MOSCOW – Wars usually start with one large lie. Throwing more troops into the breach requires a great many little lies. Wars usually end when the lying can’t staunch the bleeding, and the stench.
According to the wife of the David Kelly, the British Defense Ministry expert on Iraqi weapons who committed suicide last Friday by cutting his left wrist, and bleeding to death while on painkillers, “this was not really the kind of world he wanted to live in”. But the kind of world prime ministers of England and presidents of the United States hatch, when they go to war together, should have been familiar to Kelly, as he was old enough to remember the Vietnam War.
The big lie for which Kelly killed himself was no different from the one that created the Tonkin Gulf incident, the invented Vietnamese attack on US warships which purported to justify the first landings of US troops 40 years ago. The little lies which Tony Blair and George W Bush go on telling, as they, too, try to land more troops, and fight a guerrilla war, soon to expand into a national liberation struggle -these lies are no different. Not even the methods for feeding them to the press have changed.
I remember the day in 1972, when I was poking around the archives of Time newsmagazine in New York -1 was a consultant to one of Time Inc’s senior executives at the time – and I came across a file of telexes from the Time war correspondent in Saigon. His New York editor had begun by asking him to write a story on the effectiveness of the US bombing in Vietnam, especially the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through which Vietnamese forces were being replenished and resupplied. The editor was being told by officials in Washington that the bombing was crippling the Vietnamese effort, and the war would soon be over. The officials wanted congressional backing for more money and more troops on the ground. They needed the press to put the justification in print.
At the same time, the Saigon journalist reported back, someone had dropped an unusual package on his doorstep. It was a report on the impact of the US bombing campaign. From the stamps on the document, and the packaging, it appeared to have been drafted by British intelligence. But the Time man was suspicious, he wrote New York. He wasn’t sure about the facts, he said, because the capabilities of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army looked much better on the ground. The timing suggested to the reporter either that the British were working secretly with their American counterparts to fabricate information; or else US intelligence was forging British intelligence in order to make their own claims look more credible. The Time reporter told his editor that while he was prepared to report US military claims for what they were worth, he wasn’t going to report that a secret British intelligence source had corroborated and confirmed them. A great many little lies were to follow, and not all of them Time’s editors and reporters were able to resist. The outcome is well known.
A great many people, in editorial offices of newspapers, as well as government offices in Washington and London, know very well that the intelligence for which David Kelly killed himself was fabricated. They already know that the stream of little lies has begun. They know that it isn’t worth their career prospects, let alone their lives, to expose them. In time, those who remember Vietnam realize that Blair and Bush won’t be able to staunch the investigations of the family, business and other links they, their advisors and supporters have with the war machine they have set in motion in Iraq. In time, those who remember Vietnam understand that the fighting men of the US Army will fear every Arab they see, and will lose the will to risk their lives for a cause they don’t believe is worth it.
As the gap grows between the facts on the ground in Iraq and the facts in the air of Washington and London, even the media proprietors who have willingly retold the lies, and fashioned many of their own – men such as Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch – will recognize the noses on their faces, and smell the way the wind is blowing. By themselves, Time’s Saigon correspondent in 1972, and his New York editor, couldn’t stop the bombing campaign in Vietnam. By himself, David Kelly couldn’t stop the Iraq war. That is going to require a great deal more transfer of treasure, and loss of blood. Perfidious Blair and lying Bush aren’t the kind of people who ask themselves whether this is really the kind of world in which they want to live.
John Helmer, since 1989 the longest-serving Western correspondent in Russia, was an official of the Carter administration in Washington between 1977 and 1981. In 1975 he published Bringing the War Home: The American Army in Vietnam and After, a celebrated analysis of disintegration in the US Army.