or blurred in our consciences, or immersed in celebration and. justification.

Celebration, of course, is a relatively simple affair. For those of us lacking churchbells, David Dimbleby will have to do. However, justification is quite another matte; especially for those who seem incessantly to describe themselves as 'liberals', as if they are well aware that their uncertainty, selectivity and hypocrisy on humanitarian matters is showing. Bereft of reasoned argument, they fall back on labels, such as 'far left', to describe those with humanitarian concern.

According to Simon Hoggart of the Observer, one of the myths spread by this 'far left' is that 'the Allies were unnecessarily brutal to the Iraqi forces... Of course the death of thousands of innocent conscripts is unspeakable. But you cannot fight half a war.' The basis for Hoggart's approval of the 'unspeakable' is apparently that his sisters are married to soldiers who went to the Gulf, where they would have been killed had not retreating Iraqi soldiers been shot in the back and Iraqi women and children obliterated by carpetbombing.

Robert Harris, the Sunday Times man, is even more defensive. He writes that Rupert Murdoch did not tell him to support the war: a familiar refrain. Murdoch, of course, didn't have to. But Harris adds another dimension. Disgracefully, he insults Bobby Mulle; the former decorated US Marine who lost the use of his legs in Vietnam, as a 'cripple' and a 'cardboard figure' whom I 'manipulate'.

Even Mulle; who is a strong personality, was shocked by this; and at a large meeting in central London last Monday night invoked Harris's name in the appropriate manner. Unlike Harris, he has fought and suffered both in war and for his convictions. Harris's main complaint, it seems, is that, those against the war have neglected to mention Saddam Hussein's atrocities in Kuwait - which apparently justify slaughtering tens of thousands of Iraqi conscripts and civilians.

The intellectual and moral bankruptcy of this is cleat First, as children we are told that two wrongs do not make a right. Second, those actively opposed to the war are the same people who have tried to alert the world to Saddam Hussein's crimes. In 1988, 30 MPs signed Ann Clwyd's motion condemning Saddam Hussein's gassing of 5,000 Iraqi Kurds. All but one of these MPs have been steadfastly against the war.

In contrast, those who have prosecuted and promoted the war include those who supported Saddam Hussein, who armed and sustained him and sought to cover up the gravity of his crimes. I recommend the current newspaper advertisement for Amnesty International, which describes the moving plea of an Iraqi Kurdish leader to Thatcher following Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds."

'One of our few remaining hopes', he wrote, 'is that democrats and those who cherish values of justice, peace and freedom will voice their concern for the plight of the Kurds. That is why I am making this direct appeal to you...' The letter was dated September 16, 1988. There was no reply. On October 5, the Thatcher Government gave Iraq more than £340 million in export credits.


It is one year [1999] since the United States and its 'coalition' allies attacked Iraq. The full cost had now been summarised in a report published by the Medical Educational Trust in London. Up to a quarter of a million people were killed or died during and immediately after the attack. As a direct result, child mortality in Iraq has doubled; 170,000 under-fives are expected to die in the coming months. This estimate is described as 'conservative'; UNICEF says five million children could die in the region.

More than 1.8 million people have been forced from their homes, and Iraq's electricity, water, sewage, communications, health, agriculture and industrial infrastructure have been 'substantially destroyed', producing 'conditions for famine and epidemics'. Add to this the equivalent of a natural disaster in 40 low- and middle-income countries.

Distant Voices

Index of Website

Home Page