Following the September 11 attacks 20 years ago, and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the media broadly published pro-war pieces, often lauding U.S. military instigators as saviors amid the nation’s outpouring of furious grief. The next two decades of news coverage showed major media outlets have strayed shockingly little from this perspective, despite the well-documented history of U.S. war leaders’ ineptitude and deceit.
As Susan Faludi noted in her 2007 book “The Terror Dream,” “The media seemed eager to turn our designated guardians of national security into action toys and superheroes.” President George Bush was America’s “Lone Ranger” to Time, and a “dragon slayer” to Newsweek.
The Nation’s Jeet Heer recently elaborated,
“This type of macho nonsense not only sold the Iraq War but also contributed to a renewed militarization of American culture, which has provided the popular ideological rationale for the forever wars. It’s hardly an accident that the superhero genre came to dominate Hollywood in the era of the forever wars. Nor is it a coincidence that a demagogue could then rise to the presidency thanks to a public primed to fall in love with vigilante saviors. ‘I am Batman,’ Trump told a young boy at an Iowa campaign event in 2015. All too many voters agreed.”
Dennis Ross, U.S. director of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” insisted in an interview for The New Yorker that the U.S. response had to involve more than “[bombing] a few targets.” Charles Krauthammer wrote two weeks later in The Washington Post that “We are fighting because the bastards killed 5,000 [sic] of our people, and if we do not kill them, they are going to kill us again.”
But the “bastards” described here didn’t include Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two countries from which most of the 9/11 terrorists hailed. Tariq Ali for The Nation wrote this September that Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney “opted for a crude war of revenge against Afghanistan,” where Al Qaeda’s leadership were lodged thanks to the Taliban, which had been maneuvered into place by the Pakistani military with the approval of the United States in 1994.
Such were the war superheroes the media described to the public. The notion that outsiders wanted to harm innocent Americans shocked the national perception of the U.S. as “an implacably decent good guy standing up for truth and justice, crushing the world’s villains along the way.” Americans’ rage and sadness after the attacks also aligned with the Right’s foreign policy goals and, Jacobin noted, was sustained “by endlessly looping footage of the attacks broadcast by a media that recognized a ratings bonanza when it saw one.”
Bloodthirsty perspectives from American civilians, journalists, and policymakers gushed across news media. Georgia Democratic Senator Zell Miller said to “bomb the hell out of them. If there’s collateral damage, so be it. They certainly found our civilians to be expendable.” The public agreed it was heinous that the attacks targeted civilians, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Sadly, for decades, U.S. leaders had committed similar atrocities: the U.S. torched Sudan’s foremost pharmaceutical factory in 1998, leading to some thousands of preventable deaths, and slaughtered thousands of Iraqis in direct attacks on civilians during the 1991 Gulf War.
The past 20 years of U.S. war, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University’s Cost of War project, have resulted in the deaths of at least 400,000 civilians. Still, a paltry few hours per year of TV news coverage (and just five minutes in 2020) have been devoted to America’s longest ever war. Spotty press and military lies have created an underinformed public.
Major media outlets only treated the war in Afghanistan as a key story during the U.S. invasion, somewhat during the Obama-era troop surge, and the August evacuation. War coverage by American and Afghan journalists went generally ignored by broadcast and cable news channels, and rarely made newspaper front pages. Media Matters documented the past 20 years of front-page articles in The New York Times concerning Afghanistan, finding 55 from this August—a higher number than any month since the October, 2001, invasion, and higher than any full year since 2015. A similar pattern played out on TV across CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.
The U.S. military regularly disciplines soldiers who commit any kind of offense, whether it be tardiness or murder. But the generals who lied to Congress and the public about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq haven’t needed to worry about adverse effects on their careers. Instead, their 20-year disinformation campaign earned them praise, pensions, and high-paying corporate jobs.
Some “media cheerleaders” of the forever wars did face penalties, like Judith Miller, who lost her job at the New York Times for her now discredited reporting on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Her coauthor, Michael R. Gordon, however, kept his job and went on to work at The Wall Street Journal. Many cheerleaders enjoyed a similar path to Gordon’s. “The same principle of elite immunity that protects the architects of the forever wars also shields the media cheerleaders.” Heer concludes, “Absent any penalties, there is no reason for anyone to change.”
“The press is in a dangerous position when its interests align with the people it covers. And in this case, it shares with generations of U.S. politicians, diplomats, and military leaders a desire to escape nagging questions of its conduct over the longest war in U.S. history.”
As the U.S.’s Afghanistan withdrawal coincides with the horrific act that brought troops there 20 years ago, the media has an opportunity to present the facts from the past decades of deceit and bloodshed. Major news outlets can begin by examining those nagging questions today onwards—with commentators who weren’t architects of the war.