War Sells

They’re good, you’ve got to give them that. Whatever your politics, whichever side of the pro-war / anti-war fence you sit on, credit where credit’s due: it’s quite a show. The nation that brought us Hollywood, Las Vegas and the World Wrestling Federation has done it again in fine style, giving new meaning to the notion of a “theatre of war”.

Act One introduces the Axis of Evil with their Weapons of Mass Destruction, gripping from the outset – and the perfect foe for a Coalition of the Willing. But it gets better. After the exhilaration of the Decapitation Strike we’re into Shock and Awe. You could almost be in Hyde Park for the fireworks – ooooing and aaaahhing as another Hellfire showers us with sparkles.

Of course Iraq doesn’t stand a chance. Their problem is quite simple – they are sloppy when it comes to presentation. In one corner, the Coca Cola corporation is proud to be associated with the Maverick, the Apache and the Super Stallion. Whilst in the other we have the Scud and the Zhuk – both sounding like jelly hitting the floor. It’s like they’re not even trying.

America, the most branded nation on the planet, has excelled themselves. Between their Prowlers and their Linebackers, whether with Stealth or with Vengeance, they’ve realised that selling war means selling the weapons of war. It would almost be a shame not to invade a country if you’ve got a Storm Shadow lying around.

One can only imagine the brand consultants hidden deep beneath the Pentagon, brainstorming their latest cluster buster bomblet shenanigans.

“The Devastator?”.

“Hmmm – needs more ‘zwing’.”

“I’ve got it! How about ‘The Liberator’?”

But it will be hard for them to top the sheer genius that came up with ‘Daisy Cutter’. It has it all: poetry, humour and a certain chilling modesty. The ‘bomblet’ has a similar charm, sounding more like something you’d pass around at a party, alongside the tartlets and the twiglets. Indeed with these Bomblets the Ambassador is surely spoiling us.

If this all sounds a bit tasteless, then that’s because it is. We’re in the midst of a war that isn’t funny on any level and this isn’t a joke: this is about war on the home front and a new genius for how to sell it: by seduction, by fascination, by ham drama of the first degree.

The revolution, we are told, will not be televised. The war, on the other hand, will be released for the Sony Playstation by the end of the year. CNN online offers its hungry public the opportunity to fly their favourite missiles and aircraft. You can do a barrel roll in a Stealth Bomber – great name, by the way – just before you open the bomb doors and watch your payload tumble harmlessly through the sky. Or you can click your mouse to zoom in and out of a speeding Tomahawk, its jet trail fizzing across the screen. The highlight must surely be their simulation of how to take an airfield – a digital animation that could have come straight from the PC hit Soldier of Fortune. You never knew that war could be this much fun.

War has always been fought on two fronts: at home and abroad. But the propaganda war is developing a new stratagem – first seen in Bush Senior’s Gulf War. The principle is simple: make it sexy. Once you have admitted that War is Hell, then you can get on with enjoying it. Advertising in Saturday’s Sun, the News of the World had a full page: “Gulf War II – The Hunt for Saddam”. If this feels like a blockbuster sequel then it’s not totally by accident. This is all the theatre we’ve come to expect from a media and a military that is selling this war as keenly as The Matrix II. Surely it’s only a matter of time before McDonalds launches the Gulf War Happy Meal, complete with collectible figurines of your favourite missiles.

We are seeing a new kind of war, branded, packaged and marketed like nothing else. Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff, gave a chilling insight into how timing for the war was being decided. “From a marketing point of view,” he told reporters, “you don’t introduce new products in August.” This is the new PR of war, smarter than a missile whizzing down a chimney. Make it exciting. Bring in a bit of show. Sell it, for God’s sake!

But then it’s not difficult when you have journalists who can barely control their excitement. One CNN reporter sounded like he was going to have himself an accident when we was riding in an Abrams Tank. All his Christmases had come at once as he sat in the gunner’s seat. Indeed it must have taken supreme self control to stop himself from asking whether he could have a go with the Gattling.

With over 500 reporters ‘embedded’ by the War Department with frontline troops, you can draw your own conclusions on what kind of objectivity we’re receiving. But this is about far more than journalistic integrity – it’s about the realisation of a new strategy for the home front and the coincidence of interests between the media and the military. Both have a war to sell and they’ll pull out all the stops to do it. Online, the news networks provide their viewers with slide shows, animations, explainers, war trackers, interactive maps, galleries and streaming video. You can have the latest instalments texted to your mobile and if this isn’t enough, you can pay for ‘premium content’. Adult websites provide ‘premium content’ too, but at least they’re honest in admitting that it’s pornography.

This is a marketing alright, and one that sees that viewers are hooked, with a mawkish fascination, to the biggest event of the decade – all in digital surround sound.

“The single most destructive factor in America’s war effort is the opposition at home”, Nixon told reporters during the Vietnam War. They aren’t making that mistake again. The army needs more than control of the land, sea and air – they need control of the mental space too. But here, the weapons come from showbiz and marketing, from the brand consultants and the PR gurus. And the message is simple: war might be bad, but heck – it’s pretty damn exciting. So set your worries aside, order in pizza and enjoy the show.

Joshua Blackburn, published March 2003

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