Grave architectures (Conspiracy and narrative, pt 2)


Previously: Conspiracy and narrative, pt 1.

In 1954, the CIA forced Guatemala’s second democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, from office. The Agency (as it’s affectionately known in some circles) had to go about the job with considerable sensitivity: the world was to think that this was a spontaneous revolution overthrowing a domestic communist threat, not US business interests protecting their monopoly on another country’s resources.

Easier said than done. Arbenz was beloved. He passed long-anticipated land reforms, opening new economic horizons for the working classes who had been practically living as serfs on the expansive fiefdom of the United Fruit Company. He was looking to nationalize the railroads, among other local industries owned by international corporations. Even more troublesome for the Agency was his (relatively speaking) good relationship with Guatemala’s military—Arbenz was himself a general, and a military hero of the October Revolution that liberated the nation from the century-long yolk of successive dictators. Simply put, unseating Arbenz without either the force of the US military or a national uprising wasn’t going to be a simple task.

I’m going to lead with moral of the story, rather than end with it: if the reality you want doesn’t exist, you can create it if you control the flow of information. Here’s a passage from Don Delillo’s Libra, where a fictional CIA agent is reminiscing about the textbook operation” that was Guatemela:

It was also the peak experience of Larry’s career, centering on a radio station supposedly run by rebels from a jungle outpost in Guatemala. The broadcasts actually originated in a barn in Honduras and the messages were designed to put pressure on the leftist government and arouse anxiety in the people. Rumors, false battle reports, meaningless codes, inflammatory speeches, orders to non-existent rebels. It was like a class project in the structure of reality. Parmenter wrote some of the broadcasts himself, going for vivid imagery, fields of rotting bodies, fighter pilots defecting with their planes… The government fell nine days after an invasion force of five thousand troops was said to be advancing on the capital. The force materialized then, several trucks and a crowded station wagon, about a hundred and fifty ragged recruits.

[My italics, and I quote from fiction for conciseness. Histories of the Guatemalan coup, such as the outstanding Bitter Fruit, tell the same story, and if you’re curious to learn more I’d start there.]

The CIAs attack was two-pronged, as they also jammed the President’s nightly broadcasts, which intended to dispel the rampant disinformation and assure the people that they were not in present danger.

Now, whether the Guatemalan people took the CIAs reports at face value (for what it’s worth, historians believe they did not), the information state was sufficiently disrupted, giving the impression that Arbenz had lost control of the state. How could disinformation be so powerful if it wasn’t believed? I think there were certain circumstances that made the president particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack. Guatemala was such a young democracy—barely a decade old—when the US launched its covert offensive. The CIA also used mercenary pilots to intermittently bomb Guatemala City and airdrop pamphlets accusing Arbenz of being a Soviet agent. The random acts of controlled violence may have been enough to emphasize to the capital that whoever was attacking the country meant serious business—and, more importantly maybe, had serious resources behind them.

With attacks coming through both the air and airwaves, the military would soon turn against the president, abandoning their posts despite knowing that the ground invasion was most likely only a marginal threat (which was confirmed when only several trucks and a crowded station wagon, about a hundred and fifty ragged recruits” reached Guatemala City). An entire country’s confidence in its elected leader was broken, in large part due to an onslaught of bad information. Let me emphasize that their confidence was broken, not that they believed the propaganda to be true. To hear field agents tell the story of Guatemala is to encounter unfiltered hubris, as they mistake effect for intent: the Agency might believe that it duped the Guatemalan people because its coup was successful, but what’s more likely is that it was able to sufficiently shake the Guatemalan people’s belief in their president and his ability to protect them against foreign forces. Buy-in was never necessary—just doubt.

This play is endemic of a common trend throughout post-WWII history: if you can’t get someone to believe what you want, then get them to doubt what you don’t want them to believe. Suspended and I conducted an interview with an informant for The Cleveland Review of Books that digs into this idea. One of our takeaways from that project was that intelligence work seems to have shifted pre- and post-WWII, from truth-gathering to truth-manufacturing. Powerful events breed their own network of inconsistencies,” as a different character from Libra puts it, and eventually someone figured out that these inconsistencies were both a fact of history and an edge to be exploited in the information war. It seems to me that whether these inconsistencies are manufactured, like in the above example, or exploited, as per Conspiracy & Narrative, pt 1”, the effect is the same: a form of social control is born out of imposing the structure of narrative, with its tendency to foreclose ambiguity, on a destabilized information state that is murky by nature. The game isn’t about convincing someone of something. It’s about cleaving a deep contradiction between what’s said and what is experienced. Doubt and complicity are easier to manufacture than belief.