Saturday, March 26, 2011

Libya War, atrocity propaganda: "beware of babies in incubators"

This edition of David Frost's "Frost Over the World" uploaded to YouTube on 03/26/2011 features Omar Turbi, who is affiliated with the Libyan National Council opposition group and who Frost identifies as "an American supporter of the rebels," then with two British Conservative Members of Parliament John Baron and Rory Stewart.



Beginning at around 3:00, Turbi offers what he himself says is a thinly-sourced story of alleged atrocities planned in Benghazi by Muammar Qaddafi. This kind of atrocity propaganda is standard fare in wars. "Propaganda" can be true. Arguably, using true stories makes the best propaganda.

But wars are about more than humanitarian impulses over particular moments of atrocity - or planned atrocity in this case. Reasonable scrutiny sounds lame or even immoral in the face of a well-crafted atrocity story. But unless we want to be suckered endlessly into ill-advised laws, we also have to remember that there are limits to power and that war always, inevitably brings its own atrocities.


The classic example was British propaganda about atrocities said to be committed by German troops in Belgium during the First World War.

The British propaganda wasn't content to stick to real events. This became very well known after the war. And this became one factor during the Second World War in making the German public dismissive about true claims by Allied propaganda about German actions, including mass murder of Jews.

One of the best-known instances of deceptive propaganda directed at the American public was the false claim that Iraqi invaders in Kuwait had thrown little babies out of their incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals. Tom Regan tells the story of how the Kuwait government-in-exile cooked up a successful but fake propaganda story in When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators Christian Science Monitor 09/06/2002:

More than 10 years later, I can still recall my brother Sean's face. It was bright red. Furious. Not one given to fits of temper, Sean was in an uproar. He was a father, and he had just heard that Iraqi soldiers had taken scores of babies out of incubators in Kuwait City and left them to die. The Iraqis had shipped the incubators back to Baghdad. A pacifist by nature, my brother was not in a peaceful mood that day. "We've got to go and get Saddam Hussein. Now," he said passionately.

I completely understood his feelings. Although I had no family of my own then, who could countenance such brutality? The news of the slaughter had come at a key moment in the deliberations about whether the US would invade Iraq. Those who watched the non-stop debates on TV saw that many of those who had previously wavered on the issue had been turned into warriors by this shocking incident.

Too bad it never happened. The babies in the incubator story is a classic example of how easy it is for the public and legislators to be mislead during moments of high tension. It's also a vivid example of how the media can be manipulated if we do not keep our guards up.
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