The worst kind of propaganda is the kind that happens to be true.
Reading last week's issue of the New Yorker over the weekend, I came across a story that contains extracts from letters, journal entries, etc. of US servicemen in Iraq. (The story itself is not available online, but there's an audio-visual presentation containing extracts from it here).
Some of the stories were simply outrageous. Like the letter by Donna Kohout where she talks about how excited she is to be seeing the places she first learned about in Bible school (next time, try taking a packaged tour instead of invading someone else's country) or Parker Gyokeres piece about the terrible living conditions and the lack of cooperation from the local people, who only listen to him when he threatens them with his gun (imagine that - you invade a country and its people refuse to wait meekly and politely in line for you to inflict your entirely illegitimate authority on them!). But the bulk of the pieces do actually invite and deserve sympathy: they are sensitive, thoughtful pieces about the very real, very human costs of war (my favourites are the ones by the medical staff - Commander E.W. Jewell's journal from on board the U.S.N.S. Comfort and Captain L.R. Blackman's e-mails home about the psychological scars that combat leaves).
And that, I think, is the problem. There's a very thin line between feeling sympathy for an individual and feeling sympathy for his or her cause. And it's very hard to maintain the clarity and insistence of abstract ethical perspectives in the face of real human suffering. How do you tell the families of those killed in the war that their sons and daughters had no business being there? That they were accessories to an unjust invasion and that sad as their deaths are, they died for a bad cause, or no cause at all, rather than for a good one?
Not that the stories are necessarily arguing causes. Jewell's piece is explicitly critical of the leaders of the Iraq Invasion, and a number of the other pieces simply describe the horrors without passing judgement on them. Consider, for example, this bit in Ed Hrivnak's account:
"One trooper confides in me that he witnessed some Iraqi children get run over by a convoy. He was in the convoy and they had strict orders not to stop. If a vehicle stops, it is isolated and an inviting target for a rocket-propelled grenade. He tells me that some women and children have been forced out onto the road to break up the convoys so that the Iraqi irregulars can get a clear shot. But the convoys do not stop."
That's horrifying. Any discussion of who's to 'blame' here - the US convoys for not stopping, the Iraqi irregulars for using women and children this way, the US convoys for being there in the first place, etc. - is irrelevant. That kind of horror is a feature of war, not of the brutality of one side.
No, these stories do not try to argue for any particular point of view. They are not propaganda because they are untrue or because they are written with the intention to mislead. On the contrary, I have no doubt that they reflect nothing but absolute honesty on the part of their authors.
They are propaganda because they reflect only one side of the story. Neither heroism nor suffering, neither cruelty nor compassion is the exclusive preserve of any one side in any war. I'm willing to bet that if you repeated the exercise with accounts from members of Al-Qaeda, you'd get a similar set of moving stories, stories that would make you forget that the people writing them were terrorists. These stories are propaganda because being published in the New Yorker is a privilege available only to the US armed forces - the people of Haditha can't and won't get the same access, the same voice.
Last week's issue also featured stories by Vassily Grossman and Italo Calvino - stories set during the Second World War. Reading them, and reading the pieces by the US servicemen, I couldn't help conducting the following thought experiment: If a leading German magazine in 1940 had published accounts from the letters / journals of ordinary soldiers in the armies of the Third Reich, would they have sounded very different from the stories of those fighting in Iraq? I sincerely doubt it. Whether that makes you more apt to be sympathetic towards the average German infantryman in World War II, or more hard-hearted towards US soldiers in Iraq is a personal choice. But it's important, I think, that we keep in mind that we can't do one without the other. Otherwise we truly are giving into the propaganda.
P.S. Some of you are almost certainly feeling the temptation, at this point, to deliver some platitudes about how History is written by the Winner. Even assuming that's true (though I would question how true it is of, say, Vietnam - History is written by those who control the media afterwards), it doesn't mean we have to like it, do we?