Saturday, July 14, 2007

Larry Beinhart explains the narratives of war

Larry Beinhart explains the narratives of war -- Bush had a story, and, boy, has he stuck to it!
Submitted by BuzzFlash on Tue, 07/10/2007

The Bush-Cheney situation right now is like this: They've gone to Vegas. Their stake was $200,000. They're down $300,000. If they get up and they leave the table, everyone knows they went to Vegas, lost their shirt, plus some more. If they stay there and keep betting, one of two things is going to happen. Either a miracle is going to occur, and somehow they'll suddenly win the war, or there will be a new election and they will be magically whisked away from their seats. Somebody else will be sitting there and become responsible for the losses.

-- Larry Beinhart, Author, Fog Facts; Wag the Dog: The Novel; American Hero; The Librarian
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Larry Beinhart is a regular BuzzFlash columnist and one of our favorite analysts on the role of packaging fictional narratives into reality. We hardly ever watch a movie more than once, but we've watched "Wag the Dog" several times, including viewing it with those commentary tracks by the director, Barry Levinson, and the "producer" of a non-existent war with Albania, Dustin Hoffman. "Wag the Dog" is based on Beinhart's book, American Hero.

American Hero. however, was set in Gulf War I, while "Wag the Dog" parallels the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

What distinguishes Beinhart's writing is how perspicaciously he understands the role of turning fiction into reality in a television age. He also understands the fine art of manipulating the masses.

The Busheviks, of course, are masters at these techniques. They create artificial "narratives" that plow right through reality.

BuzzFlash enjoyed having another conversation with Beinhart, as his thoughts are as relevant as ever.
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BuzzFlash: Your novel, American Hero, was the basis for the film, "Wag the Dog." Your fiction is so interwoven with the reality of politics that, in many ways, it is reality, except that certain specifics are changed. Another of your books, Fog Facts, examined the deception that is used in political narratives to mislead the public.

Let's look at two real stories that the government itself chose to play up -- those of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. What was the Pentagon trying to do with those stories? Jessica Lynch was portrayed as a heroine. The Pentagon basically created something out of her that didn't exist. She was far too modest to take claim for what they attributed to her. And then we've learned that Pat Tillman didn't die heroically. The Pentagon covered up the circumstances of his death, which was death by friendly fire, and made a heroic narrative out of his death that was simply a lie. Jessica Lynch wasn't a victim of friendly fire, but she was unconscious during virtually all of her ordeal, and they attributed heroic acts to her that didn't happen.

Larry Beinhart: They were trying to create a fictional narrative that everybody would get behind and cheer. It's something that armies have always done. For instance, the British Army would go off to the Sudan, and everybody but one guy would get slaughtered, and he would be marched back through London as a hero. It's one of the things you do in war. You bring back the heroes, and you give them a parade. And you beat the drums, and you get people to join up.

I love Pat Tillman, because Pat Tillman should be the genuine poster boy for the Bush wars. Here's a guy who signs up out of genuine heroism and wants to do something. He goes off and gets killed by friendly fire. That he gets killed by accident, or by the incompetence of his own people, is the perfect metaphor for any Bush effort about anything, be it their failure to rescue New Orleans or the failed war in Afghanistan, or the failed war in Iraq. Whatever these guys touch turns into "Death to Smoochy." And then they produce a fictional narrative about it, and lie about it, because they want to keep their story going. When somebody tries to expose it, they say you're not Christian enough. If you were Christian enough, you wouldn't be upset that your son is dead. So Pat Tillman should be the poster boy for this war -- no question about it.

BuzzFlash: If we go back to before the first Gulf War, one of the "gotcha" points in terms of the narrative that led to that war was that the Iraqis had taken over a hospital and thrown babies out of their incubators.

Larry Beinhart: Yes.

BuzzFlash: A young woman testified to Congress and said that she witnessed all this, and how horrifying it was that Iraqis were just barbarians. They made these babies die. Later it was revealed that this young woman was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and she wasn't even in Kuwait -- had no knowledge of such an event.

Larry Beinhart: Her story wasn't true, right.

BuzzFlash: And she had been coached by a public relations firm and given a script to read to Congress. Clearly, this was not done without the knowledge of the Bush I Administration. That revealed how far our government -- in this case, the Bush I Administration -- would go. They actually fabricated an incident, with the help of a PR firm, Hill and Knowlton, and put a young woman who was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador before Congress. As a fiction writer, how can you outdo that?

Larry Beinhart: That's essentially why I wrote American Hero, which came out in 1994. The essential thrust of the book is that the administration created a fictional narrative to justify the real war that they wanted to have. I wanted to produce a fictional narrative that you could read, and know it was fiction, and yet when you had done so, the story explains the facts better than the the government's story.

But they sold the war. They have produced wars based on fictional narratives. I was astonished when "wag the dog" became a part of the international lexicon -- it became a metaphor for fictionalized war.

That's great, but the cynicism did not produce restraint. It produced even more outrageously cynical behavior. It's really quite terrifying. As I wrote in my new introduction for Wag the Dog: The Novel, which is the title of the reissue of the book, it was if they had taken this as an instruction manual.

As part of Wag the Dog, I have a scene in which the guy who's making up Gulf War I considers making up a war called the "war on terror." And he's going to have an incident. They're going to create the war on terror. And in the war on terror, it'll be like the Crusades -- the Christian, rational West against the backward, primitive Islamic East. And it'll be the new Crusades. And clearly you had a fictional incident.

And lo and behold, we had a real incident with 9/11. Then they went ahead and created the war on Iraq, and the war on terror -- which was kind of like the Crusades -- you know, the rational, Christian West against the mad, Islamo-fascist East.

It was astonishingly fictional, but it was a narrative. It was the only narrative seriously available. Because of that, our media universally joined up with it.

The only counter-narrative was that the guys in charge of the United States are madmen, and they have their own private, as-yet-unrevealed reasons for going to war with Iraq, and for having wars. And so they decided to do it. And they decided to do it in a way that would guarantee its failure, which is not a very appealing narrative. It leaves too much unanswered, and it doesn't satisfy either the reader or the TV watcher. It's not much of a counter-narrative, but it is, in fact, closer to the reality.

BuzzFlash: Why would they decide to do it in a way that would guarantee failure?

Larry Beinhart: That's an interesting question, and it is not yet answered, or it is answered in ways that are not narratively appealing. They decided to do it -- and this is my narrative, it's not a universally accepted narrative, I haven't read it anywhere else, so nobody else is buying it yet -- but they did it in a way that was guaranteed to fail because they are locked into a theological narrative. That is, they so believe in the power of their own theological beliefs that they think the theology alone will sweep everything before it. Once they removed the great barrier, which was the evil dictator, Saddam Hussein, and said, okay guys, now you can have democracy and free-market capitalism -- a mini-United States -- a kind of post-war, but more grateful, France would instantly emerge. They honestly believed in all their hearts that that's what would happen.

That theological belief guaranteed that chaos would ensue. They did not believe that you need real government institutions like, peace keepers on the street -- policemen. They didn't consider that, if you disband the army and suddenly release a couple of hundred thousand military-trained guys with guns into the country, with no place to go, that they're not going to become law abiding shopkeepers and construction workers. They're going to say: Hey, I got this gun. I'm going to go out and steal something. Or join a gang. It never occurred to them that that's what would happen. It never occurred to them that it takes years, even for free-market private economies, to come up with industries that employ people and have people making money. They were so trapped in their own theological narratives that they had no contact with realities at all.

BuzzFlash: Your book, The Librarian, was another fictionalized account that perhaps wasn't too far from being reality. When the fictional narrative in politics becomes more prevalent than the empirical reality, or the fictional narrative overpowers empirical reality, how do you write fiction? Aren't you then writing fiction about fictions?

Larry Beinhart: One way is you make it an apocryphal story. You take what is an institutional crime, kind of a soft-core vast conspiracy of the state crime, and you reduce it to an individual, and you make it an individual crime, with an individual paying the price for it, and an individual suffering injustice. That kind of clarifies what's wrong, as opposed to The Fog, in which a Dick Cheney or a George Bush claims he was acting on bad information -- that's what the CIA said, or that's what British intelligence said -- something that they can hide behind.

The other thing is that in fiction you can create the narrative with no restrictions. And yet the fictional narrative may better explain what really happened than the official stuff. That tells you, there's got to be something wrong with the official stuff. Maybe this fictional version I'm giving you doesn't quite cover it, but there really is something wrong, so we better think about this.

In The Librarian, I was writing about the 2004 election before it took place, all right? From my point of view, it was a different kind of test, where I'm predicting what's going to happen. I could come off looking like a total idiot, if I got it radically wrong. If the Democrats had swept the election and swept out George Bush, it would have looked like a pretty stupid book. But what I said was, it was going to come down to the wire, with red states red, and the blue states blue. And then the election would get stolen. And it would come down to a matter of the will of both the Democratic opponent himself and of the American people and how much they were going to tolerate having an election stolen.

And that's how the book ends. It literally ends with the hero saying, "Now it's up to you. What you are going to do about this?" And in 2004 what happened is the American people and John Kerry shrugged and said, "Okay, you stole the election." He was so caught up in the narrative that "these are all honorable men," that I don't think he ever actually understood that the election was being stolen from him. I don't think that he was capable of believing that narrative.

BuzzFlash: Let's talk about another example of how a narrative element overpowers evidence to the contrary -- I mean, the case of the Iraq war. We recall that last year the Washington Post had a poll indicating that more than 60% of Iraqis supported attacks on American troops.

Larry Beinhart: Correct.

BuzzFlash: Let's say that another 10% of people, maybe, weren't being completely honest, so you may have had 70% supporting attacks on American troops. And another ten to twenty percent said they just want U.S. troops out. So polling shows not only do they want us out, but the majority of them, by at least 10% if not more, support attacks on American troops.

Yet, we still have the narrative that we're trying to bring democracy to the Iraqis, and save them from extremists. Bush is still going ahead with the narrative that we are fighting extremists who are undermining Iraqi democracy, even though the Iraqis are saying we are the problem, according to at least one poll. What's your thought on that?

Larry Beinhart: Narratives don't happen by themselves. Somebody's got to get out there and push them. Now there are several real narratives. One is that, in Islamic countries, if you let people vote, they tend to vote for Islamic republics. Islamic republics tend to be anti-democratic and anti-Western. And every time in recent years where we have opened up, or an accident has opened up, an Islamic country to an election, that's the way they voted. In Turkey, it's happening right now. They've been trying to determine whether to permit a vote to go forward that the Islamists would win, although the Turkish constitution is secular. It's up to the military to prevent these Islamists from coming back and re-establishing the caliphate. So that's one narrative that we do not permit. Of course, there's nobody in the United States with a stake in having that narrative.

BuzzFlash: In Iran, the duly elected democratic, secular government was overthrown in 1953 with US and British support.

Larry Beinhart: Yes. In other words, we have two conflicting narratives. One is that we support democracy, and democracy leads to goodness. We also have another narrative, which is to say Islamic-run countries, Islamic theocracies, are our enemy. So those are two narratives. In reality what happens is if you have free elections in an Islamic country, you are very likely to have them vote in an Islamic theocracy. So these two narratives don't compute.

But you don't have anybody willing to say, do not let democracy take place. That would be like making overtly racist statements. You can't say it, so only one narrative is permissible. The only permissible narrative is democracy is good; we support democracy. The truth is that we don't want real democracy. And if we get it, we'll suppress it and fight it tooth and nail.

BuzzFlash: This was true, and is still true, in Central and South America.

Larry Beinhart: It's true in a lot of places.

BuzzFlash: We support democracy -- as long as we can veto the winner if we don't like the winner.

Larry Beinhart: Right. So that's one counter-narrative. The next counter-narrative is that this war is already lost, and George Bush lost it, because he was in charge. He overruled his own generals in the field. And he micromanaged what the generals did, and he led us into losing the war. And he put in one of the world's leading incompetents, Paul Bremer III. And every decision this guy made was wrong. And it's true, okay? I don't know why the Democrats don't embrace that narrative. I do not understand. I do not understand why they're afraid of saying that George Bush has lost this war.

BuzzFlash: Harry Reid said that in April.

Larry Beinhart: He should have kept repeating it. You know, a year ago, when people were first saying the word "impeachment," it sounded, oh, so outrageous. We can't do impeachment. No, no -- not impeachment. But now impeachment's becoming part of the daily lexicon, and we're all going to get used to it. And by the time it happens next year, we'll all be comfortable with it.

The Democrats should say "George Bush lost this war. And if he wants to continue it, he's got to come up with some really clear path or statements how he's going to win it." Once you establish that, then you can get to the next part of the narrative which goes back to the old narrative of we're going to stand down when they stand up, and for them to stand up, they need time to train their army and their police.

The guy who was in charge of training their army and police was General Petraeus. The reason they couldn't stand up is because he wasn't able to train their army. So, here's the guy who was in charge of the failure. The reason we still have to be there, is now put in charge of the whole shebang. And nobody said, wait a minute. You're the guy who presided over the failure that we now supposedly need the "surge" to make up for. And you will again be in charge. What are you going to do different? Nobody asked this, because the narrative of failure has not been accepted, has not even been articulated.

It's there. You can read it in Fiasco. You can read it in my work. You could read it before it happened in Scott Ritter. Scott Ritter provided the narrative. He said this was what was going to happen. To me, you have to admire his guts. It's a very gutsy thing to predict something like that. He said this is what is going to happen.

The degree to which people believe in the narrative over the facts or even the theory is astonishing. The official narrative is that we went to war in Iraq for some well-intentioned reason, whatever it may have been, and that American military efforts, planning and our troops on the ground are the best in the world. And yet the thing fell apart. The real narrative is that we went to war for unknown motives which are probably very bad ones. Then the American generals did not even adhere to their own theoretical principles -- they just went ahead and did what the idiots asked them to do.

BuzzFlash: Let's go to your last book, Fog Facts. You address so much in that book about what the American people see and believe, particularly because television is still such a primary influence on the way Americans think. What is a fog fact?

Larry Beinhart: A fog fact is a fact that's been published, or that's easily available, and that you could go out and check in five minutes on the Internet. Yet it has been lost in the fog of the vast amount of news that we have, because nobody has entered it into a narrative and so made it visible. We've gone over a bunch of them in this conversation, and another of them is the number of troops that you need to occupy Iraq.

BuzzFlash: We have seen, with the Bush Administration over the last seven years, but also in the corporate advertising world, that narratives can overpower reality. Reality sometimes has no place in a powerful narrative.

Larry Beinhart: Narrative is one of the basic ways that we organize life. You go to the grocery store, you organize it as a narrative. You don't organize it logically. You don't organize it emotionally. You don't organize it videographically. You go to war, you organize it narratively. It's one of the basic ways that we think and put life together.

What we should worry about is false narratives that overcome what could be better narratives. Some narratives are so driven by a particular interest or a form of salesmanship that they exclude or ride over things we should have been aware of, that in a more complete or better or more thoughtful narrative would have been included.

BuzzFlash: Meaning fog facts, for instance.

Larry Beinhart: Yes. Meaning, if you're going to occupy Iraq, you need 600,000 troops to do it. One narrative says you're going to draw out Saddam Hussein for whatever reasons, and you're going to occupy the country. Then you've got a choice of two narratives. One narrative is that it's going to be like the liberation of France in 1945, which is very clearly what they had in mind for Iraq. And the other narrative is, it's going to be like the British trying to occupy the American colonies back in the 1700s, or like the United States trying to control Vietnam.

So once you've got the situation, then you pick your narrative -- what it's going to be like. And they picked the wrong one. They picked France, 1945. It's not that the narrative itself is bad, but whether you've picked a good one or not. You watch TV, and the Coca-Cola people want you to pick the narrative that Coke will add life. Your doctor wants you to pick the one that says Coke adds fat.

BuzzFlash: We just had the fourth anniversary of "Mission Accomplished." Bush is at 26% in the polls, yet he continues in office along with Cheney and Gonzales. Rumsfeld is gone, but policy is basically unchanged. We were told we were going to have a short "surge" Now we're told we won't even know the results until September. Do you see any erosion of the Bush-Cheney war narrative?

Larry Beinhart: The Bush-Cheney situation right now is like this: They've gone to Vegas. Their stake was $200,000. They're down $300,000. If they get up and they leave the table, everyone knows they went to Vegas, lost their shirt, plus some more. If they stay there and keep betting, one of two things is going to happen. Either a miracle is going to occur, and somehow they'll suddenly win the war, or there will be a new election and they will be magically whisked away from their seats. Somebody else will be sitting there and become responsible for the losses. So their game plan has to be that they cannot lose more than they have already lost by staying in the war. They only lose more than they have already lost by acknowledging that they have lost. And that makes the narrative official -- that these guys started the war, ran the war and lost the war.

If they can keep the war going until somebody else comes into office, they will change the narrative to the war could have been won if we only had sufficient persistence. And the war was then lost by Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or whatever Democrat's in office. So from their point of view, there's absolutely no reason to end the war.

BuzzFlash: Larry, thank you so much.

Larry Beinhart: Thanks, Mark.

BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Larry Beinhart's books are available from Powell's Books.

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