The two-sentence review of my “The Politics of Information Warfare in the United States”

Chapter head: Politics of Information Warfare in the United States by Matt Armstrong

It is nice to have your work reviewed. This is especially true when the product is otherwise “locked” away behind a paywall of an “academically” priced book (translation: the cost is several multiples of a reasonable price). That joy is subverted a bit when a review lacks clarity and may be interpreted to claim the opposite of what I wrote. This happened recently with a review that appeared in Parameters, a quarterly magazine from the US Army War College. The review was of my contribution — a 9500-word, footnoted version of my War on the Rocks article from January 2017, “The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion” — in an edited book.

The Winter 2018-2019 issue of Parameters included a book review of Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics, edited by Ofer Fridman, Vitaly Kabernik, and James C. Pearce. The reviewer did not take the opportunity to judge, evaluate, or opine on all of the book’s chapters, which some may find acceptable. The result is a straight — and boring — summary, that, in the case of my chapter, was wholly inaccurate. The reviewer also had an opportunity to highlight that the book is unique as the contributors were from Russia and from the “West.” The Russians were not ex-pats but, in some cases, teaching the Russian foreign service, and others, how to interpret and conduct political warfare abroad. It is also unfortunate that the reviewer left out that the book was a product of a January 2017 conference convened by the Centre for Strategic Communications at King’s College London, The Informational Dimension of Hybrid Warfare: Eastern and Western Perspectives on Conflicts in the 21st Century (SoundCloud of the event is available here).

Now I completely understand that in an edited volume of fourteen chapters across 255 pages (excluding the index, etc.), a 9500± word contribution will not get much attention. In fact, any single chapter may be lucky to get any attention. However, if a chapter is covered, I would expect some accuracy. Here is how my chapter, “The Politics of Information Warfare in the United States,” was summarized:

The second part of the book addresses the role of social media in information warfare and hybrid war. The authors analyze how new technologies allow groups to take advantage of large-scale information dissemination. Matthew Armstrong resurrects the idea of the US Information Agency. He explains the organization was a “tool of information warfare while the Russians waged political warfare across nonmilitary fronts” that can be valuable today (114). Russian scholar Radomir Bolgov examines legal and doctrinal framework of information warfare policy and various other Russian-state policies.

Parameters, Winter 2018-19, Vol. 48 No. 4, Book Reviews

Let’s ignore that Part 2 of the book goes beyond “the role of social media in information warfare and hybrid war.” This may be apparent by chapter titles. Before mine was “International Ethics and Information Warfare” by Mervyn Frost and Nicholas Michelsen, and the chapters after were “The Politics of Information Warfare in Russia” by Radomir Bolgov and “Using Information: Methods and Cases from Russia” by Oxana Timofeyeva.” Yes, they discussed social media but not really its “role.”

Back to me. The reviewer is precisely accurate that my chapter “can be valuable today” (thank you, by the way) but before that, the text is misleading. To be sure, the whole purpose of the chapter, which both caused and was adapted from my article “The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion” published on January 19, 2017, at War on the Rocks. The purpose and theme of that article was to provide a lesson for today by exposing much of our supposed knowledge of the past is wrong.

It is surprising, then, that one could read my chapter and come away thinking that I am “resurrecting” USIA in any way. The quote about USIA doing “information warfare” needs context. Below is what appeared before and after the cited text that USIA was a “tool of information warfare while the Russians waged political warfare across nonmilitary fronts”:

At its most aggressive, USIA was a tool of information warfare while the Russians waged political warfare across all nonmilitary fronts. It was a singular agency with a limited mandate of countering propaganda and sharing liberal concepts of rights, accountability, and governance. Overall, USIA was at best reactive Russia psychological and political aggression, especially the Kremlin’s subversion. There was little to nothing in the way of training or support for USIA employeees, or other government agencies, to identiy, mitigate, or counter political subversarion encouraged by Moscow.”

p114 of Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics

I can see how the reviewer may have selected the quote to highlight USIA was narrowly focused while the Russians were far more broad in their methods. But that assumes the reader understands that “information warfare” is a substantially more limited “thing” than political warfare. I can also see that the reviewer may have used “resurrects” as a synonym for “recalls,” but I don’t know and I have my doubts considering the number of ill-informed calls to resurrect USIA. (See, by the way, “No, We Do Not Need to Revive the U.S. Information Agency.”) The start of the third paragraph of the chapter would suggest “resurrects” is not an appropriate word: “Despite modern suggestions, USIA was not a kind of Captain America’s shield against political warfare” (p108). Or later in that paragraph, “The United States never properly armed itself, and especially not with USIA, for the cold reality of the political warfare it was embroiled in.”

It is not easy to write reviews. It is a challenge made more difficult by length limitations. To be clear, I am grateful for the mention as not all of the chapters made the cut (and it is easier to criticize than to create). Clarity is accuracy when forced to be economical with words. I hope I cleared that up any confusion from the review (in a post that is over 1/10th of the word count of the chapter).

By the way, if you listen to only one presentation from the January 2017 conference, make it Georgy Filimonov’s. His chapter in the book, “The Color Revolutions in the Context of Hybrid Wars,” is worth reading. Mr. Filimonov was (is?) director of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Predictions and professor in the Department of Theory and History of International Relations at RUDN University, Moscow.

2 thoughts on “The two-sentence review of my “The Politics of Information Warfare in the United States”

  1. Matt, it’s good to know you’re still working in the vineyards of the lord. The tenor of the times is not conducive to nuanced discussion of complex issues and the even less well understood tools of the trade.

    Currently,Tweety Bird has a lot for which to answer.

    In considering the chaotic efforts of the current administration, I am reminded of a time, long ago, when, as a member of an army work detail on a hot summer day, struggling to hand lift and load a heavy set of bleachers at a defunct firing range onto the back of a deuce-and-a-half army truck, I heard a country buck sergeant in nominal command of the venture say, “What you’uns need is a little co-op-a-ra-shun!”

    To which a normally soft-spoken, big shouldered member of the ten-man work squad, who was the only one of our number struggling directly underneath the bleacher set, nearly died as a result of the rest of us laughing so hard we almost dropped the set of bleachers on him, when he bellowed in extremis, “What we-uns need is a m….er f….ing sergeant to keep his G..d…ed mouth shut!

    Hang in there!

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