Selling Kosovo (1999)

The messy propaganda campaign we are witnessing in Kosovo has its origin in the extraordinary media experiment of the Vietnam war. In Vietnam American military commanders gave the press relatively free access to the battlefield, and tried to spin perceptions with a barrage of statistics, presented in morning briefings that came, by a majority of the press corps, to be regarded as more or less fictional. The disparity between the official abstractions of 'kill ratios' and the sight of murdered children quickly felt obscene to many of those covering the war. The result was a PR disaster which haunts US foreign policy up to the present day.

It is not so much the 50,000 American dead as the enduring perception of the war as futile, mismanaged and unjustifiable which has left deep marks on US politics. "Laying Vietnam to rest" has become one of the covert goals of any US foreign conflict, perhaps even the holy grail which America is seeking through its frequent military actions. Since the US government is careful to shield its frighteningly inward-looking domestic 'audience' from the grim realities of its foreign policy, this means all wars with US involvement have to incorporate a "positive message" for domestic consumption.

The conduct of the Gulf War was dictated by this imperative. A rhetoric of intelligence, precision and even medical intervention (laser-guided surgical strikes to cut the Saddam cancer from the body of the Iraqi patient) was flawlessly presented to an international press which, due to the physical remoteness of the battlefield, was entirely dependent on military briefings and military-originated video material for its coverage. Iraqi propaganda had little effect outside the Arab world, and the US and UK public came away with a perception that a sufficiently technological war could reduce risk to negligible levels, punishing the guilty while sparing the innocent.

NATO has attempted to present the Kosovo War in the same way, but has run into serious trouble. A plethora of unofficial information sources, many internet-based, present the experience of being bombed to a world public which is consequently unable to abstract and dehumanise the Serbs in the same way as it did the Iraqis. The Serbian propaganda machine is also far more sophisticated than its Iraqi counterpart. From the repeat screenings of 'Wag The Dog' on state TV, to the use of stylish target graphics, its manipulation of international and domestic opinion provides a powerful counter-view to that retailed from Brussels.

Milosevic's state-run media is visibly 'un-free', and this very fact is produced as evidence of the evil of his regime. Unfortunately for the sweaty NATO commanders who appear on stage to justify the latest round of air strikes, the political concentration on Milosevic's suppression of free speech puts an onus on them to appear contrastingly open and accountable. No one asked many hard questions in the Gulf, or indeed in the Falklands. This time round the veracity of cockpit footage is being questioned, a stark contrast to the hypnotic repetition of Gulf War smart bomb footage which did so much to make that particular slaughter a media success. NATO's failure to present a credible picture of its actions points up the fact that, like the Serbs, it is also waging a propaganda campaign for the hearts and minds of US and European TV viewers. The perception that this conflict is being 'spun' for home consumption is deeply shocking to a Western public still accustomed to believing in the justness of its leaders abroad, despite having learned to be cynical about them at home.

The spectacle of the Western media weighing the words of its military leaders against those of the state against which they are fighting would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. The lack of connection between state violence and the people in whose name it is taking place is both heartening and terrifying. Heartening, because unthinking patriotism seems to be being made harder by the globalisation of the media, terrifying because of the disconnection and apathy which the Kosovo War is producing in the Western intelligentsia for whose benefit it is being fought.

This piece first appeared in Mute.