The Media Have Changed War
By J.R. Dunn
The weekend before last showed us yet another facet of the problem of war and the modern media. On Saturday, 25 U.S. troops were killed — 12 of them in a downed helicopter, 5 others while guarding a security meeting in Karbala. This was a bold operation, obviously staged to make an impression The Jihadis achieved complete surprise, approaching in SUVs painted to look like government vehicles. Iraqi checkpoints, displaying the perspicacity we’ve come to expect, waved them on through, courteously informing the meeting guards that they were on their way. After the raid, they disappeared into the desert without a trace.
Two days later, Baghdad was hit by a carefully coordinated bomb strike featuring both a suicide bomber and a stationary car bomb, resulting in 88 deaths. Another 12 were killed in a bombing in the town of Khalis. Over all, 137 civilians were killed in Iraq over the weekend.
These incidents represent the deadliest run in several months, and come as no accident. The same type of jump also occurred at the time of last summer’s Forward Together offensive in Baghdad, and other actions in Anbar province and elsewhere. There’s no mystery involved – simply put, a challenge was made, and one weekend ago was the response. For weeks the Jihadis have been hearing about the planned “surge”, the upcoming change in strategy, and the pending appearance of General Petraeus. They responded in the way they knew best – with actions designed to spike the impact of the new operation even as it was unfolding.
Where did they hear all this? They heard it from everybody. From the administration, including President Bush on down. They heard it from Robert Gates. They heard it from General Petraeus. They heard it from the Congress. The carrier, of course, was the international media. It’s impossible to imagine any of the above individuals dancing such a jig without the prompting of the media in the first place, the same as it’s impossible imagining Roosevelt or Eisenhower doing any such thing. (Consider the results if the Normandy invasion had been treated the same way.) But that’s where we stand at this stage of the information revolution. It’s time we recognized that fact.
The status of the media as a driver of military activity in and of itself is something that has become apparent only with this war. In past conflicts such as Vietnam, the media was viewed as a factor that had to be taken into consideration as either an asset or hindrance, whatever the case might be. (Often an asset to the enemy, usually a hindrance to friendlies.) But in Iraq, it appears that the media, by its presence alone, is changing the very nature of warfare. On one hand, the media is hindering Coalition operations by undermining several very basic principles of war. On the other, it’s acting as a strategic asset for the Jihadis, as the equivalent of a territory that can be “occupied” by carrying out certain events, as a force multiplier, and as an intelligence tool enabling them to plan and hone their operations.
This factor, rather than intentions or even actual activities, may turn out to be the most important effect that the media has on millennial warfare. We can be certain that detailed studies of the phenomenon will be carried out in years to come. For the moment, we’ll focus on a single element: how media reportage seems to act as an enabler for insurgent activity.
The disturbing thing about the weekend before last’s bloodletting is that nobody did anything wrong. Everyone was acting as they ought to act, by the lights of the early 21st century. This was not a case of an unauthorized leak or the New York Times revealing a secret program. The President was pitching his new strategy. The defense secretary was backing him up. General Petraeus was testifying to Congress, and the media was simply reporting was happening. Things operated as they always do, and people – a lot of people — got killed.
Discussions of military operations in real time — both before and while they’re being carried out — is something new. It’s a byproduct of the information age. The structure of the Internet acts like an enormous vacuum that sucks in information as soon as it appears. Once it’s out there, it’s available to anybody with access, no matter where they are or what their intentions. You might anticipate that people would become a little more discreet under circumstances like these. You would be wrong.
That this is antithetical to military procedure goes without saying. Surprise and deception are key elements in strategy. Large passages of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the earliest and still superior handbook of strategy, are devoted to surprise and deception (in fact, it can be said that Sun Tzu’s overriding goal of winning without confrontation was based almost entirely on deception.) This remains the case today. Much of the U.S. Army’s AirLand battle strategy is based on ruses, deceptive maneuvers, and indirect flank attacks.
But it’s next to impossible to utilize surprise and deception without secrecy, and secrecy, in this epoch of YouTube and Google Earth, appears to have vanished to the same Valhalla as cavalry, swordsmanship, and massed infantry charges. (Though note that the Jihadis don’t have this problem. If anybody within their reach attempts to breach secrecy, they chop his head off.)
There’s an entire class of military operations that simply cannot take place – or be carried out effectively – under this level of scrutiny. In the late 1940s, Harry Truman found it necessary on more than one occasion to send an RB-36 over Moscow with nothing in the way of permission from the Kremlin. The B-36 was a strange aircraft, a product of a unique evolutionary path that came out of nowhere and left no descendants. With ten engines (four of them jets, six pusher propeller), and a ceiling of over 50,000 ft, fighter-interceptors could get nowhere near it. The B-36 sailed unmolested above Russia while Soviet fighters, in the words of one crewman, swarmed “like goldfish in a bowl” far beneath. The message was simple: we can reach you; you cannot reach us. And Stalin got the message – by 1953 he was, according to his biographer Edvard Radzinsky, busy surrounding Moscow with the first operational SAM network.
Could such operations have been carried out – or carried out to the same effect – while being debated in the international media? (Some would argue that they shouldn’t be carried out at all, among them H. Bruce Franklin, the Marxist literary critic who heard of them while serving in the USAF and later denounced them as “provocation missions”. But that’s outside our focus here.)
A similar example involves the recent war in Somalia. The U.S. Navy established a cordon offshore to prevent the escape of some extremely dangerous Al-Qaeda personnel – among them Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, responsible for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and Abu Talha al-Sudani, an Al-Qaeda operative who may have had a hand in the “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993. The media publicized the operation in detail, including naval assets and air coverage, all but drawing an escape route map for the Jihadis. Similar coverage appeared of the AC-130 air strikes and the presence of U.S. special operations troops, all of which could have – and should have – gone unmentioned until the operation was concluded, the Jihadis were dealt with, and all were out of harm’s way. (Curiously, the fact that U.S. officers aided the Ethiopians in drawing up their invasion strategy went unreported in American papers, though it was covered overseas. It’s entertaining to speculate as to why.)
It’s important to point out that none of this is due to willful maliciousness. That plenty of malice exists in the media goes without saying – the names of Mary Mapes and Eason Jordan can serve as placeholders for hundreds of incidents. But that’s not the case here. Like much other behavior involving the media, it’s not even conscious. It’s a matter of the influence of the media, its gravitational pull, distorting the behavior of other elements of society and government by its very presence, in much the same way that a black hole moving through a solar system would leave the planets traveling in grossly distorted orbits. As we have clearly seen in the past few weeks, people, groups, and societies simply don’t act the way they normally do where media are involved. Locked doors are opened, secrets are revealed, things are said that ought not be said, and the simple mechanics of the Internet takes it from there. It’s a case of human weakness and technological prowess working hand in hand — as simple and terrifying as that.
It follows that war, if it’s to be fought in any rational sense, can’t coexist with the media as it operates today. If this is the new business as usual, we’re going to end up with unnecessary deaths as a matter of course, and probably far worse.
The Infowave has changed things qualitatively as well as in every other sense. This is a point made by Marshall McLuhan about television back in the 60s which evidently has not stuck. (McLuhan had the ill luck to become too closely associated with the dippier elements of the decade – paisley, psychedelia, and the counterculture. It’s a shame – he’s a much deeper thinker than he’s often given credit for.) Generating more and faster information changes its very quality – the impact and effects are amplified in ways that are hard to predict. More and better data provides a clearer picture of the situation, makes the alternatives stand out in bolder contrast, and reveals new possibilities for action – such as informing an Iraqi Jihadi of the exact best moment to trigger a car bomb.
This thought leads to speculation as to how such effects might be manipulated. No asset is more valuable than information, and the general of genius utilizes it in ways often difficult to grasp – Napoleon could gaze out across a battlefield, focus immediately on the enemy’s weak spot and dispatch his artillery toward it. In June 1815 his great opponent, Wellington, unrolled a map of the French-Belgian border and rested his finger on the previously unknown spot of Waterloo. “It will be here,” he said. This is the highest talent that a commander can possess, the near-instinct that tells him he must go to Inchon despite all rational opposition. It may well be the single thing that separates the commander of genius from merely capable officer.
So what will a future Wellington or MacArthur do with this torrent of information? Will he surf the global channels, read the headlines, glance over the Net and then, sensing ebbs and flows that we are only beginning to recognize, click his mouse and say, “It will be here”? That can be no more than speculation at this point. But one thing we must realize is that the Jihadis have deciphered one part of the formula, and are utilizing it in Iraq to undercut an ongoing offensive. On the very same information network, they will transmit what they have learned to the rest of their kind worldwide. One way or another, it has to be dealt with.
Our relationship with the media requires an overhaul on all levels, from the practical to the legal on up to the civilizational. Many readers will recall Mike Wallace’s odious insistence that no reporter could warn American troops of an ambush and remain true to his profession. That situation is no longer hypothetical, but is occurring every single day, as a matter of ordinary business, and despite all efforts to prevent it. Viewed in that light, our attempts to control the media are far from ended – in fact, they can scarcely be said to have begun.