Mohammed Al-Sahhaf meets the press

They say the first casualty of war is truth. In the dense fog of war, one is surrounded by propaganda and disinformation; one searches in vain for actual facts, and finds only falsehood. Is this all we can expect from conflict? Lies, lies, and more lies?

Well, no — because if you’re at a press conference for Iraqi information minister Mohammaed Al-Sahhaf, you get such loopy, fantasmagorically over-the-top lies that they almost deserve a new epistemological category of their own.

In recent days, as British and U.S. troops have slowly pounded the living hell out of Bagdhad, Al-Sahhaf has delivered press conferences so wildly hysterical and unglued from reality that even Egyptian sympathizers of Iraq refer to him as “comic relief”. Yet every day, at press-conference time, they tune in, mesmerized by Al-Sahhaf’s Scheherezadian performances.

A few days ago, he argued that “The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad. We slaughtered them.” He also let fly with this gem: “As our leader Saddam Hussein said, God is grilling their stomachs in Hell. Fighting is continuing in the main battlefields. Baghdad is secured and fortified and Baghdadis are heroes … We have fed them hell and death.”

Even Al-Sahhaf’s translator has gotten into the game, as the Chronicle Foreign Service noted:

For extra entertainment value, there’s the sideshow of watching al-Sahhaf’s official translator attempt to convey the flavor of his boss’ words.

Sometimes, he skips the really fun stuff altogether and goes with watered- down paraphrasing. But other times, he adds a personal spice that al-Sahhaf never said. At one point, the translator finished off an al-Sahhaf rant by ad- libbing, “Go to hell, I say, go to hell!”

Timothy Noah at Slate magazine decided it was time to give this guy some professional help, so he called up several famous public-relations experts to give their advice. A few examples:

John Buckley was Bob Dole’s spokesman during the 1996 presidential campaign and is now executive vice president for corporate communications at AOL. Buckley says he regards al-Sahhaf “with nothing but admiration, because when you’re going down, style counts. … Why try to get credible at this late date?” Buckley adds, “He does have something I’m a little jealous of, which is the ability to hold a press briefing with a gun on his hip.”

Mike McCurry was Bill Clinton’s press secretary and is now a communications consultant in Washington. “The problem with this guy is that there’s going to be an M-1 tank that shows up in the background of his pictures, and it sounds like sooner rather than later.” He adds, “I’m sure the poor guy has to do this because someone’s going to shoot him if he doesn’t. At least I never had that problem.”

(Check out Tom’s blog here for an entry with a really comprehensive list of Al-Sahhaf’s announcements, as well as an intriguing idea for a second career for him!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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