WARNING: Our Brains Are a Battlefield

by Jeff Klein

Originally published in the Dorchester People for Peace newsletter, March 11, 2022

In January 2021, NATO published the final draft of a lengthy study it called Cognitive Warfare. Its intent is to explore the potential for manipulating minds—those of others, our own—beyond anything heretofore even attempted. “The brain will be the battlefield of the 21st century,” the document asserts. “Humans are the contested domain. Cognitive warfare’s objective is to make everyone a weapon.”  (Source)

Truth is the first casualty of war,” the old saying goes, and this is certainly the case in Ukraine, as in all modern conflicts. It is easy to recognize propaganda in our adversaries, which often have a government controlled media, but we are mostly blind as to how that works out on “our” side. The US press is nominally free but, especially when a foreign policy issue of importance to our ruling elites is in play, it typically and voluntarily mobilizes to bolster a particular point of view. We observed this in the run-up to the Iraq war and in the Middle East beyond, and as Noam Chomsky pointed out more systematically over the years. Since the US debacle in Vietnam, the Pentagon and its supporters have recognized the importance of “information warfare” as we observed in the first and second conflicts with Iraq, and later in Syria.

Naturally, we should be skeptical of war propaganda from all sides, but the reality is that in our mass media only one angle is reported and many Americans accept that as the obvious “truth.” (I have been watching the PBS New Hour since the beginning of the war and the one-sided propaganda has been relentless.) Alternative views are mostly relegated to the far corners of the internet, where even allegedly “open” social media is now also being censored; it is often made difficult or impossible to access different points of view like RT or The Cradle online. And we should ask, how crazy is it to cancel Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky as well as Russian foods in supposed solidarity with Ukraine? Twitter and Facebook now say that it is OK to advocate violence against Russians; one commentor noted:  “So let me get this straight: according to some American media companies, you may agitate for killing Russian soldiers but you can’t call for the boycott of Israel?”  (During the First World War, German-Americans were targeted with violence and “hamburgers” and “frankfurters” became banned food names; during World War Two, Japanese-Americans were locked up in US internment camps.

Despite our hazy memories of World War Two, there is no such thing as a “Good War” – though some wars may be justified and necessary self-defense. And in modern conflicts, there is seldom an unequivocally “good” side. Ukrainians have a right to defend their country and our hearts should rightfully go out to the suffering of many innocent civilians there, but there are unsavory forces on the Ukrainian side as well as among the Russian invaders. In general we should treat the smothering propaganda environment on coverage of war in our own media with a lot of critical skepticism.

A good example is the alleged Russian attack on a “maternity hospital” in Mariupol (or a hospital with a maternity wing) in some accounts, which dominated the news earlier this week. It can’t be ruled out that this happened, but US correspondents from hundreds of miles away reported the story and reproduced unverified photos and videos to uncritically bolster the Ukrainian narrative. Nobody asked why the Russians would want to target a hospital. It is simply assumed that our beastly adversaries are sadists and criminals who stop at no atrocity. Of course, the hospital may have been damaged by bombing or artillery in its vicinity — despite the reports, there is no visual evidence that the hospital building itself was “bombed.”. Some of the photos widely reproduced are obviously staged, as is possibly the entire episode. As Anatoly Lievin, of the Quincy Institute, which is critical of US as well as Russian policy, noted on Twitter:

“Why on earth would Russia deliberately (as opposed to accidentally) strike a maternity hospital? And why when US missiles kill families is this accepted (rightly) as an accident, while in Russia’s case it is automatically seen as a deliberate war crime?”

Undoubtedly, there has been much damage to civilian structures (and civilians) in Ukraine as there is in every modern war. But so far there has been nothing approaching the US carpet bombing of cities which took place in Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa in Syria, where the US continues to illegally occupy part of the country.

Now we may be seeing possible preparations for the claim of a Russian chemical or biological weapons attack in Ukraine, as was falsely claimed in at least some cases in Syria. Always in assessing the truth of a supposed war story, our first question should be a skeptical “cui bono” – who benefits — from the narrative.