I have been watching network news regularly over the past year, since Mr. Trump assumed the presidency. I am not a big fan of network news. I default to newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian for more complete coverage. But the evening television news, given its entertainment format, is a way of keeping up with popularized versions of daily events.
It is easy to be ensnared and stupefied by the evening news melodrama. While watching the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt on March 15, I was suddenly alerted by my internal propaganda detector to a two-minute story about a previously secret skirmish in Syria between US special forces and Russian mercenaries. The incident had occurred a month earlier, on February 7, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS forces recently had been driven off. Americans directly engaged Russians in combat for the first time in 50 years. The US officer in charge, Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, was concerned that the battle could lead to real war with Russia.
NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel filed the story. It was framed so that repulsing one enemy, ISIS, was followed by conflict with a new adversary, Russia. The implication: One victory leads to another conflict and a new enemy in an endless series of fronts and theaters of an ongoing war, which the US is winning.
Russian mercenaries attacked, firing as many as 30 artillery rounds at US forces encamped by a former Conoco oil and gas refinery. US forces responded with an air and artillery bombardment, resulting in the death of an estimated 200-300 Russian forces, with no US casualties. Intercepted communications caught the Russians saying, “They tore us to pieces, put us through hell. The Yankees made their point.” Another victory for the American side against an enemy that still hasn’t given up and will be coming back. The General’s forces assuredly are fit and ready to repel them again.
In two minutes of evening news, the forever war mutates and persists.
The evening news functions as propaganda on behalf of a “phony war,” in William J. Astore’s terms, a war of “blitzkrieg overseas” and “sitzkrieg in the homeland.” We know about blitzkrieg—war conducted with force and speed. Sitzkrieg is Astore’s chosen word for a phony war at home in which a demobilized and mentally disarmed citizenry is habituated to patriotic ritual, yet disinterested in war and its costs:
The definition of twenty-first-century phony war . . . is its lack of clarity, its lack of purpose, its lack of any true imperative for national survival (despite a never-ending hysteria over the “terrorist threat”). The fog it produces is especially disorienting. Americans today have little idea “why we fight” other than a vague sense of fighting them over there (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, etc.) so they won’t kill us here.
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The formula—serial blitzkrieg abroad, serial sitzkrieg in the homeland—adds up to victory, but only for the military-industrial complex.
Astore’s solution for the phony war, which is his solution for the real war, is a public that starts paying attention. “In point of fact,” he says, “America’s all-too-real wars overseas aren’t likely to end until the phony war here at home is dispatched to oblivion.”
A fawning press is not part of such a solution.