Breaking The Silence: Truth And Lies In The War On Terror

Six months after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and two years after the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, John Pilger’s documentary Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror highlighted the hypocrisy and double standards of the American and British adventures of 2001-3, which led to the deaths of more than a million people.

The film opens with a series of haunting war photographs. Over the carnage, George W Bush says, ‘The United States will bring to the Iraqi people food and medicines and supplies, and freedom.’ His voice dissolves into the high-pitch of his co-conspirator, Tony Blair, who exalts his actions as ‘a fight for freedom’ and ‘a fight for justice’.

Pilger asks, ‘What are the real aims of this war and who are the most threatening terrorists?' In a remote village in Afghanistan, he interviews Orifa, who lost eight members of her family, including six children, when an American plane dropped a 500-pound bomb on her mud-brick home. This is juxtaposed with Bush telling Congress that the United States is ‘a friend to the Afghan people’. Few countries have been helped less by the United States – less than three per cent of all aid to Afghanistan is for reconstruction from war damage. 

Kabul, the capital, is a maze of destruction, with cluster bombs not cleared from the city centre and families living in abandoned buildings. ‘I’ve spent much of my life in places of upheaval, but I’ve rarely seen such a ruined city as Kabul,’ says Pilger, standing in a shoe factory where the populations of two villages have squatted, destitute. 

Most of the damage was inflicted not by the ‘official enemy’, the Taliban, but by warlords backed, trained and funded by the United States, who restored the poppy harvests and opium trade, which the Taliban had banned. 

Recalling the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pilger reveals that President Jimmy Carter signed a secret presidential decree authorising the bank-rolling of the warlords, known as the mujahedin, to fight the Red Army. Among them, the CIA and Britain's MI6 trained Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Laden, as part of what was called Operation Cyclone. From this, says Pilger, ‘came the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and [the attacks of] September 11th’. 

The Taliban were also the United States's secret friends. Shortly after they took power in Afghanistan, they were offered a bribe by the administration of President Bill Clinton if they backed a plan for an oil pipeline from central Asia through Afghanistan. However, when George W Bush became President, the connection between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban was an embarrassment, and the tie was cut. 

Pilger's interviews with administration officials – described by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern as ‘the crazies’ – are perhaps the highlight of a film made when 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq were raw. He interviews Under Secretary of State John Bolton, who is today Donald Trump's National Security Adviser. Bolton tells Pilger that the United States has done more ‘to create conditions in which individuals can be free around the world than any other country’. When Pilger points to the US record of bombing countries into submission, Bolton says, ‘Are you a Labour Party member… or a Communist Party member?’ When Pilger replies that Tony Blair's Labour Party are his allies, he says, ‘Oh, really?’

Of all Pilger's films about American foreign policy, Breaking the Silence achieved something of a ‘cult’ status as counter-history and was shown across the United States – thanks in part to Ray McGovern, who took the film on a tour of campuses and small towns. ‘We warn people,’ he said, ‘about the crazies.’ Nothing, he might add today, has changed.

Awards: The Chris Statuette in the War & Peace division, Chris Awards, Columbus International Film & Video Festival, Ohio, 2004.

'Breaking the Silence: Truth And Lies In The War On Terror' was first broadcast on ITV1, 22 September 2003