War as Theater

Warfare in a globalized society is theater, making information king. The “old” style of warfare, occasionally still played out in Afghanistan, the Philippines, inside Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Long War (or whatever it is named today), is a rarity. Camera phones, cheap digital video cameras, YouTube and LiveLeak, and connectivity everywhere means every Joe and Jihadi gets at least a bit part in the theater of information.

Today, the both State (the “owner” of American public diplomacy) and Defense (the de facto practitioner of American public diplomacy) apparently continue to ignore the importance of even participating, let alone dominating, in a public war. Few battles are private anymore and unless you give the people reason to give you the benefit of the doubt, you’re lost. Over five years into the Long War and we still refuse to step up and fight the real fight: the fight over information. The hearts and minds campaigns we hear so much about is entirely about information and the perceptions it creates, not “feelings”, whatever those are. Moral legitimacy is rooted in both the metaphysical information realm as well as the physical security realm. Protective walls matter not if they are portrayed as something else.

Josh Manchester’s post on the Small Wars Journal blog, The Strategic Corporal vs. The Strategic Cameraman, is a must read if you don’t think we conduct critical and essential public diplomacy with our military every moment of every day. The soldiers and Marines in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere are the “last three feet” of interaction, forming the bridge between the United States Government and its policies and the locals.

Manchester asked the important question:

If our enemies can manage to squeeze virtual and global effects out of tactical and local actions, why can’t we?

In short, apparently not. The United States occasionally understands there will be a reaction to actions, but more often neither State nor Defense get it and instead “hope for understanding“.

In 1999, two Chinese colonels described the future of warfare, which they called Unrestricted Warfare, as one in which all means of power “will be in readiness, that information will be omnipresent, and the battlefield will be everywhere.”  

Modern conflict is now deterritorilized, focused on ideology, culture, society, or economics. Secondary is the physical space. Modern battlefields discount the need for enemy’s order of battle. Increasingly important is knowledge on media availability (foreign and domestic), audience receptivity (will they listen), public opinion (what will they think if they do listen), and the roles and functions of information systems to understand what could be termed “information channels”. Information may be force multiplier or neutralizer as information is put into the channels for listening. Modern communications make it easy to engage core constituencies and to fine tune the message for a broad range of listeners that include current and potential supporters. Unlike Winston Churchill’s messages intended to be overheard by the US in before Pearl Harbor that required particular planning, secondary audiences are easily acquired, sometimes unintentionally so. Regardless, information is often commingled with messages or actions of conflict.

David Kilcullen wrote the protests in response to the  Adhimiya wall were the result of al-Qaeda “information op[erations]”. Asked by me about the failure of MNF-I to anticipate the protests, Kilcullen replied “mistakes have been made and continue to be made.” Four years into the Iraq War and “short-term media opposition” should by now be anticipated in every operation. In this case, it would not be a leap for the audience, American, Muslim, European, or whatever, and depending on their personal history, to link the Adhimiya wall with the wall Israel built in the West Bank, the former Berlin wall, or the peacelines in Ireland.

The United States clearly suffers from a credibility gap — Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Patriot Act, suppressing democratic elections, supporting oppressive regimes, etc. Anything that can be misconstrued needs to be spotlighted for transparency wherever possible.

The line from Clausewitz that war is the extension of politics is no longer accurate. Today, war is politics. Every act in war is political and it means little if there is no audience. Our opponents in the Long War don’t care about influencing the policy makers in Washington, D.C., they care about influencing Madrid, Sydney, London, Paris, Berlin, and the general American public. 

The reason must be that deep down we still do not accept the reality of the information war. Paul Kretkowski wrote about the freeway SF overpass collapse, suggesting only a claim of responsibility separated the accident from an act of terrorism. Change it around and suppose it was an act terrorism. Why aren’t we concerned? Because no one told us we should be concerned, neither friend nor foe told us it was bad. Everything is about information.

The enemy taps into our information streams, the counterinsurgency manual and Mickey Mouse (and here) as just two recent examples. How do we? We talk to the Arab world, accepting the words of the extremists as they wrap themselves in Islam with incomplete and selective readings of the Koran, through public relations campaigns measuring success as if it were a new bar of soap. We talk to the support systems of the many different enemy groups, criminal, religious, and political, as if we had a single monolithic belligerent about our values and hope “they” will come around. We have no idea how most Arabs in particular, and Muslims in general, even perceive our words. Most important of all, we continue to forget our deeds color our words.

The landscape of war is defined in terms of information and not uniformed personnel or land held. Modern “effects-based operations” must be intended to influence the four networks of support upon which all insurgent and terrorist groups rely: physical, financial, social, and ideological. This is what the enemy exploits, why don’t we, as Manchester asks?

With a lousy track record after nearly four years in Iraq, six in Afghanistan, does anyone honestly think we will be given the benefit of the doubt when something bad happens?

War has changed and information is often more important than action. We fail to understand this and sometimes more importantly, how information as power is communicated and understood.

War is not like yesterday. Emphasizing this, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak, the same that coined the phrase “strategic corporal”, told this story ten years ago:

The time would be 9 A.D. A Roman pro counsel by the name of Varus crossed into Germany to bring recalcitrant barbarian tribes into sub-mission. Three years prior, this same Varus had entered Germany and decimated the same tribes. The Romans expected that this adventure would be the same as the last. On a hot August morning, the two warring factions collided. By nightfall Varus had lost the eagles of his three legions. He was conducting a desperate rearguard action as he tried to get back across the German border. During withdrawal, Varus could be heard to say, muttering, “Ne cras, ne cras” — which is Latin for “not like yesterday, not like yesterday.” And it wasn’t like yesterday

2 thoughts on “War as Theater

  1. This is an excellent summation of information-centric problem of the GWOT (or whatever we’re calling it.) Those responsible for public diplomacy at the tactical level are beginning to understand this sphere of immediate information operations, but as you noted we have not seen much to address the reality of the situation. There are numerous reasons, both institutional and philosophical that continue to impede U.S. reaction to these operations. Whatever the case may be – we have little capacity on the ground to address the rapid media “frame entrepreneurs” that continue to shape the perceptual field in real time.

  2. Worse than the lack of capacity is the lack of desire despite continual reminders. How many times must we repeat the same mistake before we stop? Thanks for the comments.

Comments are closed.