26 December 2003
Someone wrote me and asked if I knew when the phrase ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ was first used. A little research produced UN Resolution 687 that demanded that Iraq destroy its WMDs following the Gulf War:
3 Apr 1991 Security Council resolution 687 (1991),
Section C, decides that Iraq shall unconditionally accept, under international supervision, the destruction, removal or rendering harmless of its weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles with a range over 150 kilometres, and related production facilities and equipment. It also provides for establishment of a system of ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq’s compliance with the ban on these weapons and missiles. Requires Iraq to make a declaration, within 15 days, of the location, amounts and types of all such items.
So it would seem that the phrase languished, unrecognised as a potent image of persuasion until exhumed by the Bush/Blair clique and that got me to thinking about when it was first used in the context of the propaganda campaign that preceded the actual invasion.
This proved to be more difficult to track down and thus far, I have been unable to ascertain when it was first used as a mantra of mass deception (MMD). However, we can assume that some government PR flack decided that it had the right ‘ring’ for use in the propaganda campaign to persuade an extremely sceptical public that as part of the ‘axis of evil’ Saddam had to be removed.
In turn, this got me to thinking about how the mass media floods our senses with empty phrases that take on a ‘life of their own’. Their origins can probably be traced to comedy ‘catch phrases’ that when repeated often enough become loaded with ‘meaning’ that is to say it’s the context that determines how the phrase is received. What’s interesting about such phrases is that when taken out of context or analysed for content they loose their intended meaning entirely.
The term ‘empty phrase’ comes to mind but in fact the ‘container’ performs an important function because it divorces the actual reality of who has real WMDs from those who don’t by removing any reference to what a Weapon of Mass Destruction really is. Consider that the preferred descriptions up until the adoption of the term WMDs was either nuclear weapons or CBW (chemical and biological weapons). But continuous use of these terms would bring into public discourse the US and UK possession of these weapons, hence an acronym that only applied to the inhabitants of the ‘jungle’ was needed.
What is a Weapon of Mass Destruction?
More to the point, what constitutes mass destruction? The thousand bomber raids of WWII massacred hundreds of thousands of people in a single strike. The US’ chemical bombing raids (‘Agent Orange’) during the Vietnam War destroyed thousands of square miles of forest as well as killing people to this day through the genetic damage they caused. Cluster bombs are technically weapons of mass destruction by virtue of the sheer number used as are land mines and ‘anti-personnel’ weapons. Indeed one could go further and identify actual policies such as the use of food as a weapon of mass destruction when used to bring a nation to its knees. This technique has been used to great effect by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as are embargoes and blockades such as the one used against Iraq for a dozen years that killed an estimated 500,000 people, mainly children or the one used against Cuba for the past thirty years.
And of course it’s also the monopoly media that are central to the effective use of MMDs through the mass distribution and consumption of the propaganda phrase. Moreover, it’s the way the phrase is targeted that counts. When did you last see the phrase WMD being used to describe the US’ or the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons? And how are they able to avoid being condemned for their possession?
In part, the ability to divorce form from content is achieved through the creation of a false value system, a system that creates the illusion that US or the UK are to be trusted. Take for example one of the main planks of the war to depose Saddam; his alleged use of poison gas on the inhabitants of Halabja in March 1988. In the first place the technology used was sold to Iraq by the US, the UK, Germany and Argentina, therefore it was Western development of the technology in the first place that made their use possible. Where are the headlines in the Western media condemning the US and the UK for developing the damn things in the first place? Secondly, it’s by no means clear who actually used the gas or chemicals or exactly how many people actually died (propagandists claim hundreds of thousands of deaths but there is no historical record of this). According to the CIA’s top analyst at the time, both Iran and Iraq were using poisons on each others troops:
“The piece of hard evidence most frequently brought up concerns the gassing of Iraqi Kurds at the town of Halabja in March 1988, near the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. President Bush himself has cited Iraq’s “gassing its own people,” specifically at Halabja, as a reason to topple Saddam Hussein.
“But the truth is, all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.
“I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency’s senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.
“And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.
“The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds’ bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent — that is, a cyanide-based gas — which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.”
Stephen C. Pelletiere, New York Times, January 31, 2003
Or the following:
“Blood agents were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemical in the [Iran-Iraq] war–the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents–and the Iranians do–we conclude that the Iranians perpetrated this attack [my emph. WB].”
MARINE CORPS HISTORICAL PUBLICATION FMFRP 3-203 – Lessons Learned: Iran-Iraq War, 10 December 1990
Now whether Pelletiere should be believed or not is difficult to say, except for the fact that in 1988 it was in the US’ interest to support Iraq but not in 1990 or 2003. The main point is that ‘facts’ are mutable and fluid and are able to be used to rationalise the irrational. So for example the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been ‘morally’ justified by the US on the basis that it “saved the lives” of thousands of US troops. Yet history shows that Japan was on the verge of surrender (having been WMDed into submission).
No doubt I will be accused of trying to defend Saddam but that merely avoids the issue of a double standard being applied and the media’s complicity in the process. And to bring the story uptodate, where is the media’s MMD when it comes to Israel’s possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons? Of course, the US or the UK has no intention of bringing about regime change in Israel, as the other MMD used so effectively, is that Israel is a democracy. So we have ‘good’ WMDs and ‘bad’ ones and fortunately all the ‘good’ WMDs happen to be in the possession of the ‘good guys’.
And it’s instructive to note that the ‘double standard’ theory that I have referred to many times here has its ideal expression in the case of Israel. After all, Israel is a de facto Western country and hence ‘democracy’ is something that only applies to Israelis (aside that is from Arab Israelis). Democracy doesn’t extend to Palestinians who therefore can be bombed and murdered with impunity in a supposed ‘defence of democracy’ – white man’s democracy that is. The very definition of democracy is itself fluid and entirely dependent on how it is used and who it is applied to.
That the media makes occasional noises about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or even its possession of WMDs merely serves to maintain the illusion of ‘balanced’ coverage. Even worse is the media’s craven submission to the propaganda of ‘anti-semitism’ whenever Israel’s racist and genocidal policies are revealed for what they are – or is it complicity in a process of deception? After all, the owners of the media in the US and the UK share a common ideology with the rulers of Israel, an ideology that has nothing to do with being Jewish or even a hatred of racism, no matter what its expression or who is targeted.
The refusal on the part of the media to acknowledge the double standard is of course part and parcel of projecting the dominant ideology, that Western ‘democracy’ is intrinsically the best thing since sliced bread, yet any reading of history reveals an entirely different picture. Arch-imperialist Winston Churchill summed it up perfectly when he said that “Democracy is a tool to be used and broken”. Need I say more?