Targeting Public Opinion is nothing new

Targeting the morale of the civilian population is not new and certainly not something absent from 20th Century warfare as many would have you believe. What is new, is the rise of the non-state actors, but attacking the will to fit. The United States hired privateers to attack the will of the British to support the war against us in the 19th Century at the dawn of the nation-state. While the nation-state brought with it problems of governance because the governing lost at least some autonomy over the governed (in the worst cases they had to at least work harder to oppress their people than before). Long before the nation-state, consider Vlad the Impaler’s PSYOP to dissuade trespassing.

In the 20th Century when supposedly warfare was only industrial and between states to the exclusion of the people, German bombing in World War I caused such panic in London that one observer, Giulio Douhet, the influential Italian air warfare theorist, developed a thesis that can best be described as terrorism from the air for maximum psychological affect on the enemy:

At this point I want to stress one aspect of the problem – namely, that the effect of such aerial offensives upon morale may well have more influence upon the conduct of the war than their material effects. For example, take the center of a large city and imagine what would happen among the civilian population during a single attack by a single bombing unit [dropping 20 tons of high-explosive, incendiary and gas bombs.]… First would come explosions, then fires, then deadly gases…By the following day the life of the city would be suspended…

What could happen to a single city in a single day could also happen to ten, twenty, fifty cities. And, since news travels fast, even without telegraph, telephone, or radio, what, I ask you, would be the effect upon civilians of other cities, not yet stricken but equally subject to bombing attacks? What civil or military authority could keep order, public services functioning, and production going under such a threat?…

A complete breakdown of the social structure cannot but take place in a country subjected to this kind of merciless pounding from the air. The time would soon come when, to put an end to the horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war…

In 1939, E. H. Carr also noted the rising “power over opinion” as contemporary war nullified “the distinction between combatant and civilian; and the morale of the civilian population became for the first time a military objective.”

And even the realpolitik author decades later, Hans Morganthau, in his nine elements of national power, included two as unstable: national morale and the quality of diplomacy. Both were subject to domestic and foreign strategic influence campaigns.

Attempting to influence the psychology of populations comes in many forms. If the last resort of kings was war, the first resort was intelligence and linkages from cultural diplomacy. We have clearly forgotten how to participate in the struggle over minds and wills. We used to know. From radio broadcasts to inform and mobilize people over there to influencing the framing of US domestic news of events over there, we fully engaged the public, both ours and theirs.

George Kennan understood the importance of information, public opinion, and morale. As Nicholas Thomson wrote six days after I posted the ending of Kennan’s Long Telegram,

…in a letter to Lippmann that Kennan never mailed (most likely because his boss, Secretary of State George Marshall, had chastened him for causing a ruckus), Kennan explained that he didn’t mean containment with guns. He didn’t want American armed forces to intervene in countries where the Soviets were mucking around but hadn’t gained control, like Greece, Iran and Turkey.

The Soviets are making “first and foremost a political attack,” Kennan wrote. “Their spearheads are the local communists. And the counter-weapon that can beat them is the vigor and soundness of political life in the victim countries.”

Something to think about.

4 thoughts on “Targeting Public Opinion is nothing new

  1. Of course, the kind of strategic bombing that Douhet foresaw did not break the morale of civilians as he believed it would. Instead it reinforced civilian morale – during the Blitz in London, over Germany in WWII, and in North Vietnam during Rolling Thunder.

  2. That was later true, but Douhet likely formed his opinions after watching the same group, Londoners, panic in WWI. In WWII, the population was prepared. In WWI, the damage from bombing was miniscule compared to WWII in terms of both tonnage and acreage damaged/destroyed, and yet substantial panic.Perhaps the lesson from Douhet in this case is shock with something new and you’ll be rewarded with a big payback.
    Consider the reaction to terrorism in the US with the reaction to terrorism in Europe. Old threat vs new threat.

  3. Analyst: Al-Qaeda Videotapes Digitally DoctoredAn expert computer analyst has presented evidence that so-called “Al-Qaeda” tapes are routinely digitally doctored and has also unwittingly exposed an astounding detail that clearly indicates a Pentagon affiliated organization in the U.S. is directly responsible for releasing the videos.
    “Neal Krawetz, a researcher and computer security consultant, gave an interesting presentation today at the BlackHat security conference in Las Vegas about analyzing digital photographs and video images for alterations and enhancements,” reports Wired News.
    “Using a program he wrote (and provided on the conference CD-ROM) Krawetz could print out the quantization tables in a JPEG file (that indicate how the image was compressed) and determine the last tool that created the image — that is, the make and model of the camera if the image is original or the version of Photoshop that was used to alter and re-save the image. ”
    Krawetz’s most telling discovery comes in the form of a detail contained in a 2006 Ayman al-Zawahiri tape. From his analysis he concludes that the As-Sahab logo (the alleged media arm of Al-Qaeda) and the IntelCenter logo (a U.S. based private intelligence organization that “monitors terrorist activity”) were both added to the video at the same time.
    This clearly indicates IntelCenter itself is directly creating or at least doctoring the Al-Qaeda tapes before their release. After all, why would Al-Qaeda terrorists be interested in branding their videos with the logo of a U.S. based organization that is run by individuals with close ties to the military-industrial complex?

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