Cpl. Propaganda

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Yesterday, I blogged an item about suspiciously similar letters to newspapers by US soldiers in Iraq. The letters all touted US successes in rebuilding Kirkuk and appeared in about a dozen different newspapers. After reading a couple of pieces about it, I decided that the scariest implication of the story–that the Bush administration was involved in a pretty bizarre and disturbing propaganda campaign–was not true. While that still seems to be the case, the actual origins of the letter are still pretty damn disturbing.

Today's Romenesko carries links to two stories on the topic worth reading. The first is from the Los Angeles Times and it quotes a Pentagon spokesman:

"All we know here is that some unit's commander decided that what he wanted to do was write a letter to some of the Gannett newspapers … and a number of people in his unit decided that was a good idea and they wanted to do it too," Air Force Col. Jay DeFrank, the Pentagon's director of press operations, said Monday.

The Times' account also includes a quote from the mother of one of the "letter-writing" soliders, who said that while the letter was not actually authored by her son, it was "gospel truth."

That the letter may have been factually accurate is not particularly comforting, especially since a letter from a soldier overseas is clearly designed to pull emotional heartstrings that, say, a straight newspaper account wouldn't.

In his Newsday column, persistent war critic (and former henchman of George H.W. Bush), Jim Pinkerton sees the letter-writing campaign as part of a larger pattern of dissembling. He writes:

Yesterday, the Gannett News Service reported that 11 different U.S. newspapers had unwittingly printed identical five-paragraph letters-to-the- editor from soldiers in Iraq. The letters were full of upbeat puff—"the quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored"—the kind that some PR blitzer might dream up.

None of the soldiers contacted by Gannett for comment said that they had written the letter; it had been handed to them for signature, they said, by Army superiors. Indeed, one soldier said he hadn't even seen the letter before it appeared in his hometown paper.

Somewhere, Orwell's ghost is smiling grimly. In his novel "1984," the British writer imagined a Ministry of Truth that would be responsible for manufacturing news of victories and triumphs. Now, it's no longer fiction; it's your tax dollars at work.

Give him a pass for the invocation of Orwell and read the rest of his col, which talks about several ways in which the Bush admin is playing switcheroo with the past.

NEXT: Really Peer to Peer

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  1. speaking of manufactering consent…

    don’t believe the mom, believe the newsday columnist

  2. No one has ever sent a form letter to a newspaper before.

  3. also, the fact one soldier didn’t read it means nobody read it, and the fact that a military superior (superiors?) wrote it means it MUST have been an order, and can you believe that with these guys fighing vietnam part 2 they can’t write their own letters and send them home to give an eyewitness account? but this guy wrote like a flack, so toss it out the window.

    believe the corporate columnist with an agenda, not the soliders themselves or dear old mom.

    disturbing indeed.

  4. Yesterday, I blogged an item …

    Please. “Blogged” as a transitive verb is one of the ugliest uses of the English language. Can we stamp this out before it catches on any further?

    One “writes” an item. One “types” an item. But one does not “blog” an item. “I blogged an item” sounds ridiculous.

  5. Who does “Mom” work for and why is “she” involved in this matter?

  6. who is Mom?

  7. That the letter may have been factually accurate is not particularly comforting, especially since a letter from a soldier overseas is clearly designed to pull emotional heartstrings that, say, a straight newspaper account wouldn’t.

    You’re right, the soldiers should have had the factually accurate story published as a straight newspaper account. Oops – the soldiers don’t have the means to publish a “straight newspaper account”. Since the media refuse to print anything but blood and guts which discredits the entire Iraq policy, a letter to the editor is pretty much the only way to get contrary “factually accurate” views in print, is it not?

  8. I wonder where all the anonymous trolls are coming from. Amazing how they all appear, together, when you print something that looks bad for the hawks.

  9. I don’t think this does look bad for the hawks. It appears to be an initiative by one unit commander to express a sentiment common in his unit, not an effort by the administration to snow the public. Now, I don’t really approve of the initiative; a commander in the field has certain things he is responsible for, and contributing material to newspapers’ Letters pages isn’t one of them. I would prefer the military press media outlets to resume embedding reporters with units in Iraq.

    But this story has a limited shelf-life. The people who could keep it going, the politicians are a) going to be loath to criticize any frontline soldier and b) going to be loath to criticize the publication over one person’s signature of a letter written by someone else.

  10. I also disagree with the thrust of the posting, but I do not think that automatically makes me a troll. As to anonymity, unless you are posting your true first and last name, you are anonymous. If anonymity were reason enough to discount a post, most of the comments would be wiped out.

  11. I doubt Bush or one of his cronies is at the top of this scheme. What you probably have here is one senior level commander in the armed forces taking issue with the constant negative coverage of his efforts in Iraq. He probably drafted a note to his colleagues and direct reports saying that he’s tired of it, they should be too, and here’s what you can do about it – write a letter to the editor of the newspaper in your hometown. By the way, here’s a sample letter. The soldiers, not really wanting to take the time to rewrite or paraphrase the sample letter, all pawned it off as their own work and sent it to their local hometown paper. It does have a certain Orwellian flavor to it, I suppose, but I think a mountain is being made out of a mole hill on this one. I think of the letter as more like a signed petition.

  12. ORWELL’S LAW – Similar to quoting the Simpsons or metioning Hitler (see Law, Godwin’s) this leads to immediate disqualification in any Internet discussion.

  13. Jiminy crickets. The anti-war people are really scraping the bottom of the barrel if their scandal du jour is a form letter to the editor that is conceded to be factually accurate.

    I wonder, if I were to scan some of the anti-war sites, would I find any form letters there for like-minded folk to use?

  14. Really, this whole thing is about the same as sending a form letter to your senator, or signing a petition without reading it.

  15. This is a lot sleazier, Madog. When you put your name at the bottom of a letter, you are claiming that you wrote it. When you put your name at the bottom of a letter to the editor, you are making that claim to thousands of people. Rounding up soldiers to sign letters to give your political statement more oomph is pretty low.

    Zathras, that’s the funny thing. This mini-scandal doesn’t undermine the case for the invasion at all. But because it undermines the propaganda of the pro-war side, we can count on a crowd of anonymous posters to show up and make the same argument at the same time. Happens again and again and again here – haven’t you noticed?

  16. Madog – that’s exactly what I was trying to say. Thanks for making my point much more concisely.

  17. Joe is on to us. Our commanding officer ordered us to monitor Hit & Run and post rebuttals to all the anti-war arguments.

  18. Anon: Literacy is wonderful. Joe’s point was that this issue is in no way antiwar–how could a postwar letter, however fraudulent, undermine the argument for war 7 months ago? It just doesn’t make the pro-war crowd look particularly honest or intelligent. And that’s where trolling Freepers such as yourself come in.

  19. And conspricay theories and ad hominem attacks do the anti-war crowd no service.

  20. Let’t not kid ourselves, the only way we can throw out Shrub is massive casualties. This is happening and the hawks have to make up stuff to try to stop it. If you want to end Shrub’s regime it is hard not to cheer for the resistance.

  21. Hey Hey HEY! Anon 2:40 – There’s no law against quoting the Simpsons!

  22. Can we change Pro-war/Anti-war to pro-occupation/anti-occupation or pro-quagmire/anti-quagmire??? At least in the Iraqi sense. We can still have pro-war on terrorism or pro-war on drugs, or anti depending on your stance.

    Afterall, these form letters are really pro-occupation.

  23. If you start seeing letters to the ed in praise of Stupor Tramp, those letters are genuine. “Blogged an item” indeed!

  24. The Truth – there’s no need for massive casualties. The lousy economy and constant lying will do just fine.

    But the massive casualties are going to happen regardless of how we feel about them. Thanks Shrub.

  25. I agree joe. But each casualty is a victory for us and a defeat for Fratboy McShrubbie and his right-wing Cronies.

    It is hard not to cheer the heroic Iraq resistance to Empire.

  26. It’s off the topic but my friend’s brother is a captain of logistics in Iraq, and he says that although it’s really hot, it’s not so bad and that it’s no where near as bad as the american papers he gets to read lets on.

  27. Joe:

    I think (hope?) that The Truth was kidding about the massive casualties reference, claiming that “this was already happening and the hawks have to make up stuff to try and stop it.” He/she was offering a parody of the loonier versions of the Quagmire Thesis, and you bought it.

    Massive casualties? The only ones I see in this instance are the shards of credibility of well-meaning and principled but also misguided and misinformed isolationists.

  28. Personal note to NSC handler:

    Have monitored Reason’s “Hit and Run” blog as you requested and began the rebuttal campaign about our fake letters out of the Iraq hellhole. Will urge others in my cell to join in, preferably anonymously as not to blow their cover. Please advise as to next steps in Project (T)Reason.

    Now let me just make sure to hit the right button. . .

  29. Yeah, I got it, Hood. I’m just pointing out that the argument fails on its own terms.

  30. That still ain’t good enough, Nick. We need a notarized statement from the privates and the officer concerned, stating that they were pressured. Some blood samples would also be nice. The tinfoil hat types out there might think this was sufficient evidence to at least suspect things weren’t on the up and up. Some people might even think the possibility an occupation authority taking big PR hits might manufacture an astroturf letter campaign isn’t all that “extraordinary” a claim. But the burden of proof is always on those who doubt the government. After all (all together, now)–

    EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS DEMAND EXTRAORDINARY EVIDENCE!

    EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS DEMAND EXTRAORDINARY EVIDENCE!

    EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS DEMAND EXTRAORDINARY EVIDENCE!

    Shee-it!

  31. The tinfoil hat types out there might think this was sufficient evidence to at least suspect things weren’t on the up and up.

    Does anybody know the etymology of the phrase “tinfoil hat”?

  32. see taking people’s word at face value isn’t extraordinary.

    calling someone a liar or doubting an eyewitness acount is.

    and the mom quoted now part of the government? and individual soliders? paranoina isn’t healthy.

  33. Oh please, John Hood, smirk a little more for us. What wit!

  34. I hope the letter is factual. Considering the amount of blood and money that we’re putting in, I sure as hell hope we’re doing some good.

    I don’t see how any of this is relevant to whether or not we should be fighting preventive wars, or how we’re goingf to get out of this one.

  35. We’re going to “get out of it” by winning, which is what we’ve been doing since we got there.

    So I guess that makes me “anti-quagmire,” but “pro-occupation.”

  36. “massive casualties”? Get a clue. The current rate of casualties is negligible in historic terms, and is already declining.

    So far we have lost less than 400 soldiers in the current action, total. It took maybe an hour for that many to die on D-Day, and maybe a slow month for that many in Vietnam.

  37. “Tinfoil hat types” comes from those paranoid people who thought the CIA was using a raygun to monitor their brainwaves. But if you line your hat with tinfoil, it blocks the rays!

  38. “The current rate of casualties is negligible in historic terms, and is already declining.”

    Families back home couldn’t historically see the bloodshed at nearly real time. Modern communications is a bitch! Seeing one dead body live is equivalent to 50 dead bodies a month ago read in the paper today.

  39. I would be quite amazed to see one dead body live!

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