James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Where "Mission Accomplished" came from

Sometimes, the Bush White House's habit of borrowing intimidation and propaganda techniques used by earlier...ahem...authoritarian regimes sets some of us to rooting in our memories.

Since May 1, 2003, I have been annoyed by repeated thoughts of George W. Bush, in flight suit, landing on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (supposedly having co-piloted the plane that brought him in), striding across the flight deck with a similarly clad Navy pilot and then giving his smirking “success” speech.

In the background was a huge banner with the words “Mission Accomplished.” Remember? And around and before him, strategically placed, were military men in uniform dress, though not in all cases standard uniforms. Colors were chosen for effect.

I learned not long after that event that it had been staged by a team of television experts: Scott Sforza, former ABC producer; Bob DeServi, former NBC cameraman and lighting expert, and Greg Jenkins, former Fox producer.

Of course, much of America is annoyed and angered by that memory. When a clip of the performance is shown, some of us shout at the TV set. “Mission accomplished” has come to mean exactly the opposite for most of us, something more like “Wrongful action hopelessly bungled.”

But for me there has been the additional annoyance of knowing that I have, at some time in the past, seen almost the identical scene elsewhere, probably in a movie, but being unable to recall the exact circumstances. Every so often I've chewed at the memory for awhile, trying to bring it to the forefront.

Then, as I neared the end of Naomi Wolf's essential book, “The End of America,” there it was. She knew, and in a discourse on propaganda, press intimidation and faked news, she wrote it. I recalled the images instantly, after she reminded me.

The scene in which we saw George W. Bush was created by Leni Riefenstahl, a young woman film maker in the 1930s, a powerful if conscienceless artist who was invaluable in creating the public image of Adolf Hitler as an invincible, almost godlike leader.

Under commission from Hitler, Riefenstahl made one of the three or four most successful propaganda films ever. It is “Triumph of the Will,” released in 1935.

In the film, Hilter arrives at a gathering of supporters by airplane. The plane swoops down through beautiful clouds and lands. Hitler emerges from the plane and is greeted by a crowd of admirers, including some in paramilitary uniform. He reviews uniformed troops who stand at attention in rows. Also in an impressive uniform (of his own devising), he addresses his massed, obviously adoring troops. There are banners held high and, behind Hitler, designed by his architect, Albert Speer, a gigantic eagle which bears the swastika. Right where the “Mission Accomplished” banner is in the Bush knockoff.

Even worse, Hitler asks for support “for the accomplishment of this mission...for ours is a great mission.” (There are English subtitles on some prints of the film.)

I saw the whole film once, and have seen bits of it, notably parts of the speech and Hitler stepping from the aircraft, many times in television documentaries.

Slap of the forehead.

As I have said on several occasions, it is obvious beyond argument that the people who created this Bush presidency have closely studied the methods of Hitler's propagandists, and those of Benito Mussolini, too. But I can't recall another such a complete and open theft.

Riefenstahl lived long. She died in September 2003. If she'd hung on just a bit longer, perhaps she could have sued for copyright infringement or some such.

Oh, yeah: Like Karl Rove, Bush and all of that lot, like Speer and a number of other servants of the Nazi elite, she refused to admit, ever, that she had made a mistake or had done anything really wrong.

One nation, under surveillance

More than a year ago, my wife gave me a tee shirt that shows a pair of obviously hostile eyes over a line of type that says, “One Nation Under Surveillance.”

I wear it now and then in hot weather, and inevitably it draws looks and a rather surprising preponderance of knowing nods of agreement.

The truth of that tee shirt observation grows ever more obvious.

What may not be so obvious to many Americans –- especially younger Americans who tend to think that nothing important happened before they were born –- is the true purpose of the expanding White House-sponsored spying on U.S. citizens.

As were similar programs in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Pinochet's Chile and other repressive states, the aim is to produce fear, not gather intelligence. Those who read history don't need reference books to point to exact parallels.

Simply, there is nothing for the neocon imperialists or their surrogates in the FBI, CIA, DHS or any of the other initialed “intelligence” outfits to learn from taking photographs of antiwar demonstrators or infiltrating MoveOn and various veterans for peace organizations. Nothing useful by way of information, anyway. Anyone who thinks there is has never been involved in such an organization and probably gets all his/her news from Fox, Rush Limbaugh and other extreme right propagandists.

What such activity does, and what it is designed to do, is scare timid people -– and perhaps, as the pressure increases, not-so-timid people -– away from any public dissent from the policies of the Big Boss.


On March 19, my wife and I joined what may have been 200 other folks in a short antiwar demonstration on a bridge over the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

When we arrived, an unmarked helicopter was hovering over the river a hundred yards or so south of the bridge, and there it stayed for more than an hour, occasionally cruising in a short circle to reposition itself when the day's brisk winds blew it somewhat out of position.

It was not a news helicopter – those are all marked large in our neck of the woods – and there would be no reason for news photographers to sit in one place for that long. The head-on position of the aircraft was wrong for shooting pictures anyway. You pretty much want to keep moving, if slowly, to get the best angles, the best shots. I've been on aerial news shoots, and friends and colleagues did them frequently. You rarely hover in one spot for more than three or four minutes.

An unmarked (black, no less) helicopter hovering for a substantial period of time near a gathering of people protesting a government stance or action says only one thing: government surveillance.

And, obviously, the purpose is intimidation.

If the people involved in putting that helicopter over that entirely peaceful demonstration had wanted photographs and names and such, they would have been on the bridge taking pictures and asking for names. They'd have got them.

For the most part, the same people have been participating in weekly protests in that location for more than five years now. Few, if any, care who knows that they are against our occupation of Iraq and against everything the Bush administration stands for.

Everyone on the bridge that day must have had the same thought about the helicopter; certainly those I heard comment on it did. It didn't frighten them.

But will there be a cumulative effect? As people in helicopters and people in deliberately obvious surveillance cars and guys dressed in outfits that fairly shout “FBI” keep protesters under angry eye and scribble pretend notes at event after event, will some of the less dedicated decide it's more prudent to stay away?

More importantly, will substantial numbers of people decide they'd better shut up about administration policies, the war and other edgy matters altogether?

Certainly it worked in all those authoritarian states I mentioned above.

Just as here, the surveillance in those places began small, gradually grew, with more “spies” obviously watching more people. And, as is now happening here, the word went out about telephone tapping and other listening techniques. As here, rumors suggested that there was more spying than there actually was. That was, and is, deliberate. You don't have to tap phones to shut people up if they think they may be tapped. It's cost effective as a silencer of anti-Boss opinions.

Combine that kind of intimidation with the occasional arrest of supposed or “suspected” enemies of the state, even if the suspects later are released, and you will scare a hell of a lot of people into silence and even cooperation. We've seen a few such arrests in this country, and so long as the neocons are in control, we can expect to see more, and then still more.

Folks, this stuff is right out of the 20th century dictators' playbook. It's used because it works.

The only effective counter action, aside from replacing the government leaders, is a firm refusal to be intimidated now. If the public slips away and hides in silence, the rulers gain so much power that eventually they really can't be opposed without fear of imprisonment or worse.