Review | Endless War, Elite Propaganda, and Mass Fear: Drivers of American Imperial Power

'Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on Terror' is an important book that comes at a time when the US and some of its allies are engaged in full-throttle propagandising about the Ukraine war.

The veteran national security reporter Seymour Hersh recently published an article strongly indicating that the US, with its various European minions, carried out the attack that destroyed the Nord Stream pipelines that carried the bulk of Russian energy into Germany. An investigative journalist of the old school – who refuses to pass on his work for CIA or other pre-publication assessment – Hersh exposed US massacres of civilians at My Lai in the Vietnam War, aspects of the Watergate scandal, and US torture at Abu Ghraib detention camp in Iraq. His latest piece – which reports an act of war by the US against its own ally, Germany and Russia – has been met with mostly silence in the mainstream media which, almost unquestioningly, had originally accepted without doubt the US/Western/Ukrainian view that it was Putin’s Russia that had detonated the pipelines.

It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. But what happens to a society and culture when its state is at war all the time? The United States of War – the title of a great book, goes a long way to describing how deeply-embedded is US elites’ essentially militarised identity.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US national security adviser and Columbia University professor,  noted sometime in the late 1990s a fundamental truth of American society that must remain largely hidden from public scrutiny. In his view, that particular truth is a fundamental character flaw of the American people that must be corrected by elites who know best what’s good for everyone: that “the [US] pursuit of [global] power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being.”

Back in the late 1940s, at the dawn of the American century, US Senator Arthur H. Vandenburg told President Truman that his programme of global expansionism – the Truman doctrine – would command public support only if he could “scare hell out of the American people.” 

Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, argued that the only way a programme of global military hyper-expansion as recommended in the classic 1950 cold war document – NSC 68 – could be enforced was by “bludgeon[ing] the mass mind of ‘top government’…” 

President Donald Trump, a bludgeoning Big Liar on the road to the White House noted in 2016: “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life….Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.” 

Trump’s primordial truth is that the Big Lie technique is essential to winning and holding onto power. He told journalist Bob Woodward that “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.” 

An essential truth to justify the Big Lie. Now the defining feature of US politics. Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts. A warfare state and militarised culture – where is the room for truth in such a place?

Former US president Donald Trump. Photo: Jackson A. Lanier/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Propaganda fuels fear

Fear is a master force in life, in politics and government. Niccolo Machiavelli, in his classic handbook on how to hold onto great power, The Prince, wrote, “It is better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both.” But of the two, fear is the more decisive, more durable force to be nurtured and deployed. 

Elite war propaganda is rooted in the construction of threats to be feared, while the deadly paraphernalia of militarism and warfare – patriotism, national anthem, and the stars and stripes, pledges of allegiance in school and football stadium alike, Hollywood films sponsored by the Pentagon and CIA, alarming posters and intensive security checks at airports, the arming of police with ever more lethal weapons under Pentagon programmes going back to the 1980s’ ‘war on drugs’ – reach deep into everyday life. 

Elites’ propaganda reflects their own fear (paranoia) of the attachment of the mass of Americans to peace and peaceful resolution of disputes in world politics. Such peaceful attitudes threaten imperial war-making and the entire edifice of the military-industrial-intellectual-media-sports-Hollywood-internet-complex. Fear is conceived, fostered, nurtured, crystallised and mobilised through mass networks of messaging, constantly and generally reinforced, and then targeted around specific demands at specific times to authorise and legitimise military interventions, violence and wars of aggression. Forever wars. Endless wars. Which both presidential candidates claimed to oppose in their 2020 campaigns. 

Imperial superpower war propaganda is total propaganda war, everywhere, all the time.

Public choice approach to war and militarism

For many of us, the above is hardly news. It has been demonstrated time and again even in mainstream historical works – including on cold war ‘fear’ mobilisations, the war with Spain in 1898, the exterminations of Native Americans, enslavement of Africans, exclusion of Asians. Fewer will be aware that European Catholics were also feared as the alleged advance forces of the Pope and Vatican in Protestant America, and their schools and churches frequently burnt to the ground by the furies of 100% Americanism.

Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall
Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on Terror
Stanford University Press (August 2021)

In Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on TerrorChristopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall provide an unusual, interesting, broadly persuasive, and welcome approach to explaining the manufacture and deployment of militarism in America. They use a ‘public choice’ perspective to the matter and apply it with clinical ferocity. Public choice is a dominant theory in the field of (capitalist) political economy, with inviolable sympathies with liberal/libertarian anti-statism. Its driving thrust is that in a free society the individual is and should be supreme/sovereign, and that major concentrations of power in the tax-funded state (beyond its basic duties of protecting individual liberties, private property, and provision of security) undermine individual freedom. Those in positions of some authority or power – especially in the areas of foreign and national security affairs – enjoy, jealously protect, and relentlessly extend their virtual monopoly over information, information asymmetry. This asymmetry provides incentives for political opportunism and the further concentration of power, but at the expense of individual rights to knowledge and, more broadly, political democracy itself. 

In short, the US has become a system of “perverse incentives” in giving so much space for opportunism and elite power concentration in the name of national security.

Iraq war and occupation – case studies in propaganda

The empirical chapters of this study are all interesting though they tread quite familiar ground. On Iraq, it’s about oil and WMD, as well as Iraqi-al Qaeda links to the terror attacks of 9/11. The more interesting aspects of the Iraq chapters relate to systematic polling data on Americans’ attitudes that contradicted official Bush administration messaging and activities. This is impressive as in the 6 months up to the Iraq war, over 90% of all stories on the major TV news networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, where most people got their news back then) came directly from the White House propaganda machine. Hence, even with the deafening din of official information war drums, America’s well-oiled mendacity machine, significant proportions of Americans refused support for US unilateral war without UN authorisation. More: even with a UN authorising resolution, only 38% backed the invasion of Iraq. A few months before the March 2003 aggression, over two-thirds wanted UN weapons inspectors sent to Iraq and military action only as a last resort. 

Furthermore, American mass opinion wanted the US to be part of an international coalition should war become necessary. The Bush administration, therefore, manufactured a coalition of 40 countries – most of whom contributed little or nothing in terms of troops, money, or weaponry. Only the US and Britain, and to some extent Spain and Australia, supplied combat troops. Private military companies supplied around 25,000 troops – about the same number as supplied by America’s purported coalition allies. Mass opposition to the American aggression in Iraq was worldwide, as polls cited by Coyne and Hill demonstrate. Yet, one would not have garnered that from the mainstream corporate media. 

The subsequent Committee on Government Reform reported in 2004 that President Bush, VP Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of state Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice – the top five architects of the Iraq war – “repeatedly made misleading statements about the threat posed by Iraq. In 125 appearances, they made 11 misleading statements about Iraq’s nuclear activities, 84 misleading statements about Iraq’s chemical and biological capabilities, and 61 misleading statements about Iraq’s relationship with al Qaeda”. The Committee documented and exposed domestic Shock and Awe propaganda operations in great detail, the effects of which continue to undermine US global authority as well as the legitimacy of the US political establishment at home. 

War games, war films

American football is probably the quintessential national sport – followed nationwide by millions, and hence, an ideal arena for war propaganda and militarism. Because most fans and probably the teams’ owners do not attend matches to watch military parades and USAF flypasts etc, the Department of Defense (DoD) steps up and pays them millions of dollars each to “host a variety of ‘patriotic displays’”. Between 2012 and 2015 alone, the DoD pumped over $6 million for “military appreciation activities” – which Coyne and Hall dub “propaganda by another name”. A multibillion-dollar game, American football is watched by almost 70% of Americans, Black and White, Republican and Democrat – a bipartisan opportunity to build and sustain the pomp and glory of militarism.

New York Giants cornerback Michael Coe greets Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan Greenert on the sidelines during a NFL military appreciation game in 2012. Photo: US DoD, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hollywood – the alleged bastion of woke culture and political correctness – has never been reluctant to take Pentagon money, advice, weapons and dollars. Coyne and Hill list numerous major movies over the past decades that received DoD support and advice on content – in fact, moviemakers alter content at the discretion of the Pentagon to retain material support. The authors argue that the DoD, CIA and NSA not only invoke their power to alter scripts and plot lines, they “are also successful at preventing films deemed ‘too critical’ of the military and the US government being created in the first place.” Citing original research, they argue that the state has worked “behind the scenes” on over 800 major movies and over a thousand TV titles. Major movies backed by the Pentagon, etc. include Bridge of Spies (2015), Frost/Nixon (2008), The Guardian (2006), and so on.  

On the other hand, movies that were more critical of wars or the US military or portrayed them less than flatteringly – like Platoon, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, among others – were rejected by the DoD. The Hurt Locker writers submitted their script for Pentagon backing but the latter’s support was subsequently withdrawn as the screenplay apparently departed from the one endorsed by officials. The relationship between the US war machinery and Hollywood is deep, enduring, and routine. 

Add up all the information warfare power of the US state, its cosy relations with the news media, Hollywood, US sports, universities, think tanks, and schools and we get the picture – a propaganda-saturated culture of violence and war, of good us and evil them, friend and foe, patriot and traitor, American and un-American. 

Also Read: Violence, Hierarchy, Expansion: What Lies Behind the US’s Military Power?

What is to be done?

Unusually for academics, Coyne and Hall propose four possible solutions to deal with state propaganda – each of them with serious practical limitations, highlighting the significant weaknesses of public choice theory’s foundational underpinnings. It may be even worse than that – their solutions bring to the surface their illusions about the nature of the American political system, locked into their liberal ideology of political reforms.

First, they suggest that government might pass laws to regulate itself. Yet, they acknowledge, there are numerous historic and recent laws that have not been enforced. They conclude that constitutional checks are like “a chastity belt whose key is always within the wearer’s reach.” The police cannot police themselves. 

Secondly, whistleblowers are essential to exposing the crimes of the state. Yet government-enacted and enforced laws against such exposure are many, effective and punitive – as numerous cases show. Whistle-blower Edward Snowden had to flee to Russia, even as his exposes led to official action to remedy serious violations of individual freedom. Chelsea Manning was tortured in US detention for leaking to Wikileaks over a quarter of a million state department cables. Julian Assange – who leaked the state department cables as well as a video entitled Collateral Murder that showed an American Apache helicopter murder several innocent Iraqis as well as 2 journalists – has been held in punitive detention in a maximum security British prison, awaiting extradition to the US. Unsurprisingly, the state is unrelenting in its pursuit of anyone who would undermine it, from within or without. Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers that showed the imperial and illegal character of the Vietnam War and American aggression was hounded, smeared and pursued by the FBI for years. 

Thirdly, perhaps the media might help – they are supposed to be watchdogs on power in a free society which Coyne and Hall continue to claim the US remains. But no, the media is constrained in various ways, journalists can be prosecuted for publishing leaked material, and they are also patriotic – they believe in the mission and voluntarily toe the line.

Finally, the only solution that Coyne and Hall suggest would be effective is for the ordinary individual to hold the state’s feet to the fire, by becoming better informed and more vigilant. Coyne and Hall are surely right to point out that the warring state only expends such vast resources on militarist propaganda because that’s what it takes to come anywhere close to the “consent of the governed” – and even that doesn’t always or usually work. Hence, therein lies the solution to a militarist state:

“it is up to the members of the populace as to whether they choose to accept or reject the messages communicated through government propaganda…. It is up to each person to decide whether and how they choose to exercise the power they possess.” 

Two issues: theoretical and political

Politically, public choice – or Coyne and Hall’s variety of it at least – joins the anti-war coalition of the majority of Americans. It brings with it a ‘non-ideological’ economistic politics that can easily add to the politics of the Left in opposition to imperial wars. This can only be a positive advance in narrowly political terms. It reflects a longer-term tendency, also deeply rooted in US history, that supports the idea that a republic and republican freedom is destroyed should that republic become an empire. 

This is effectively where the billionaire Koch brothers-backed Cato Institute has stood since the 1970s, where the Koch and Soros-backed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft stands today. And for those reasons, one might be sceptical of the anti-war credentials of this tendency. They appear more significantly driven by their inherent anti-statism (of all varieties including taxation for social welfare) than they are by their opposition to war.

It becomes clearer then that public choice theory does not recognise the power of the collective, of classes, of political movements, of mass protests and solidarities across race, class, gender etc which are not rooted in narrow individual self-interest. Nor does it recognise anything resembling anti-war movements, sit-ins, teach-ins, and so on let alone a critique of capitalism or support for socialist movements for radical reform or revolutionary change. For public choice theorists, the state, per se, is the problem – whether it is liberal, socialist, or other. 

I found one mention of the ‘military-industrial complex’, no mention of the US foreign policy establishment, let alone the interconnectedness of a C. Wright Mills-type tripartite Power Elite or a Marxist ruling class. There is no exploration of a revolving door between elite think tanks, university public policy schools, Wall Street law firms and banks, arms manufacturers, the Congress and the Pentagon. The kind of research on interlocking corporate elite networks and successive administrations by US foreign policy experts like Bastiaan van Apeldoorn and Nana DeGraaff – American Grand Strategy and Corporate Elite Networks is missing, completely unacknowledged. 

Public choice theory solutions to the problem of a state drenched in warfare and militarism would appear, then, to come down to this: it is un-reformable from within. It is a devastating conclusion that the authors do not draw, but it is the logical conclusion nevertheless. Despite being a political economy approach, its ‘political’ critique is interesting but its solutions are ineffective because of the political system’s domination by self-interested political opportunists. Its ‘economic’ element fails to see the actual political economy of a capitalist state and allied elite private interests at the centre of a global military, economic and financial empire. 

Nevertheless, Coyne and Hall have written an important book at a time when the US and (some) of its allies and partners are engaged in full-throttle propagandising about another war – in Ukraine, a proxy war fuelled by billions of dollars of US and NATO aid, tanks, missiles and artillery, with the dangerous prospect of open warfare between the nuclear-armed US and Russia. As the Ukraine war intensifies, with increasing talk of US F-16s being transferred to Ukraine, there is an intensifying arms race in east Asia with the ‘threat’ of China – the racially-charged Yellow Peril – in regard to Taiwan. 

President Biden is a mobiliser of fear as much as his Big Lie predecessor. 

The book’s message is powerful and simple. It is evidence-based and well-reasoned. It is a work of serious scholarship. It condemns concentrated power in a few hands to propagandise and mislead the people to get behind wars of aggression, and pay the costs in blood and treasure. It says the American state is dangerous. It says the people must be vigilant, informed, and courageous. 

Nothing wrong with that.

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences, and a columnist at The Wire. He is the author of several books including Foundations of the American Century.