Stretch The Truth -Spin The War
By Rick Stengel
MSNBC Contributor

NEW YORK - Truth, as the old saying goes, is the first casualty of war. It is also the lifeblood of democracy. An untruth, even in time of war, is a far more dangerous fatality in a democracy than in a dictatorship. Democracy is fueled by openness and candor; dictatorships are founded on lies. Truth is always a casualty in totalitarian states; it ought never be a casualty in a democracy, even in time of war. Especially in time of war.
* When Gen. Wesley Clark declared last week that the bombing of Kosovar civilians on a road north of the town of Djakovica was the work of Serbians who were trying to blame it on NATO, it was a statement unworthy of a democratic alliance. It was a statement very nearly the equivalent of the Orwellian untruths of Slobodan Milosovic.
* When Jamie Shea, NATO,s glib spokesman, admitted that one of the several mistaken NATO attacks on civilians is 'the one we own up to' and that the deaths were the result of 'collateral damage,' it was a statement unworthy of a democracy.
* When NATO broadcast an interview with an American pilot and allowed journalists to assume that he was the pilot that mistakenly bombed the convoy, it was a deception that was almost the equal of Milosovic's reign of lies.
NATO and the U.S. Defense Department have subsequently tried to rectify their errors, but the stories offered a frightening insight into the accuracy of the news we are getting. We have seen plenty of stories about the fact that Serbians are the victims of 'black propaganda,' that they are not told of the atrocities that their leaders are committing in their name, that they do not know what is going on in their own nation. While undoubtedly true, those stories are part of our own peculiar propaganda, propaganda that is designed to generate support for the war and animosity for the Serbs.
The NATO press operation seems to have a different level of candor than Americans are used to. The fidelity of the NATO spokespeople is to military secrecy, not democratic openness.
The origin of propaganda in this century began with World War I, when British and American posters depicting atrocities by the bloodthirsty 'Hun' were designed to sway mass opinion against Germany. They did so. Such public relations are necessary in a democracy. For in a democracy, leaders rule - or make war - with the consent of the governed. They must implicitly obtain our consent before sending our boys into battle. Consent, these days, is measured by opinion polls. For the government to obtain a favorable poll number, we must be persuaded that the government is doing what is right, just, and the American way.
That is why our opponents are always demonized and made into the moral equivalents of the worst fiend we know, Adolf Hitler. That is how American public opinion is mobilized. Saddam Hussein was virtually the anti-Christ himself. Now Slobodan Milosovic is the new great Satan. If our opponents are always evil, then we must always be on the side of the angels.
A democracy should never fight lies with lies. The other side of the propaganda equation is the sanctification of the refugees. They are pictured on television and in magazine in soft-focus images, with the camera dwelling on the most comely young women, the saddest old men, and the most fetching children. These pictures have mobilized public opinion in favor of military action and they even persuaded that great humanitarian Michael Jackson into writing a song for the refugees because, as he said, he could not watch them on television without crying.
I don't mean to suggest that Milosovic is a good guy. Or that he isn't responsible for a great calamity, or that he is not what many insist on calling a war criminal. Or that the refugees are anything other than innocent victims. I don't wish to suggest there is a moral equivalency between the Serbs and ourselves. But a democracy has higher standards.
President Clinton says we are fighting for democracy in Kosovo. We must show our antagonists how democracy works. We must live up to the standards we are seeking to impose. Democracy means openness. A totalitarian leader uses any means to persuade, any means to retain power. In order for us to function as a democracy, we must make informed decisions. And that information must be truthful, otherwise our consent is being obtained by chicanery. There's nothing democratic about that.
Spinning a war should be a war crime. The NATO press operation seems to have a different level of candor than Americans are used to. The fidelity of the NATO spokespeople is to military secrecy, not democratic openness. That is unfortunate. I saw Christiane Amanpour the other night on CNN saying that everyone was 'spinning' this story. Spinning is just a euphemism for lying, a euphemism that tries to make the lying seem not as egregious.
Spinning a war should be a war crime. One of the reasons Americans turned against the war in Vietnam was because they realized they had been lied to about it from the very beginning. Perhaps if the government had been more honest, public opinion would have been different. A democracy should never fight lies with lies.
Rick Stengel is senior editor at Time magazine and a regular contributor to MSNBC on the Internet.