Winning Hearts and Minds, Emitting Yarns and Jive
By Crispin Sartwell
Speaking at the U.S. Army War College on March 27, Donald Rumsfeld
said this: "If I were grading, I would say we probably deserve a D or a
D-plus as a country as to how well we're doing in the battle of ideas that's
taking place in the world today. . . . Every time the United States tries to do
anything that would communicate something positive about what we're doing in
the world, we're criticized in the press and in the Congress."
He was thinking, among other
things, about the Pentagon's policy of paying Iraqi newspapers for favorable
coverage, as well as various other propaganda efforts which have, putting it
mildly, failed to sway Muslim or world opinion in favor of American policy in
the stories planted in the Iraqi press were true or not, they cannot be taken
seriously: the sheer fact that a newspaper is paid to run a story discredits
the newspaper entirely, to say nothing of the story itself.
The only way the administration seems to understand the notion of
"winning hearts and minds" is as a question of overpowering their
hogwash with our humbuggery, of manipulating public opinion more effectively
than they do by demonstrating our dishonesty as thoroughly and continuously as
possible. Then we can head for the Army War College and wonder aloud why no one
example of where this takes you is provided by the March 26 raid which has
caused the Shiite coalition to withdraw from talks aimed at forming a unity
government. According to Muqtada al-Sadr's people, backed more or less by the
Iraqi government, American soldiers raided a mosque and shot the Imam and a
group of unarmed worshipers. According to the Pentagon, we took out a terrorist
cell in a firefight.
Now you'd have to be a chump to believe al-Sadr on this. But you would
have to be a chump to believe the Pentagon. Indeed, the news outlets that
reported the story essentially threw up their hands: no one with access to the
scene has any credibility. It is very likely that we will never know what
that, I suppose, might be the result that Rumsfeld wants. I suppose from his
point of view sheer confusion is better than flat disbelief. But sheer
confusion is the very best you can hope to achieve if you conceive the task as
"Hearts and minds" has entered our vernacular, like
"Abbott and Costello," "bacon and eggs," "fair and
balanced," or "secrets and lies." I must say I have come to
deeply despise the phrase.
Partly this is because I despise anything that everyone is muttering all
the time as a substitute for thinking. And partly it's because "winning
hearts and minds" puts the focus on controlling people's thoughts and
emotions rather than on telling them the truth.
If one starts by asking how to manipulate opinion, one has already lost,
because people will feel themselves manipulated. Now this might make you think:
we've got to make our fiction more convincing; we've got become much more devious
about planting stories and controlling coverage. That is precisely what Donald
Rumsfeld is thinking.
you that this way lies madness: an endless self-refutation in which all people
reach the point of literally being powerless to believe anything you say, ever
again. History is going to refute you and then stomp on your bones, as it has
other leaders who took this sort of approach, from Stalin to Lyndon Johnson.
whatever you may want from history, no one is going to believe you now unless
there is good reason to think you are likelier to tell the truth than are your
opponents. And the only way to begin to make that happen is by telling the
say, however, that confusion may be the best that this administration can now achieve;
it and we are so entirely saturated with its claptrap that the notion that it
could convince anyone anywhere of anything - much less "win hearts and
minds" - has become merely silly.