The Spectacle of War: Insurgent video propaganda and Western response

One in a series of quick posts compiled from the plane, in other words, a quick run through the ‘to review / comment’ pile… 

A brief reminder of Andrew Exum’s, the man formerly behind the curtain at Abu Muquwama, May 2008 article The Spectacle of War: Insurgent video propaganda and Western response:

Until recently, complains U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, one of the authors of its new counter-insurgency field manual adopted in 2006, information operations was a field of battle completely abandoned to the enemy. The U.S. knew only how to engage the enemy in physical battle – it had no plan to exploit or explain such operations in the public sphere. When U.S. forces clashed with the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban contacted Arabic-language satellite channels immediately following the clash to make claims of civilian casualties and, in short, spin the battle in their favor. The U.S. public relations officers, by contrast, valued caution over timeliness and often waited days before issuing a statement confirming or denying the casualties.

What is worse, from the perspective of the U.S. military is that while the ponderous American defense bureaucracy has been slow off the mark, the enemy – the insurgent groups against which the U.S. has fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan – have proved more than proficient at the art of propaganda, media manipulation and shaping the way operations and events are perceived by enemy, friendly and neutral populations.

In the same way, though the U.S. and its allies talk of the "comprehensive approach," it is more often than not groups like Hizbullah and Jaish al-Mahdi who best understand military operations as part of a combined effort incorporating "political, military, diplomatic, economic and strategic communication" efforts.

To a large degree, though, the U.S. military cannot be blamed for being caught off-guard by their enemy’s sophistication in managing the way battles and campaigns are perceived. In the past two decades, insurgent, terrorist, and guerrilla groups in the Middle East have grown exponentially more sophisticated in the way they use the media available to them in order to affect the way battles are perceived.

Steve Tatham’s book is a must read for a detailed look into the DOD-media relationship.

To an even larger degree, the U.S. Government can be blamed for being caught off-guard by the enemy’s sophisticated incorporation of political, sociological, cultural, and informational efforts. This is notably true of the State Department that has been even slower and more resistant to change than the Defense Department. “Too many” report from just 9/11 have told Congress, White House, and the State Department something needs to change.

The Defense Department has made remarkable progress in shaking off past ideological and structural constraints of “traditional” war where somebody else handles the “PR” into a population-centric engagement. Opponents to the wholesale shift to counterinsurgency, such as MacGregor and Gentile, ignore the realities that public opinion matters today and tomorrow, just as they did in the great example of “traditional” war: World War II. In fact, today and tomorrow they matter more with broader and deeper informational and physical connectivity. But why has the Defense Department been able to make this change and State has not, with the very notable exception of the still-new Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy Jim Glassman?

For three reasons: resources, resources, and world view. The State Department does not have the personnel capacity to permit its people to rotate through professional education. Nor does it have a substantial educational infrastructure. Compare both to the Defense Department’s relatively incredible amount of time to spend at the U.S. Army War College, the Naval War College, National Defense University, Command and Staff College, Air University, Marine Corps U, not to vast number of peer-reviewed publications… it’s no surprise the Defense Department has adapted to an era of non-state actors that includes individuals as well as organizations.

The State Department’s world view has largely, with again the notable exception of the dynamic “new” ideas from Under Secretary Glassman, remained fixed on states when it should have been on states and non-states. More to come on this.