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June 3, 2003

C.S. Lewis once overheard some soldiers conversing during wartime. He was startled to discover that they all casually assumed their government was lying to them. They weren’t the least bit outraged by it; they simply took for granted that this is what governments always do. It was putting their lives at stake, yet they didn’t trust it to tell them the truth. Lewis was shocked that they weren’t shocked.

Plain men are pretty hard to fool. The French observer Jacques Ellul has written that educated men are far more susceptible to propaganda than the uneducated. And since most people now go to college, it would seem that propaganda may now be at the height of its influence.

Why is this? We like to think that education creates an immunity to propaganda, a rational, skeptical outlook. In fact, it may do just the reverse. It may create in us a disposition to settle for fancy words and high-sounding slogans instead of results. Colleges are hotbeds of ideologies. The Baby Boomers, when they reached college age, exemplified this perfectly. Around the world a whole generation of Marxists sprang not from the “proletariat” or “the working classes,” but from the campuses.

Marxism was what the French call a false but clear idea — the sort of seductive oversimplification, or intellectual panacea, that a bit of education makes tempting. Other such ideas, full of mass appeal for the modestly college-educated, include liberalism, feminism, Zionism, and neoconservatism.

The war on Iraq was the fruit of neoconservative propaganda. One of its authors, the hawkish deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, has now admitted to Vanity Fair magazine that Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction were only a “bureaucratic reason” for the war, a reason everyone in the Bush administration could agree on.

[Breaker quote: Reasons for war, before and after]Not exactly a lie, perhaps, but a sort of convenient fiction. Of course no such weapons were used by the Iraqis during the war, and the victors have been unable to find them. President Bush still insists they will turn up sooner or later.

Wolfowitz’s admission has caused a stir in this country, but a real uproar in England, where Prime Minister Tony Blair may lose his job over it. The British, even those who favored the war, are taking this issue very seriously.

The pro-war press in America is trying to play down the phantom WMDs. As Investor’s Business Daily puts it, “Finding banned weapons to placate the anti-war crowd should be far, far down the list” of “unfinished tasks in Iraq.” To placate the anti-war crowd?

For months the administration harped on WMDs as the chief reason for war on Iraq. Remember Colin Powell’s long aria to the United Nations Security Council? That was supposed to be the moment of truth, the dramatic moment when the hawks would lay all their big cards on the table, though it turned out to be a farrago of dubious sources. It has since transpired that U.S. intelligence agencies doubted that Saddam Hussein had any WMDs to speak of.

So now we are told that only nit-pickers of “the anti-war crowd” ever made an issue of the forbidden weapons. And wouldn’t you just know, they’re doing it again!

The new propaganda line is that Saddam Hussein was so evil — as witness the exhumed corpses of his many victims — that the war was justified in order to liberate the Iraqi people from his tyranny. So it had nothing to do with American defense and national security after all. Just as “the anti-war crowd” was saying all along.

Propaganda, like dairy products, should come with an expiration date. It’s usually abandoned once it has served its purpose. The WMD story worked very well when it was needed to whip up war fever. It provided a temporary excuse, disarmed skepticism, isolated critics. Now it isn’t needed anymore and should be discarded before it becomes too ridiculous.

“The anti-war crowd” were neither a subversive, Kremlin-funded organization nor an auxiliary of al-Qaeda. They were merely scattered individuals who tried to keep a grip on their common sense in the face of what they recognized to be a lot of hooey from their own government. So they were right. What’s the point of bickering with them now? They lost.

It’s always instructive, and often entertaining, to compare postwar propaganda with pre-war propaganda. As the victors tell it, the reasons for war tend to get nobler and nobler with time, and their more absurd lies often fall quietly away in the retelling.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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