It wasn’t so long ago that the U.S. was led by neo-conservative, imperialist adventurers. Looking back from the vantage point of 2012, the mendacity of the Bush administration seems as if it were always a fact. A fact is indisputable. According to Pew Research polling, in March, 2003, 72% of the nation believed the decision to use military force in Iraq was the right decision. Surely, 72% of the nation did not feel the “right decision” was based on a pack of lies, so how did Bush administration mendacity become an indisputable fact? Recall that the key basis for the war was the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). A couple of months into the war, the WMD rationale started to unravel. A moment when doubt was converted into indisputable fact arrived on May 29, 2003, with what may be one of the greatest blog posts in history. Indeed, it is a post that makes the history of blogging, itself, important. The post was at a place called the Whiskey Bar and the barkeep of the establishment was named Billmon.
In 2012 you don’t hear so many calls for war crimes trials or discussions of how the U.S. was led to war with a bunch of phony evidence, so it is an important exercise to understand and remember why people believed and continue to believe that such bold actions against their leaders were and are warranted. Billmon’s writing at the Whiskey Bar is a key source to understanding where this argument arises from. It is almost nine years later though, and the question arose of whether Billmon and the Whiskey Bar had slipped into oblivion. Without searching the internet, it seemed possible that Billmon might be lost to the Memory Hole. Any normal political junkie’s first thoughts turn to, 1984. In Orwell’s 1984 there was a Memory Hole. The following excerpt from, 1984 is taken from Wikipedia:
In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.
Like everything in 1984 the Memory Hole is sinister. The reality of the internet is probably more pernicious and insidious, but not quite so sinister. Information is accumulating rapidly and it is difficult to find places to put it and to organize it so that it can be found again. In an earlier era videotapes were piling up fast (and they were expensive too), so that a lot of old television recordings were destroyed. For example, people who watched television in the 60’s sometimes have fond reminiscences about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s show, “Not Only . . . But Also.” By all accounts this was a hilarious and fun show, but much of it is lost never to be seen again. Imagine how much people would enjoy watching it now, if only it had survived long enough to be posted onto YouTube. The following explains its tragic end.
The BBC wiped many editions of Not Only…But Also from its archives in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as it did with many other programmes, including the second series of Dad’s Army and Spike Milligan’s Q5. Cook and Moore had even allegedly offered to pay for the cost of preservation and buy new videotapes so that the old tapes would not need to be reused, but this offer was rejected. Some telerecordings of the black and white episodes survive, but all of the videotaped footage from the colour series was wiped, so that the only surviving colour sketches are on 16mm film inserts.
The wiping of the recordings seems unjust in retrospect even if it was a sound business decision at that time (funny how often sound business decisions seem unjust). Yet, in 1984 the destruction of information was far more sinister. It was an effort to erase or rewrite history. On second thought, maybe the BBC was sinister as far as Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and their fans were concerned. However, with the internet, we face something more insidious and invevitable. It is an inability to keep up and to remember what was important. The mounds of information are accumulating rapidly these days. Orwell’s Memory Hole remains a powerful symbol that spurs one to think deeply, but thankfully the internet is not a Memory Hole, but instead it is a rummaging affair, perhaps an archaeological dig. What follows is an attempt to resurrect an important time in the history of blogging.
Billmon’s writing at the Whiskey Bar is still available. Much of the material can be found at the Wayback Machine. The first search at the Wayback Machine was a failure, but then things clicked and a trove of Billmon posts at the Whiskey Bar was found. The Memory Hole metaphor was definitely too cynical, yet one has to know what to look for before starting, and so highlighting what is worthwhile is important, which brings the focus back to Billmon.
On May 29, 2003, Billmon published a post comprised entirely of quotes. Even the Whiskey Bar itself owes its name to a 1927 song by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (viewed here). The title of the post reads:
What a Tangled Web We Weave . . .
. . . when first we practice to deceive!
The title of the post is, itself, a quote from Walter Scott’s epic poem (not Shakespeare), “Marmion,” (thank goodness for Wikipedia. Then comes quote after quote from Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, George Bush, Tommy Franks, Ari Fleischer, Donald Rumsfeld, and so on. Every quote is on the topic of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The quotes begin in August of 2002, when we were told the presence of WMD’s in Iraq were an indisputable fact.
Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.
Dick Cheney Speech to VFW National Convention August 26, 2002
And the beat continues with official after official chiming in. Just a couple of examples follow:
We know for a fact that there are weapons there.
Ari Fleischer Press Briefing January 9, 2003
We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more.
Colin Powell Remarks to UN Security Council February 5, 2003
Then the troops are on the ground and the quotes evolve with the following being perhaps the greatest Alice in Wonderland statement ever given.
We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.
Donald Rumsfeld ABC Interview March 30, 2003
Finally, Paul Wolfowitz lets the cat out of the bag:
For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction (as justification for invading Iraq) because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.
Paul Wolfowitz Vanity Fair interview May 28, 2003
The comments section at the blog is preserved too. There are a huge number of compliments in the comments. The effect of Billmon’s blog post was to hold a mirror up to the Emperor with no clothes. Nothing could be more powerful then destroying them with their own words. No laborious analysis. Many comments ask for the quotes to be linked. At the time this was critically important, since blogs were not considered credible unless they were linked to a primary source, yet no one, in the comments, suggests that the quotes aren’t credible. Of course some commentator (probably a paid troll of some awful think-tank) takes pains to argue for the propriety of the war, under the latest rationale, which is audacious after the cascade of quotes that Billmon has strung together. Here is Darwin’s first salvo:
Ok, so answer me this..
If Saddam didn’t have stuff forbidden by the UN resolutions why would he provoke a war with the US that he would obviously lose?
Also : This link from Reuters indicates that at least one lab which was forbidden by the UN resolutions has been found within Iraq.
Bush from the SOTU :
“From three Iraqi defectors we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs. These are designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors. Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.”
You seem to be saying that because there are no “WMD” found that therefore the war in Iraq is somehow illegitimate wrt UN resolutions. I think it’s pretty well established that it was Saddam’s behavior in the face of inspection/etc that finally precipitated this war. .
Unless he was suicidal and/or insane, why would he go to war if he had nothing to hide?
=darwin Posted by: darwin at May 29, 2003 02:23 PM
Darwin found time to write at least 30 paragraphs of commentary on the same day of Billmon’s post and no less than 50 paragraphs within about a week. What an astounding effort! In the end it is helpful didactically for other commentators to react and form their thoughts in reaction Darwin, but what a waste of time to battle against a mountain of lies. The effort to discredit the Bush administration would require much more effort, and remains an incomplete project.
When one hears some aged lefty complaining about Bush administration war crimes, it is not without a basis. With the furious re-writing of history, it is the facts that must be preserved in order for future generations to properly judge us, since it appears there will be no contemporaneous judgment. Foucault may have considered preservation of facts to be impossible or irrelevant, but future generations will be relieved from the burden of fearing reprisals or ostracism and won’t have to suffer like the Dixie Chicks.
Billmon’s Tangled Web post is elegant and concise. It appears almost at the precise time when the Bush administration has damned itself with its own words. At the time it came out, it was a serious questioning of authority and it was published at an early point in the aftermath of the Iraq invation. Not only does it give raw historical information, but then it hosts comments. These comments themselves contain links to insightful information, and they contain bold statements as well. The comments are a valuable portrait of the dialogue and the relentless attack from the left against the case for the Iraq War, even if the case was only becoming unquestioningly persuasive after the War was already underway. The comments make the point that there were voices against the war, and that those voices were deliberately unheard in the mainstream media. The blogs, back then, were the equivalent of the information underground. Without a doubt the mainstream media heard what it wanted to hear, and simply didn’t care to ask the difficult questions. After all, the media had a war to cover with its embedded journalists.
While those who were deceived might be forgiven for failing to question their leaders in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and for accepting that a land war in Iraq was the correct response to terror attacks originating from Afghanistan, it is unforgivable that the U.S. media and many U.S. leaders remained credulous after it was so obvious that war had been made simply for the sake of making war. The Tangled Web post is a landmark showing the world exactly when it became impossible to pretend that one didn’t know better.
So, when one hears that we should only look forward and that the past should be forgotten, it must be crystal clear that what is also being heard is that one must accept that war crimes are to be tolerated in the U.S. Billmon’s achievement may mark an American tragedy, but it is a tragedy that has been experienced and will continue to reverberate through the coming decades. If we ever seek to understand what happened and to escape the fate that it points us to, then Tangled Web post is a good place to start.