Watching from the sidelines, it's hard to tell exactly how or why we are losing the information war. Depending on one's perspective, the American Media (often referred to as "Main Stream Media) is thought to be "anti-military/anti-war". Not surprisingly, people point to polls regarding how journalists and other media staff identify themselves politically as to the reason the war is not being covered "favorably" or why soldiers are not portrayed succeeding in their every day efforts.
In between this is trying to balance operational secrecy (opsec), public's "right to know", protecting the public from government information programs (propaganda) and winning the information war.
There was the infamous incident with Geraldo Rivera who was with the US forces and doing a pretty good job of presenting their operations in an upbeat and pretty supportive manner. Then he made the mistake of stooping down and drawing a little map in the sand on live TV. All the good work in reporting and representing the troops efforts went up in smoke.
Geraldo was eventually allowed back with the troops, but he was limited in his interactions. For the military, this highlighted the first concern of embedded reporters: operational security.
However, the embed program was, overall, successful. Millions of Americans (and probably the enemy) were glued to their television sets watching the war unfold. Some worried that the images were being treated "like a video game" and would numb the public to war. But that was soon unfounded by controversial images after. For the most part, whether because the war was "going well" or because people could see real time actions of the military, support for the war was high.
That presents the first nexus of operational security, information war and public opinion.
The second controversy came on April 9th: the day that Baghdad fell to US forces. The world watched, over and over, as Iraqis came into the streets to celebrate. They gathered in the square and attempted to pull down Saddam's statue. US forces at first, keen on keeping with the over all vision of the mission, "Iraqi Freedom", stood back and didn't interfere. For sometime, the Iraqis worked, but couldn't pull it down. Finally, an officer gave his forces the go ahead to help the Iraqis.
A sergeant jumped up on the boom of a tank tower and wrapped a chain around the statue. As he stood at the top, he pulled out an American flag and covered Saddam's face. It seemed, above all the dancing and the later joy when the statue came down, that one moment stood out above the rest. For some, it was the final honesty: not Iraqi Freedom, but American Hegemony.
A short time later, an Iraqi handed up an Iraqi flag. The American flag was quickly taken down and the Iraqi flag went up. The breaths held back at Centcom came out in a big sigh of relief, then the statue came down and Iraqis beat it with their shoes and danced in the streets.
Still, the minute damage to the information war had been done and there was rumbling in the foreign press and in the US. That image did not jive with the political message and gave people around the world cause to believe that this one moment when the soldiers were celebrating their victory, represented the true American intent.
However, the question can be asked, did this do any real damage to the over all information war? Did it so over shadow the live images of the fall of Baghdad and the joy of the Iraqis that the presence of reporters was now, once again, a liability? Or, were all the other images up to that moment more than worth those few seconds.
Then there was Kevin Sites. The infamous incident where a marine entered a room in Fallujah with several insurgents lying around. Some were dead. One was apparently "pretending" to be dead. A marine walked up and kicked him and yelled in his face. He yelled that the man was breathing and, in a split second decision, he put several rounds in him, on film, right in front of the reporter.
Before that moment, Kevin Sites videos were the "video to watch" on the internet. It caused a huge controversy. Kevin Sites was verbally attacked for everything from anti-Americanism to Anti-Military to sedition. The real story may be something entirely different. In this one case, the military may have waived off the opportunity to review and comment before hand. Then again, maybe they weren't give the time to re-act. Then again, maybe "military time" is too slow in the age of instant media.
Other arguments ensued about whether the marine had acted correctly. Some thought he had murdered an unarmed man. Others thought he was doing what was necessary to stay alive in an atmosphere of fake surrenders, suicide bombers wearing vests or booby trapped dead bodies.
But the real issue here was that it high-lighted the very problem the military had been concerned about all along: how would the public react to real war in real time? It was bad enough in Vietnam. The military experience showed that real war, the killing, the set backs, even the "successes" that were messy and didn't look a John Wayne film, gave the public a negative perception of the war.
This one incident high-lighted that concern and once again showed the military that there was a danger in allowing "too much" coverage of the war. The public's right to know ran smack into the biggest fear of the military and the need to win the "information war". At the same time this was occuring, a "doctor" inside Fallujah was reporting about severe civilian casualties from the bombing. It was being aired around the world. There were misrepresentations of military activities inside Fallujah, though it was true civilians were dying, either from air-strikes or by fire fights; US military bullets or the bullets and knives of the terrorists who had declared Fallujah "an emirate" and proceeded to enforce their version of Islamic Law.
From the military perspective, the embed program was a bust. It seemed, from that moment on, embedding reporters began to dwindle. Was it because "major battle" had ended and everything after that was the "boring" everyday work of soldiering in a "reconstruction period"? Or, was it equally because, to the military, it was too damaging to their attempts to win "hearts and minds?" Had it confirmed, in the minds of the enemy or would be supporters or even the "neutral" citizens they hoped to sway, that the reports from inside Fallujah were accurate?
Or, had the military looked at it from the wrong perspective? Not allowing certain images or not getting these images, like soldier's being attacked by "surrendering" forces or booby trapped bodies left out a major part of the story that may have presented a different perspective on the marine's actions?
What about the story that existed before the assault on Fallujah? There were many reports about the Islamists torturing and killing people, but few images appeared before the assault. Images of Iraqis escaping Fallujah and being put into "camps" prior to the assault seemed to give the aura of "concentration camps".
Yet, one marine captain, reporting via his blog from an FOB outside of Fallujah told the stories of people escaping Fallujah and begging the marines to go in and save the city, save them from the murderous mujihadeen. He told stories of bodies being dumped outside of the city, headless, bullet riddled and tortured. This included men, women and children. Yet, few images were broadcast.
Was this about the public's "sensibilities"? Was this because the military and politicos did not want to be pressured into action before they were ready by an outraged public? Was this because they did not want the build up of forces for the assault to be broadcast?
What ever the reason, while stories existed about the attrocities, the images to go along with it, were missing. This meant that a major part of the story of Fallujah was missing. This meant that the actions of the marine were judged without the appropriate context. Thus, the fickle opinion of the public was formed through half information and ideas.
After the fall of Fallujah, there were many images available of dead bodies, torture chambers, some tortured and dead victims (it seemed that the same bodies were shown over and over again), blood on the walls and huge caches of weapons and enemy propaganda. Very few of the "thousands" of dead enemy fighters were shown. At the same time, images of the refugees in camps were being broadcasted along with plaintive cries from the populace about damaged homes and dead relatives. There were images of burnt out, destroyed homes with clothes, toys and other household items strewn around, seeming to imply, again, that the only thing really dying in Fallujah were the regular citizens.
This again seemed to bring back memories of Vietnam body counts and destroyed villages with dead villagers. The information war once again swung in favor of the enemy and the military, once again, saw this as a vindication of their lack of trust in the media for telling "their story".
But, whose fault is that? Is it the media? Was it the military's concern for operational security and negative images? Was it because, as a signatory to the Genieva conventions and, as a country that prided itself on certain concepts of battle (such as not showing the dead from respect or from needing to notify family or from some over all concept of decency that prevents us from showing the ugliness of death?) Was it because the public was not capable of understanding the images of war without losing perspective or withdrawing its support?
The truth is, information is going to come out of the battlefield. The enemy has the capability of creating their own news programs, videos, letters, CDs, music and everything else. They use hand held digital cameras and cell phone images. There are foreign press that are invited to "embed" with the insurgents/terrorists. The enemy delivers their own images and reports straight to news organizations around the world, including, straight into the homes of the American populace.
A recent controversy over the potential use of video footage from the battle for Haifa Street highlights this problem. The video has appeared on Al Qaeda websites as proof of the "attrocities" against the Sunni as well as the "courage and triumph" of the fighters, showing images of dead Iraqi soldiers.
Demands were made that the media do a better job at vetting the sources for their material. But, that is only a small part of the over all problem. The real problem that was highlighted is that the enemy is much better at and much faster at obtaining images of their war as well as distributing those images. Thus, shaping the image of the over all war once again.
The military released its own short video of the actions: American and Iraqi soldiers firing from a window, talking about seeing the enemy and firing out them. But, what was missing, as any citizen who has seen a war movie will tell you, is the "bad guy". He never makes an appearance on this video. Once again, leaving the impression of the "invisible enemy" or, the question, who was being killed on Haifa Street?
Was it fast enough? Complete enough?
The military has learned many concepts of war and translated them into operations complete with its own jargon. It often speaks of "getting inside the enemy's decision making cycle". In otherwords, knowing how the enemy will react in advance and acting faster than he can decide how to react to your actions. This causes confusion, a melt down of command and, if done correctly (with a little bit of luck), defeat of the enemy.
The military has developed new and faster ways of collecting, coalating and desiminating intelligence on the where abouts and activities of the enemy. Information that allows the military to "get inside" the enemy's "cycle".
Yet, a lesson it has not learned or has dragged its feet in learning or, better yet, refuses to learn, is how to "get inside the enemy's information cycle". In a globalized, networked, intranet world with 24 hour news cycles, international flights and overnight delivery closely entertwined with and used by the enemy as, paraphrasing Zawahiri, half the battlefield, the inability to wage war effectively on this front means that "half the battlefield" is already ceded to the enemy.
When you've lost half the battle field, unless you can call up re-enforcements or a miracle occurs, you've lost the battle. That is why the American people believe that Iraq is lost and US forces should be withdrawn. That is why the enemy continues to be able to recruit from a base that should be largely leary of supporting or tacitly agreeing with any part of the Islamists program that would most likely result in even worse restrictions, repressions and reprisals.
That is why people like Mr. William Arkin of the Washington Post can write "mercenaries", "murder" and "rape" in regards to the American soldier asking for support from back home without being shouted down from every corner of the American public except for those who are intricately related to or directly supporting soldiers.
It's a lesson they could not learn in Vietnam and, thirty five years later, they still haven't learned. While we invest in million dollar UAVs or "non-lethal" laser weapons, the enemy is beating us to death with $150 digital camera, $500 laptop and a few minutes of internet time.
Marine Corps Commandant Conway recently said:
"We have, frankly, talked with the president some about maybe changing his message," Conway said. "You know, after 9/11 he said the best thing you can do, America, is live your lives normal. . . . And we think today that it may be time to rally the country to war."
He's right. But that is not a good enough reason to let the military, the DOD or any of its arms off the hook for not taking up the fight.
Stay tuned for follow up posts on "Information War" regarding the internet, blogs, military websites, public relations, the law that governs military information within the American public sphere and the problem of performing information war when the global media also appears in American homes.