Six years ago this spring, the U.S. Army issued a pack of cards, each a “Most Wanted” Iraqi face. Remember “Chemical Ali” and “Mrs. Anthrax”?
Six years ago this spring, as Baghdad fell, the invaders toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue, the spitting image of Lenin’s in Moscow, right in the heart of the desert metropolis. Remember citizens dancing around the pulverized chunks of Saddam?
As the U.S. military invaded Iraq in March 2003, the Bush administration tried to create and control a heroic narrative with emblems of American triumph. Despite the fleeting popularity of the Iraq mission after Baghdad’s quick fall, each propaganda attempt toppled into general ridicule and scorn with the same bruising speed that Saddam’s regime fell to the invaders.
The pro-war icon-makers could not even weave the most hackneyed of all fantasies -- the rescue of a damsel in distress. When aspiring kindergarten teacher Jessica Lynch, 19, was wounded in the first days of the Iraq invasion in March, 2003, she was taken unconscious to an Iraqi hospital. U.S. forces declared the supply clerk missing in action while a heroic story circulated that Lynch had rescued her comrades with Rambo-ette automatic fire. Special Operations staged a nighttime raid on the local hospital as cameras rolled. In search of a great opening-volley war story, cable news seized upon the military’s narrative of a brave, young, blonde -- and telegenic -- female soldier and her Special Op saviors. For a short while, Jessica Lynch was a true-blue American folk hero, about to burst forth as our first Iraqi War American icon.
The icon, though, refused to play along with the Army and media iconographers, and their fantasy unraveled within days. Lynch asserted that she never fired a single shot during the ambush. After her gun jammed, she said she dropped to her knees and prayed. The Iraqi hospital staff, demonized as enemy medics holding her hostage, were actually local professionals who treated the young soldier’s wounds and even sang soothing lullabies. Most accounts confirm that there was no resistance to the Special Operations “rescue.” Although the guns-blazing U.S. raid was carefully filmed, the Iraqi military had long deserted the hospital. In reality, Lynch had already been rescued -- by the local Iraqis -- and afterwards deeply resented being the semi-conscious centerpiece of a staged re-rescue.
The U.S. invasion’s other vaunted emblems of victory suffered the same fate as the fake Jessica Lynch rescue. Before Bush’s Iraq occupation exploded into civil chaos, the Most Wanted deck of cards were selling for up to $120 on Ebay, though the Army didn’t release the original packs and, in April 2003, Stars and Stripes exposed the EBay versions as fakes. (Today, you can buy a phony pack for $1.99). Real or fake, the "Most Wanted" cards instantly inspired caustic parodies, such as George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney depicted as a "flush hand" of war criminals, or decks of Most Wanted U.S. War Profiteers.
The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in central Baghdad was far from a spontaneous celebration. Even a source as mainstream as the Boston Globe, on the day after the April 9, 2003 statue-toppling, openly cast doubt on the images in Firdos Square, noting that they...
“looked an awful lot like the looting taking place nearby. Footage of both activities showed gatherings verging on anarchy. Yesterday's coverage of the ‘jubilation’ also had a self-conscious and forced quality, as if the media were too eager to capture ‘liberation’ for its daily news cycle. Whenever the cameras pulled back, they revealed a relatively small crowd at the statue.”
George W. Bush’s icon-making was so ham-fisted that he could not even enjoy a simple photo-op with the troops during his first wartime 2003 Thanksgiving visit to Iraq. He merely had himself photographed bearing a turkey on a tray, but before anyone could make a sandwich from leftovers, the mainstream media, including the New York Times, purported that the turkey was plastic. Pro-war websites immediately counter-attacked that the alleged turkey was real, the Times retracted the plastic assertion, and the poor bird was relegated to urban myth status. Myth or not, flesh or plastic, the turkey’s real meaning lies in the speedy self-destruction of yet another Bush war emblem: in only six months the mainstream media’s invasion cheerleading had devolved to instant suspicion and hyper-vigilance about any feel-good administration Iraq War press release.
Plastic turkeys are one thing, but heroes ought to persist in flesh-and-blood glory. Yet Bush’s attempt to show off heroic endorsement self-destructed a month before his Iraq invasion was launched. A real American icon, Colin Powell, who impressed the American public with his candor and pragmatism during his command of the Gulf War in 1991, toppled from hero to lackey in a mere wink of live-camera glare. In Bush’s last-ditch effort to persuade the skeptical U.N. that his Iraq invasion plan actually had a purpose, he dispatched Powell in February 2003 to present a series of slippery suppositions and altered photographs about baby formula factories, trains on tracks, and empty aluminum tubes before the General Assembly. The “evidence” was tortured into a thesis so scant in support that a fourth-grader had to wonder why the great man would stoop to offer such a third-grade audio-visual presentation. Powell later admitted to NBC’s Tom Brokaw that he went through the exercise only a “loyal soldier.” In the instant-failure Bush iconography, even the commanding, genuine Colin Powell could melt into worthless plastic.
Though Bush’s ensuing Iraq debacle became a ruinous, endless waste of life, limb, and property, the quick failure of pro-war propaganda was breathtaking, a bracing triumph of simple human truth over manufactured militaristic spin. Duped into war against Cuba in 1898 by false news reports about a Spanish attack (probably a coal bunker fire) on the battleship Maine; duped into World War I after lies about Huns bayoneting babies; duped into Vietnam with the phony 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident -- still, in 1991, the general public seemed happy to be duped again and march off to invade the Persian Gulf. With tales of Iraqi soldiers ripping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators -- a transparent fiction of Kuwaiti royals who invented, then confessed it -- the incubator-ripping tale lived on in Americans’ need to fuel their own war fever, to give a pretext for the first armed invasion of Iraq.
Thus, the junior Bush had every reason to believe the American public could be easily duped again and, still under the shadow of 9/11, be easily manipulated into a new war-time stupor, obedient to military prerogatives and desensitized to civilian suffering. Yet the junior Bush could never create the pro-war sentiment of the senior Bush’s Persian Gulf War, when yellow ribbons and newsprint flags sprouted across the nation’s front porches. The 1991 “war” was far shorter than its endless series of victory ticker-tape parades, all understood as atonement for America’s shunning of Vietnam veterans as well as a celebration, a vindication -- the most powerful military in the world really could defeat a shaky dictatorship one-tenth its size!
Not really, though. Vietnam had already taught the U.S. how its massive, obscenely expensive military force could lose against a small, penniless, technologically weaker adversary, but the junior Bush proved incapable of learning. It was one thing to rout frightened conscripts from Kuwait’s border in 1991 and entirely another to try to occupy the entire nation of Iraq in 2003.
It’s marvelous but puzzling as to why the American public didn’t go along; even “Mission Accomplished,” the once-AWOL airman’s May 1, 2003 image-making in a flight jumpsuit on an aircraft carrier drifting outside San Diego, became an instant joke as Iraq immediately descended into its first murderous summer. The plastic junior Bush Mission-Accomplished “action figure” pressed into public sale soon melted down in anti-war ceremonies or was stuck with pins in angry family voodoo.
It’s tempting to praise “postmodern” sensibilities, to advance the idea that by 2003 a jaded, media-savvy populace became -- at long last -- impervious to crude militarist public relations iconography. Maybe, but it’s worth recalling the plain old modern sensibility that led millions to hold anti-war protests in U.S. cities, with much larger ones abroad, for months prior to Bush’s Iraq war. Phenomenal in their size by any measure, they were far and away the largest protests ever held on the planet in advance of a military invasion.