Mind Your Language! By William Bowles

4 May 2004

“’What the Pentagon learned from keeping the press from Grenada for the first 48 hours is that first impressions are lasting impressions,” said Jacqueline Sharkey, author of “Under Fire — U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf.’”1

It is said that only one in three soldiers in the modern army actually fire a weapon, the other two are engaged in the act of support that encompasses everything from peeling spuds to driving fuel trucks.

The issue of who is an actual fighting soldier has been thrown into sharp relief by the enormous numbers of ‘private military contractors’ or PMCs hired to do the work of the state-employed soldier in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan.

“The news is not a neutral and natural phenomenon;
it is rather the manufactured production of ideology.”

Glasgow University Media Group

The Dogs of War
Yet the state and its corporate handmaiden, the media, continues to refer to the army of PMCs – numbering in the thousands – employed in Iraq as “contractors” thus not only blurring the line between civilian and soldier, but most importantly, manipulating the public’s perceptions of the ‘enemy’ as inhuman monsters who would murder most foully, innocent ‘truck drivers’. That the ‘truck drivers’ are doing the work of soldiers taking petrol to front line troops is never mentioned.

Interesting choice of word, contractor. My thesaurus produced the following definitions: Contractor [noun]: outworker, service provider, freelancer and supplier.

Many ‘contractors’ are ex-military lured by the prospect of earning thousands of dollars more than they would in the armed forces and perhaps as importantly, they are not covered by the rules of war. Indeed, so many have been hired (recruited?) that there is now a shortage in the standing armies of both the US and the UK.

But cast your mind back to the Vietnam War, when the US war on the country was preceded by what were euphemistically known as ‘military advisors’ or later, the employment of mercenary soldiers in Nicaragua, the Contras, more popularly presented in the media as ‘freedom fighters’.

There are several forces at work here that seek to blind the public into the reality of US objectives, the first of which is the concerted propaganda campaign that has its roots in the US defeat in Vietnam, the first war to be carried on television, the lessons of which were not lost on the US government especially as the tide of war turned against the invaders. Most importantly, it was the first war where the US were decidedly defeated in the full glare of publicity.

During that war:

“Journalists enjoyed considerable liberties in covering the war, often talking to soldiers directly and gathering news from all fronts. Occasionally, they gathered for military briefings — moments they jokingly referred to as the Five O’Clock Follies — for the official government line.”2

Minding one’s language, is of course the bottom line of covering the state’s actions when one is a ‘reporter’ for the ‘Fourth Estate’. And if the reporter cannot be relied upon to be a ‘reliable’ reporter of events, then it’s up to the state to make sure he (or sometimes she) tells it the way the state wants it.

Operation Urgent Fury
Unfettered coverage of imperialist adventures was something the US were not going to permit again, not if they had any say in the matter. The first contemporary attempt at media control was Reagan’s invasion of Grenada.

Nyp grenada

Called “Operation Urgent Fury”, the invasion was preceded by a hysterical propaganda campaign that involved scare stories about a Cuban-Soviet base being built on the island followed by an alleged threat to US citizens studying at a medical college on the island, part of a calculated propaganda campaign that led up to the invasion on October 25 1983. The US media of course, played their part in the propaganda campaign.

“A press corps once comfortable with the freedoms and responsibilities of open war coverage was now shuttered.

“Defense officials had long blamed press coverage for the failings of the Vietnam War. So when hostilities heated to boiling in Grenada, they used that war as their excuse to make sure that they had the press under control.

“When American soldiers stormed the island’s beaches at 5 a.m., journalists weren’t there to document the invasion.

“Even though State Department officials notified Cuba, the Soviet Union and Western European Allies about the invasion several hours before it happened, they left the nation’s press corps in the cold until President Reagan announced the invasion at 9 a.m. that same day. Even then, they restricted reporters to Barbados for another 48 hours.

“Armed forces scuttled attempts by reporters to access the island by boat or small plane.

“On Oct. 27, officials offered a small press pool a limited tour of the island. But then they grounded the media plane so reporters couldn’t file their stories until after Reagan gave a speech on the invasion. On Oct. 30, reporters finally enjoyed unlimited access to Grenada but had to resort to footage and eyewitness accounts from military sources.”3

Following the invasion, “the Psychological Operations Battalion of the US Army was cruising over the island in a helicopter offering the Grenadians, via a loudspeaker, a large serving of anti-Cuban fare…Grenada had been a pawn of Cuba, Castro/communism were still a threat…”4

Many lessons were learned about controlling the media from the invasion, lessons that were applied to the next ‘experiment’ in news control, the invasion of Panama in December 1989.

“The Pentagon hemmed in reporters, keeping them from covering the first 48 hours of the fighting. Veteran war journalist Peter Arnett remembers Fred Francis of NBC News, in particular, because Francis was so incensed that he had to watch the early moments of the fighting from a country club golf course three miles away.

“And pooled journalists became impatient with Pentagon briefings stating that fighting had ended when they were getting calls from Panamanians that it hadn’t.

“”That still haunts the United States down there, because there were many civilians killed around Noriega’s headquarters, but the United States never acknowledged it,” Arnett said.

“Vice President Dick Cheney, then the defense secretary, reissued a set of principles devised by previous defense secretaries guiding how the Pentagon issues combat information. In part, the principles stated department policy to make timely and accurate information available to the public about military matters.

“But press advocates say Cheney quickly tossed the principles to the wind as the nation began preparing for the Persian Gulf War. [my emph. WB]”5

So on the one hand, we have the US attempting to control the media’s access to its imperialist adventures and parallel to this an entirely new language was spawned by the Pentagon to describe these actions using words that would be more ‘palatable’ for the public to ‘consume’, many of which we are familiar with such as ‘collateral damage’ to describe blowing civilians to bits. But such euphemisms are just the obvious tip of the iceberg. More insidious is the total context of the propaganda war.

It was during Gulf War II that we saw the Pentagon hiring PR companies to produce propaganda campaigns to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the populace and where we saw the infamous ‘murdered babies’ disinfo campaign, engineered by a US PR company hired to sell the war.

The people are the enemy
The phrase ‘winning hearts and minds’ is an interesting phrase, for implicit in the statement is the idea that our hearts and minds are ‘lost’ to some unnamed enemy and we have to be ‘won over’. In other words, the public becomes the enemy and the weapons, words. And of course, the people are the enemy of the state’s objectives when the objectives are anything but the stated ones.

Buried in the phrase is the state’s recognition of the fact that the support of the public for its policies can no longer be automatically relied upon. Winning the hearts and minds of a somewhat sceptical public became the number one goal of the US and British governments during the genocidal assault on what remained of Yugoslavia. Here the code words were “humanitarian intervention”, yet the reality was anything but humanitarian with the illegal use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, the illegal destruction of critical infrastructure such as water, sewage and electricity.6

Robin Cook, then foreign secretary in the Labour Government described the actions of NATO in Kosovo as:

“the legal basis for our action is that the international community states do have the right to use force in the case of overwhelming humanitarian necessity. [my emph. WB]”7

As the media takes centre stage in the state’s war on the people, language becomes the weapon of necessity. Assaulted on all sides not only by the state but also by the corporate media, retaking the contested terrain of language becomes central to the struggle to gain control over our lives.


1. The News Media & The Law Fall 2001 (Vol. 25, No. 4 ), Page 8

2. ibid

3. ibid

4. “Killing Hope” by William Blum

5. op cit

6. “Web of Deceit” by Mark Curtis, Vintage Books 2003, pps 142-146

7. ibid, p. 142.

Some other useful resources

A Twenty Year Restrospective: The U.S. Invasion of Grenada” by Stephen Zunes, October 2003
The original can be found at: www.fpif.org/pdf/papers/SRgrenada2003.pdf

The Troubled Path to the Pentagon’s Rules on Media Access to the Battlefield: Grenada to Today” by Pascale Combelles-Siegal, May 15 1996. Strategic Studies Institute
The original can be found at: carlisle-www.army.mil/ssi/pubs/1996/medaacss/medaacss.pdf

False Claims Led to Attacks on Grenada, Iraq by Sheryl McCarthy

20 years later, ghosts of U.S. invasion still haunt Grenada By Clifford E. Griffin

Ronald Reagan and Grenada

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