“Down the Memory Hole”

With Weapons of Mass Destruction?

by Paul Street

Dissident Voice

April 12, 2003


“Who Controls the Past…”


In 1984, George Orwell’s haunting dystopian novel set in a totalitarian state called Oceania, the government and its informational apparatus have a chilling knack for instantaneous historical revision.  Whenever Big Brother, the all-powerful outer face of the ruling circles of the Inner Party, changes the official government line on some area of foreign or domestic policy, closely monitored functionaries in the Ministry of Truth are put to work transforming the official record of the past.  Historical facts that seem to contradict or otherwise challenge the new turn(s) are thrown “down the memory hole.”  New facts are invented to create the illusion of flat continuity between past, present and future, consistent with a key party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.”  


For most of his adult life, chief 1984 protagonist Winston Smith knows, Oceania had been at war with rival totalitarian state Eastasia and allied with a third similar nightmarish formation called Eurasia.  In 1984 (“if it was 1984”), however, Oceania was now officially at war with Eurasia and allied to Eastasia.  Winston and other ideological functionaries worked to annihilate all record and indeed consciousness, including their own, of the earlier alignment, now embarrassing to the Party, official “guardian of democracy” and practitioner of “Permanent War.” 


Most of 1984’s many readers in the western liberal-capitalist world shuddered at the horror depicted by Orwell.  We were certain, however, that the threat Orwell described found its only relevant real-life representation or potential in the pseudo-socialist Soviet empire that provided the main living model for 1984.  Orwell’s novel directed our fears externally – the totalitarian threat was “over there.”  Surely, we liked to think, the threats he pointed up collapsed with Stalinism.


A Junior High School Research Proposal


We might want to re-think that. Consider, for example, the impressive rapidity of the recent shift in Big Brother Bush’s party line on why the current Oceanic “coalition” (America, England and a ragtag scrum of the “bullied and bribed”) illegally invaded and overthrew the government of a formerly sovereign nation in a tinderbox region of the world. 


The essence of the shift is suggested in the recent comments of official Chicago Police Department spokesperson Pat Camden, explaining why the CPD arrested hundreds of protestors the day after the bombing of Baghdad commenced.  According to Camden, who apparently enjoys a long leash from city police superintendent Terry Hilliard, “You have to ask yourself, what’s the cost of liberty? What’s the cost of protest?  We’re sending people to Iraq to put their lives on the line so that the people of Iraq can exercise liberties,” says Camden (quoted in Ben Joravsky, “Taken By Surprise,” in Chicago’s weekly Reader, April 4, 2003), brushing aside the arguments of numerous world intellectuals, who think the White House is driven by less elevated objectives related to the projection of American power.


There’s a lot to question in Camden’s remarks, including the appropriateness of local law enforcement editorializing on the purposes of US foreign policy.  The most remarkable thing about Camden’s statement, however, is the expeditious ease with which it pours that policy out from the new mould manufactured by the White House and its corporate-state media in the post-invasion era.  Wasn’t this hopelessly one-sided “war” on Iraq sold to the American people first and foremost as self-protection against a “reckless” regime that intended to attack us with an awesome stockpile of deadly chemical, biological and (someday soon) nuclear weapons and its supposed alliance with al Qaeda and other? 


Yes, and it remains entirely possible that the US and its compliant media will find or claim to find some significant stock of WMD, but that’s all pretty much over for now, for reasons that are easy to guess.  These include the simple absence of serious evidence of WMD (hardly surprising to those who read between the lines of US propaganda during the already apparently ancient pre-invasion era that ended nearly three weeks ago) so far.  Also relevant is the need to construct new justifications for a transparently illegal and monumentally expensive occupation. The White House hopes, further, to set up new invasions of countries not so strongly linked in the admittedly ever-changing public mind to WMD. It is relevant, finally, that recent polling data is giving the Bushies a green light to downplay WMD. A recent Los Angeles Times survey found that 83 percent of American “war” supporters will continue to support the military action “even if the [US and UK] forces don’t find weapons of mass destruction.”  (Elaine Povich, “Support Grows for Bush, War,” Newsweek, 6 April, 2003)


So here’s an interesting research project for all you junior high social studies students.  Go to the web site of the United States White House (www.whitehouse.gov), click on the president’s radio addresses over the last six months (upper left section of the web site), and print each one that relates in anyway to Iraq.  Read all of the addresses (they usually run less than a page) with two magic markers on your desk – one yellow and one blue.  Mark with yellow every time you see the president mention Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction,” Saddam’s link to al-Qaeda or other terrorists, Saddam’s “threat” to Americans and/or the world or the goal of “disarming” Saddam. Mark with blue every time you see the president speak about the struggles or difficulties of the Iraqi people, the domestic oppression practiced by Saddam, or the goal of freeing or liberating those people. Mostly yellow-marked printouts are basically about protecting ourselves from the ruler of Iraq.  The mostly blue-marked ones are about freeing the Iraqi people. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure you will be marking your printouts up with a lot more yellow than blue until maybe just the last two radio addresses.


On the last Saturday prior to the commencement of American bombing, the presidential radio address Camden might have heard mentioned Saddam’s “terrible” “weapons of mass destruction” at least five times and claimed that Saddam “sponsors terror.”  Bush specified “mustard agent, botulinum toxin and sarin, capable of killing millions” (the previously standard nuclear threat was revealingly absent).   He spoke of Saddam only as a threat to Americans and others outside Iraq. 


As portrayed in Bush’s address, the goal of the then still impending “war” was thoroughly defensive: it was to “protect ourselves” from a reckless maniac determined to attack us and destroy “the peace of the world.”  Neither the situation of the Iraq people nor the goal of liberating them were mentioned even once, unless we want to count Bush’s credible claim that Iraq was using innocent people as human shields.


In his last radio address (April 5th) as of this writing, by contrast, Bush used the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” exactly once and only once suggested a link between Saddam and global terrorism. The “Iraqi people” were mentioned seven times, and the “freedom” or “liberation” (or their roots) of Iraqis was mentioned five times. The no longer imminent “war” is now being sold as a practically selfless campaign on behalf of what Bush rightly calls “the long suffering people of Iraq,” victims of what Bush rightly terms “one of the cruelest regimes on earth.” Bush naturally deletes the powerful role that American policy played in entrenching that very regime not only before but also after its invasion of Kuwait.


Official Deletions in the Pre-Invasion Era


Back in the already officially ancient Pre-Invasion Era (a bit more recent than the Age of Mesopotamia), when America was content to merely contain Saddam, other Orwellian deletions were required in relation to Iraq by the White House and agreed to by the US media.  The leading erasure concerned America’s critical support of Saddam and his various weapons programs prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which was carried out with a green light from the US State Department. The support included the US-approved export of deadly biological agents. It also involved the leading ambassadorial hand of (for goodness sake!) Donald Rumsfeld. 


Then as now, honest discussion of that history was forbidden not simply because it contradicted America’s false and narcissistic image of itself as the benevolent historical homeland and exporter of democratic civilization. Equally if not more significant, that history contradicted the official line that Saddam was a “reckless,” practically suicidal fanatic determined to risk his life and regime to strike his hated American enemy.  It may be disgusting but it isn’t suicidal or reckless to use chemical weapons against defenseless Kurds or Iraqis when you do so with the approval and support of the most powerful nation on earth. (See John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “An Unnecessary War,” Foreign Policy, January-February 2003 and Carl Kaysen et al, War With Iraq: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives, The Committee on International Security Studies of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, December 2002).


For these and other reasons, Reagan, Bush 41 and “Rummy’s” little affair with Saddam, is a little bit like Oceania’s previous alliance with Eurasia – best swept into history’s ashcan in light of current events.


The New Millennium’s Ministry of Truth


Of course, Camden doesn’t need instruction from the White House to spout the new official justification for an illegal war on Iraq and mass political arrests on American streets. He only needs to watch CNN, the supposed “fair” alternative to the openly crypto-fascist Fox News, observing its anchors and carefully selected commentators jump to the snap of their masters’ doctrinal whip like the finely trained neo-Orwellians they’ve allowed themselves to become.  They zeroed in on the oversold drama of Saddam’s falling statue (near a hotel where western reporters had just been slaughtered by “errant” US artillery) as American personnel scoured the grounds of ancient Mesopotamia for evidence of the practically forgotten weapons that supposedly necessitated the “war” in the first place.


They and other parts of the Corporate Communications Empire make up the new millennium’s de facto Ministry of Truth.  Their owners and managers have moved decisively into the vanguard of the Permanent Warrior class.


Paul Street is the author of “Color Bind," a chapter in Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor (Routledge Press, 2003), edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright. Email: pstreet@cul-chicago.org. This article first appeared in ZNET (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm)   




FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com