Which War Are You Watching?
— The View from Spain
by Dwight F. Reynolds

Introductory comment by Peter Meyer:  Many Americans believe that the rest of the world is "anti-American", or even that outside the U.S. "anti-American hatred" is rampant. This is another of the delusions widespread among Americans (maintained perhaps so they can feel sorry for themselves as supposed victims), delusions fostered by the mainstream American media (e.g., Time Magazine's recent issue with the cover story, "Why do They Hate Us?"). It's true that there is hatred of the U.S. in many Arab countries, and, given the decades-long financial and political support of the U.S. for the terrorist state of Israel, this is understandable. But in many countries, and especially in Europe, there is little hatred of America, but rather sadness, a profound disappointment that in the militarily most powerful country in the world the government seems to lack any sense of morality and seems set on using its military strength to impose its economic control and its corporate-capitalist ideology upon the rest of the world by force. Moreover, any sense of respect for truth seems to have disappeared from both U.S. government pronouncements and reporting in the mainstream U.S. media (a U.S. court recently ruled that lying in newspaper reports is legal). So it is not with hatred, but with incomprehension, at most with disdain, that America is viewed in Europe, as the following article shows.

The American media's portrayal of the routing of Saddam Hussein as a great military victory and a step toward world peace is almost incomprehensible outside of the U.S., for the rest of us have been watching a very different war. Here in Granada, I regularly watch the Spanish, French, and British television news and then occasionally look at the CNN and New York Times webpages. It is often hard to believe they are covering the same events and the gap between American and global perceptions of this war will certainly have significant repercussions for some time to come.

In the eyes of non-American media it took the world's most powerful and wealthiest nation months of planning, the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops, and the launching of thousands of missiles at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to topple one dictator in a country already crippled by two earlier wars and ten years of international sanctions, defended by a third-rate army almost entirely bereft of advanced armaments who put up no coordinated resistance. Not an impressive feat. But — to the astonishment of the world — America sees itself as heroic and triumphant. Everyone is happy that Saddam is gone, but to portray this as an impressive feat of arms seems to many people here an amazing act of self-deception. What would happen if America ever had to face a *real* army?

The campaign itself, as viewed outside the U.S., was constantly marred by misjudgments and bad leadership: Brits and Americans killed themselves and each other in a rash of "friendly fire" incidents; America's "smart weapons" proved not to be so smart and instead caused horrifying destruction in marketplaces, buses, maternity wards, and civilian neighborhoods; the Tomahawk missile system had to be taken offline not because it was missing its targets but because it was missing the entire country of Iraq(!) and instead landing in Saudi, Jordanian, and Syrian territories; the quick advances and welcoming crowds predicted by the Rumsfield cabal did not materialize and a panicked American military had to call for reinforcements of 120,000 new troops after only a few days of fighting.

The American military was portrayed here as unprepared and badly managed, without contingency plans for even the most predictable of situations such as sandstorms, suicide bombers, and lengthening supply lines. The flaws in this performance were only made more obvious when European news broadcasts over and over again placed headline stories of various mishaps and civilian deaths next to the typically immodest statements of Rumsfield that American missiles were "the most precise ever seen in human history" or that "everything is going exactly as planned," or Tommy Franks announcing the infamous "shock and awe" campaign. More than one European commentator took advantage of America's hubris to state that the only "shock" in this war was how badly it was waged and how inured to human suffering the American people seem to have become.

In one particularly poignant moment on Spanish television, after a series of unrelenting images of civilian wounded and dead (far more graphic that would ever be allowed in the U.S.), we were shown a Pentagon spokesperson referring to understandable levels of "collateral damage." The Spanish commentator simply looked directly into the camera, shook his head sadly and mused: "One wonders what type of human being can refer to the death of a child as 'collateral damage.'"

The disinformation campaign waged by the U.S. government also went badly awry and European commentators openly began to compare Iraqi and American sources as being equally tendentious and unreliable: Tariq Aziz has defected (oops, no he hasn't); Saddam Hussein is dead (oops, no he isn't), an Iraqi division has surrendered (oops, only seven soldiers have surrendered), we've captured an Iraqi general (oops, he's not a general or even a ranking officer) . . .

When Saddam's media showed footage of Arab volunteers flocking to Iraq to become suicide bombers, European TV channels showed that footage back to back with the U.S. military's latest recruitment ads on American television along with commentary about the increased militarization of both societies. News programs began to note how many times the Coalition had to reannounce its gains — "for the sixth day in a row, Coalition sources have announced that Nasiriyya has fallen," "once again the Coalition has announced that resistance in Basra is under control," etc. The credibility of the American government all but disappeared and that of the American media crumbled.

When Iraq showed footage of its American hostages, European channels showed the footage (not shown in the United States) back to back with Bush's angry denunciations and his statement that this violated the Geneva Convention — followed immediately by American footage from earlier that same week of its Iraqi POWs and then images of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The audience scarcely needed the commentator's remarks afterwards about double-standards and hypocrisy in order to draw the intended conclusions.

When Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Peter Arnett was fired after his statements critical of the war, the English newspaper the Daily Mirror sported a headline something like: American Reporter Fired for Telling the Truth. News programs in several European countries carried features that night, and for several days following, about the state of the American media: How could a reporter be fired for expressing criticism of a government in an interview?

Commentary by multiple political and academic figures made it clear that America no longer has a "free press" in the true meaning of the term, for in America one is not free to express criticism of the war or of the Bush regime.

Toward the end of the military engagement, American troops fired directly upon the hotel which housed many of the international journalists still remaining in Baghdad. That night the rest of the world watched in horror the film footage of an American tank rolling into position in front of the hotel, the turret turning to aim directly at the camera, the flash as the shell was fired, and the destruction and dust as the shell hit just to one side of the camera. We then watched as people, screaming for help, began to dig bodies out from the rubble. One of those wounded was a Spanish cameraman. We followed him as he was carried out of the building in a blanket, placed in a vehicle and transported to the hospital, and then we watched as he died. The Spanish media was in an uproar.

In a series of badly calculated press releases, the Pentagon first claimed that a sniper had fired from the hotel and that the Americans were defending themselves. Journalists who had been in the hotel for the previous 48 hours said that this was untrue: "Another of a seemingly endless series of American lies meant to justify their stupid and senseless war." The Pentagon then announced that there had been an unidentified explosion, perhaps a missile. Finally, a day and a half later, the Pentagon admitted that American troops had indeed fired directly upon the hotel and killed the journalists. For every European who had watched the unmistakable and shocking footage of the American attack two nights earlier on the news, the prevarications of U.S. authorities were infuriating and they were certainly not alleviated by the eventual, partial admission of responsibility.

The day the statue of Saddam was torn down, the great divide between America and the rest of the world was briefly suspended, and millions watched to see if America would be wiser, more competent, and more humane in peace than it had been in war. But within hours the chaos began to spread and for the next few days one American spokesperson after another got up in front of the cameras to say that America had no responsibility for maintaining law and order or for protecting the civilian population (despite the Geneva Conventions). In a truly shocking development, Coalition troops did not even move to secure hospitals (see the Geneva Conventions). Finally, after intense international pressure, first the Brits and then the Americans admitted that, having launched thousands of missiles at Iraq, having crippled much of the infrastructure of the country, and having toppled the previous regime, the occupation forces did indeed bear some responsibility for maintaining order.

But even after that admission, it became clear that there was no plan of action and the sacking and burning of many of Iraq's — and humanity's — most precious treasures took place, while American soldiers stood by aimlessly passing the time. Newspapers and news programs throughout Europe are openly comparing America's role in Iraq to the burning of the great Library of Alexandria, the Goths' sacking of Rome, and the Mongols' sacking of Baghdad in the 13th century. In the end, it was only a matter of hours from the images of the crowds cheering the arriving American troops to those of the first public demonstrations against the American occupation. CNN had an interesting spin on this, their headline ran: Iraqis exercise newly won freedom of expression to protest against Coalition Forces.

In the end, I think, the difference between the two views of the war (that of America & Israel versus that of the rest of the world) boils down to a single question: Were there alternatives? Americans were told by their media that there were no alternatives and that the only option was for Americans to get in there and get the job done (= war) and let the rest of the world be damned. The rest of world was told by their media that there were numerous other options (diplomatic, economic, etc.) that would have involved less death and destruction. So for most people in the world, every civilian death in Iraq has been an unwarranted murder. For Americans (or at least some), those deaths have been an acceptable means towards a rather poorly defined goal:

What exactly ARE American forces doing there? Disarming weapons of mass destruction? Eradicating terrorism? Stabilizing Iraq's oil resources? Toppling Saddam Hussein? Establishing a democracy?

As several editorials here have recently pointed out, if America is aiming to establish a democracy, it will be doing something that it has not done for nearly 60 years. For six decades the United States has supported and maintained dozens of dictatorships, a host of military regimes, a collection of monarchies, and the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip — but its record of supporting democracies, let alone establishing them, is dismal indeed. Afghanistan, the nation mostly recently the target of American interventionism, languishes forgotten, scarcely funded by the Republican regime in Washington, and certainly a long way from possessing a stable, democratically elected government.

In short, there were two very different wars to watch: one almost entirely military in nature (the American version) and another portrayed in unrelentingly human terms (the global version). Spain is nominally a member of the coalition, but 91% of the population here opposes the war and the largest and most impressive demonstrations against the war have been held here, massive marches of millions upon millions of people in nearly every city and town throughout the country. The coverage we watched in Spain was unflinching in its portrayal of the violence and pain of war. Here the demonstrations against the war continue and have now been transformed into protests against the military occupation of Iraq. And, in a development that may have far-reaching ramifications, more and more of the placards in the marches say: BOYCOTT AMERICAN PRODUCTS.

This week everything is on hold since it is Semana Santa (Holy Week), Spain's biggest holiday. The day before the holidays began, however, was a general strike by university students and labor unions across the country protesting the war. Other activities that continue to take place are: protest marches, concerts for peace, marches on the American military bases in southern Spain, resignations by politicians in the ruling Partido Popular in protest of Aznar's position, almost daily attempts to hold "No Confidence" votes or votes condemning the war in the parliament (but the ruling party holds an absolute majority so these never actually make it to the floor for a vote, though they are reported over and over again in the news), the opposition members of parliament have "No a la Guerra" signs in front of them at their desks and have called for the closure of American military bases in Spain, one group has tried to file a suit against Aznar in the European High Court, high school kids have been holding "die-ins" at their schools and other public places, there are thousands upon thousands of NO A LA GUERRA signs fluttering from windows and spray painted on buildings, and many people wear pins or T-shirts with that message every day.

As a result, Spain never actually fought in the war, it only offered verbal support and air space for American fly-overs. A Spanish hospital ship is functioning in the Gulf and treating Iraqi wounded and now that the fighting has all but stopped, Spanish soldiers have actually landed for the first time to take part in the policing actions.

So such is the view from here in Spain. I will write more about other aspects of life in a separate message, this one is already too long. Despite it all, though, on a person to person level, Americans are treated well and no one need fear traveling here. Spaniards are divided and more than a bit confused when it comes to interpreting the public opinion polls that show that the majority of Americans support the war: some simply say that Americans are a violent people (as demonstrated by their love of guns and their astonishing rates of murder, violent crime, and imprisonment); others say that Americans are famous for their lack of knowledge about the world and their low level of education and that their support comes mainly from not having suffered themselves the tragedy of war on their own soil. A third school of thought was expressed to me rather succinctly the other day by the owner of the music shop where I take my guitar lessons: "I don't believe the polls. I don't think Americans really do support the war, no people can be in favor of war — but they don't really see the war, do they? They just believe what the American media tell them." Let us hope there are better days ahead for all of us.

Un abrazo, Dwight

Dwight F. Reynolds, Director
Centro de Estudios de la Universidad de California
Colegio Mayor Isabel la Catolica
Universidad de Granada

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