In Wag the Dog, Conrad Brean organizes the war to distract the public from the president’s philandering. In this case, the public can quite easily be convinced that it is necessary to wage a war to persevere the American way of life. As Brean says to the CIA Agent Charlie Young, “You said go to war to preserve your way of life? Well, Chuck, this is your way of life. And if your spy satellites don’t see nothin’, if there ain’t no war, then you can go home and prematurely take up golf, my friend. ‘Cause there ain’t no war but ours.”
The government influences people’s mindsets through the stories it weaves
In Wag the Dog, the fake war, or the “appearance of war” becomes a real and welcome distraction for the American people thanks to the superior Hollywood special effects and the excellent skill of a public relations expert, Conrad Brean and Hollywood director Stanley Motss.
Conrad Brean organizes the war to distract the public from the president’s sexual misconduct with the “teenage” Firefly. There are 10 days before the election, and the task is to ensure that the story of misconduct does not feature in the daily news, and especially not on page 12 of the Washington Post.
In this case, the public can quite easily be convinced that it is necessary to wage a war to “preserve the American way of life”.
As Motss knows all too well, the tried and tested “age old horseshit” that we “don’t change horses in mid-stream” is not sufficient to convince the public that the President deserves to be reelected.
Breans’ public relations team judges the success of its public relations stunt according to whether or not there is any reference to the Firefly girl in the media coverage.
The official narrative:
“The war of the future is nuclear terrorism. It is and it will be against a small group of dissidents who, unbeknownst, perhaps, to their own governments, have blah blah blah.”
The story needs victims (the girl), an enemy (who wants what we want) and a hero. (We can’t have a war without a hero – someone who has been discarded like an old shoe”.) All of a sudden, the story of the President’s sexual misconduct, becomes a story about loss and about redemption. Even the inconvenient fact of the drug-addled war hero who has raped a nun and is “fucked up” can be manipulated to advantage. Even if someone had been in prison for several years, they would be traumatized. They would need anti-depressants. “It’s a walk in the park” says a confident Stanley Motss.
What is real? What is the truth?
Motts boasts that the war footage “is a complete fucking fraud, and it looks a hundred percent real.”
Conrad Brean encourages us to be skeptical about official narratives because they are often constructed in such a way as to reveal a hidden or deceptive agenda.
In response to Motss’ questions about the truth, Bream states, “how the fuck do we know? You take my point?” Evidently, the truth simply does not make as interesting a story as the heroics of a bunch of American soldiers who were fighting for the “American way of life” and an end to terrorism.
Brean questions the “truth” about the Kennedy Assassination and believes that the Warren Report revealed that he was “killed by a drunken driver’.
He encourages us to question the official narrative relating to the Gulf War. Was the video footage of this war real? Brean neither confirms nor denies the fact that it could have been shot it in a studio in Falls Church Virginia. “The truth? I was in the building when we shot that shot… One-tenth scale model of a building.” Likewise, at the conclusion of the film, a news report about a violent incident in Albania is shown, but it is ambiguous whether this is a true event or simply a continuation of the fictional war.
And after all if war video footage is on national television, then there must be a war. The media becomes part of the story through the sensationalist and dramatic headlines. There is a “just-in report” with “poignant pictures” to inject drama. Other headlines such as the “late-breaking news – from Air Force One” reinforce the dramatic urgency of the occasion. And after all if war video footage is on national television, then there must be a war.
The government does not need to prove the “truth” or veracity of the information. As Brean says, “We don’t need it to prove out. We’ve got less than two weeks till the election, so we just need to distract them.”
And in the end, as Winifred Ames declares, the media, the news coverage in cohorts with “show business, “destroyed the electoral process!”
The government controls the flow of information
Motss creates a narrative (story) around the Albanian conflict based on the girl fleeing from the “terrorist” attack. The “untrustable” Albanians become convenient enemies – more convenient than the Swedes. (The story is “dull” without an enemy.)
Bream uses subtle psychological powers of persuasion to influence, control and define the terms of the debate. For example, the question, “does the government have a B3-bomber?” focuses people’s attention on the country’s defence needs. But whether or not there is such a bomber is completely irrelevant.
Brean believes that the public does not need to know why Albania is the enemy, apart from the fact that its people are envious of the American way of life. “They want what we want”. He sensationalises a story about being swamped by terrorists, who are infiltrating America through the Canadian borders. Through the Canadian north wind, comes the “terror”.
When the story does break, there is maximum secrecy in the interests of the “safety of the men and women in combat”. The details are suppressed in the national interest. Likewise, questions are discouraged.
The government is not only secretive with regards to its agenda but it coerces naïve and innocent people such as Tracey (not Stacey) Lime into signing declarations. She is completely ignorant of the content, and is then informed that should she release any information, this would lead to maximum penalties. Brean tells her, “They could come to your house in the middle of the night and kill you.”
The public relations machine has little respect for the public’s desire to know the truth. It is about “teasing” an unsuspecting public, and about stimulating and buying their curiosity with crass emotional bribes. As Motss says, who believes it is necessary to withhold the appearance of the war-hero-rapist, “you gotta tease them. You don’t put Jaws in the first reel of the movie … The contract of the election, whether they know it or not, is “Vote for me Tuesday, Wednesday I’ll produce Schumann.”
The public relations team is able to manufacture a story about the returned war hero because any potential back ground of imprisonment can be shrouded in secrecy.
A final news clip reveals that the Albanian Unite front has bombed the village of Klos and the president has despatched troops to “finish the job”. Viewers are left to consider the veracity of this news report, as indeed they are encouraged to consider to what extent any news clips can be verified.
Shared and competing interests: Self-interest takes priority
Brean advises the CIA Agent Charlie Young that protecting one’s country, is protecting one’s job, and ensuring that he is secure to enjoy the American way of life. He reminds him that their spy satellites ought to reveal war-like activity, because “”if your spy satellites don’t see nothin’, if there ain’t no war, then you can go home and prematurely take up golf, my friend. ‘Cause there ain’t no war but ours.” In other words, “if there is no threat, what good are you?”
For the CIA to be able to justify the trillions of dollars spent on national security, and ultimately one’s job, there must be dissidents and there must be war. One must remain alert, constantly “gearing up for that war” on the horizon. After all we cannot always see the footprint of “nuclear terrorism”, which is the “war of the future”. And whilst fear rules the day, the public can be coerced into believing what they are told.
Brean eventually becomes annoyed that the CIA “cuts a better deal” and announces an end to the war. It can’t end like this. “He’s not producing this!”.
To his peril, Motss believes, “It’s not over until I say it’s over. This is my picture – this is NOT the CIA’s picture” and he pays the ultimate price.
Hollywood Special Effects controls the war : War is “show business”; war is a “pageant”. It’s the “greatest show on earth”. “It’s like the Oscars.” It’s a show that is definitely worth “$7 bucks”.
War is “show business”; war is a “pageant”. It’s the “greatest show on earth” and the “president is a product” and the supporting actors have been “cast” to perfection, even the drug-addled war hero, who enters as a convict in chains.
As Brean notes, “We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war” and he sets about re-constructing “reality” or inventing a parallel narrative that ensures that the President is re-elected. In a “room with talent” and amidst a buzzing electrified atmosphere, talented show-business personnel thrive on the story.
The director in the Hollywood studio sifts through the Village Library to choose a combination of special effects that combine to give a chilling and authentic picture of a lone survivor. There’s the burning bridge, the running stream, the white calico kitten and the burnt-out buildings in the background which provide dramatically and emotionally-charged video footage.
All the elements are meticulously chosen because of their emotive effect. The colour green stands for strong pride and dignity. The girl must be carrying a white calico kitten, it cannot be a dog. There is maximum drama. She is “running from a village” over the burning bridge, because she cannot be static. Flames are introduced as are the “ooh ahh Anne Frank sirens” that reinforce the frightening context. The news footage is suitably grainy.
The young girl who is singled out for paternalistic treatment by Big Bird is sentimentally involved with the Wheat harvest festival. The morse code on the war hero’s jumper reveals the words, “courage, mum” which is turned into another jingle and slogan.
The tragedy of war is reduced to a picture: “We remember the pictures”.
Ultimately, according to Brean, the public remembers the sensational or dramatic images. Despite the fact that there were 2,500 missions a day, the public remembers the “one smart bomb falling down a chimney”. “The American people bought that war” based on the fact that “war is show business”. He believes that the public will only remember pictures, the “smart bomb, falling down a chimney. The Gulf War, smart bomb falling down a chimney. 2500 missions a day, 100 days. ONE video of ONE bomb Mr. Motts, the American people bought that war. War is show business – that’s why we’re here.”
The tragedy of war is reduced to a slogan: We remember the slogans (“we can’t remember the fuckin’ wars”)
One of the messages of the film is that slogans and jingles do have considerable persuasive power. They influence the message and penetrate deep into the psyche of a nation. As Desmond Tutu reminds us: “Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” This is particularly true with the patriotic jingles crafted by the song-writer.
Brean knows that people remember slogans and pictures. They can’t remember the wars. “Cause its show business. That’s why I’m here. “Naked girl, covered in Napalm. Napalm. Five marines Raising the Flag. Mount Suribachi. V for Victory.” “Remember the Maine”.
Bream understands the power of slogans to convince the public to patriotically support the war. The choir sings a stirring song revolving around the patriotic need to “guard our American borders” and “guard the American dream”. The public can be convinced that this war is about keeping our “country free”.
In this case, the jingle about the “old shoe” ensures that the public eagerly awaits the return of the war hero, which is promised the day after the election result. This jingle penetrates their sub-conscious realities and members of the public contagiously chant and repeat the “old shoe” song. The director’s point is that through clever media and marketing tactics, through the power of persuasion, the government is able to turn a drug-addled criminal into a revered war hero.
Awaiting the return of the drug-addled-war hero, the nation rouses to a stirring song of the 303 brigade, their strength and pride. (“God bless the men of 303”) It is “sheer patriotism”. In fact so patriotic do they become, that all the spectators at the basketball match throw their shoes into the stadium to show their solidarity with William Schumann, the “good old shoe”.
Because of the songs, the director is able to encourage the public to patriotically support the returned war hero. This hero becomes a very poignant and courageous symbol of the war and of American success.
And as the show-business personnel hijack the narrative with their “pageant”, so Motts increasingly believes that he is running the show and the government. His self-interest takes priority. He wants credit for the re-election campaign.
“It’s the best work I ever did.” It is “so honest”. He is proud of his team and his show who, under his leadership, “saved the day”. So inflated is his pride, that he believes he would have no trouble staging the President’s campaign for a Peace Prize.
As the war becomes increasingly real, so too does Motts’s power and self-belief. He begins to confuse his power with that of the Presidential office. He demands credit for the President’s re-election and is enraged that the changing-horses-midstream campaign still airs on television and appears to be just as successful.
Motts concludes: “The war ain’t over til I say it’s over . . . . Look at that! That is a complete fucking fraud, and it looks 100% real. This is the greatest work I’ve ever done in my life – because it’s so honest.”
His downfall is to ask for too much. He wants the credit which seals his downfall. He scorns the position of Ambassador. Tracey Lime, who likewise wanted to include references to her role in the “advertisement” on her CV, is advised to keep silent. For some reason, Motts does not follow his own team’s advice. And indeed, as foreshadowed, they “come to your house in the middle of the night and kill you”. The personnel are ultimately, less important than the Presidential show.
In fact, after seeing this film, it is difficult to believe or take for granted anything that emerges from the Government’s public relations departments or their offshoots, or in the media. In the words of Naomi Wolfe, “Why do I often not take political narratives at face value as they are dictated to the press? A. Because I am a journalist… but more importantly, b) because I worked for two presidential campaigns”.
Whilst the plot of Wag the Dog anticipates ex President George Bush Junior’s push into Iraq in 2003 and the manufactured stories relating to weapons of mass destruction, it also harks back to George Bush Senior’s debacle in Kuwait and the hesitant push into Iraq in 1991.
As Megan Stack (Everyman in this Village is a Liar) notes, in 1991, the first Bush administration urged Iraqis to rise up against their government. The Kurds and the Shiites responded, expecting support from America, but were betrayed. Saddam sent the army to slaughter rebels hidden in the shrine at Karbala. As Stack notes, even now many Shiites believed they were killed – not by Saddam – but by America. (71)
In 1991, Iraq invaded Kuwait; Saddam Hussein was depicted as the Middle Eastern Adolf Hitler, and the (Senior) Bush administration, with the support of Saudi Arabia, sought to rebuff the Iraqi takeover.
It is alleged that Washington hired a number of public relations firms to manipulate support for the war and to overcome resistance. At the time up to 48 per cent of the public were against military intervention. One of the world’s largest public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton masterminded the Kuwaiti campaign. They invented a horror story that evoked a particularly strong emotional response among the American public. The story came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah who said her life was at risk. She recounted that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers taking babies from incubators and leaving them on the floor to die. The President also claimed that 312 babies had suffered the same fate.
Parallels are also evident with the next Bush Administration’s representation of the war in Iraq (2003) which was crafted as a need to overthrow a dictator who supposedly possessed weapons of mass destruction. Few in the media questioned the lack of WMDs. Why? Perhaps, because the truth simply didn’t make as interesting a story as the heroics of a bunch of American soldiers who were fighting for the “American way of life” and an end to terrorism.
In 2002, Joseph Charles Wilson (a United States diplomat) undertook a trip to Niger to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase yellowcake uranium to produce his weapons of mass destruction. In his article, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa”, Wilson states that on the basis of his “experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war”, he has “little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
Such advice was inconvenient to the President.
The image is everything
During US President Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year reign from 1932-1945, the limitations on press coverage of the president were so effective that most Americans did not realise that their president had a disability owing to a bout of polio. His publicist, Stephen Early, played a crucial role in controlling the public image. There were no pictures depicting the president in a wheelchair. If braces could be seen, the photo was to be “retouched”. The President was often shown standing or sitting, but never “walking”.
The reporter Alistair Cooke wrote, “what was impressed on everyone’s senses was the powerful upper body, the bull neck, the strong hands clasping the lectern, the handsome head tossing the spoken emphasis, the happy squire waving to everybody in an open car”.
Compare the carefully stage-managed PR machine, Al Hayat, run by ISIS
Naomi Wolfe asks whether the “ISIL videos” of the beheadings are true? Are they just a case of “fear porn”? “Why do I often not take political narratives at face value as they are dictated to the press? A. Because I am a journalist… but more importantly, b) because I worked for two presidential campaigns”. (Naomi Wolfe)
The propaganda machine itself: the use of hi-tech gadgets
In this case, the image is everything. The recent terror raids in Sydney and Brisbane (September 2014) were prompted by the alleged directive of one of the (Australian IS commanders), Mohammad Ali Baryalei who ordered that an Australian cell member, Azari, film a shocking terrorist act (a beheading) and send it to Al Hayat Media for distribution around the world via social and mainstream media.
Al Hayat is a highly sophisticated media outlet of IS. It streams continuous propaganda videos, filmed in high definition and expertly edited with music, action scenes from the battlefield and even scenes from video games like Call of Duty.
Al Hayat produced the videos of three American and British men who have all died at the hand of a fanatic’s knife. This appalled the world and spurred western military intervention.
As political commentator Waleed Aly states: “What would matter is the image. The video had to be made, the event had to be broadcast. This matters more than the killing itself …. For us in Australia, it’s most dangerously a symbol: a brand that a young man can claim for himself; a flag in which he can wrap himself – and his proposed victim.”
Labor Senator, Dr Anne Azza Aly, and former research fellow at Curtin University, says ” all terrorism is theatre and all counter-terrorism is theatre,” which means that just as the terrorists seek to construct just the right image, so too does the Government manufacture a spectacle in its bid to show to the public that it is prioritising public security above all else.
Dr Aly explains, “I could go down to Toys-R-Us and get one of those light sabre things that goes “zhoot zhoot” and every time you walk into my classroom I could go, “Wait a minute.” Zhoot zhoot and that would have an effect because that’s what security is. That’s what counter-terrorism is … It’s all about theatre”. She connects the show with perception: “It is about convincing people and changing people’s minds to a particular world view, whether that world view is that of ISIS and the Islamic State or whether that world view is that of the Australian Government and democratic values and so on and so forth.”
Likewise, Randa Abdel-Fattah (author and human rights activist) also agrees and believes the televised raids and back-to-back coverage was “like an NCIS episode, almost live feeds”, with the aim of whipping up mass hysteria.
“It could have been done stealthily, proportionately but that would have robbed the occasion for an opportunity of some serious theatre. But I would go one step further. Not only did it provide theatre, not only did it give a sense for Australians to get behind the raids and the wall-to-wall coverage in the media, but it reinforced this wider narrative of Muslims as criminals.” (Q&A, ABC, 22 September 2014)
Once again, it was the image that was critical. Omarjan Azari was one of the “terrorists” to be arrested in the largest counterterrorism operation in Australia’s history (September 2014). The image of the 22-year-old apprentice motor mechanic handcuffed on the grass int he dark outside his home in Sydney’s west was very powerful.
Although, as feminist critic and author, Naomi Wolfe, asks, was it just “fear porn”? Were these videos of the beheadings actually staged by the US government? As a journalist, she would prefer two independent sources before accepting something as true.