Monday, May 17, 2004

News Coverage as a Weapon

Historian John Terraine notes that unit casualty rates during the Civil War were close to those experienced by the British Army on the Somme. The 1/Newfoundland Regiment lost 84 % of its men on that fatal July 1, 1916. But the 1st Texas Regiment lost 82.3% in Antietam and the 1st Minnesota lost 82% at Gettysburg. Nor were these exceptional. "In the course of the Civil War 115 regiments (63 Union and 52 Confederate) sustained losses of more than 50 percent in a single engagement". Losses during World War 2 were just as brutal. Although the average loss per individual mission was often under 5% for the pilots who flew in the British Bomber Command, the fact that they flew 30 missions per tour meant a crew had less than a 1 in 4 chance of completing it. Once you signed on, there was a 75% statistical chance you wouldn't survive. Nor were these estimates far from the truth. Almost sixty percent of Bomber Command, a total of 55,000 men, were killed. They had an easy time compared to German U-boat crewmen, who lost 630 men out of every thousand. Nations required a huge pool of manpower and high birthrates to sustain losses on this scale. Russia alone suffered twenty million deaths during World War 2. Even Yugoslavia, a country whose role in the conflict is hardly remembered as central, lost 1.6 million killed. Defeat in that conflict came to those whose armies were driven from the field, whose cities were reduced to rubble and whose manpower resources could no longer continue the struggle.

Viewed in this context, the American "defeat" in Iraq projected by the press must be understood as being something wholly different from anything that has gone before. The 800 odd US military deaths suffered since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom a year ago are less than the number who died in the Slapton Sands D-Day training exercise in 1944. The campaign in Iraq has hardly scratched American strength, which has in fact grown more potent in operational terms over the intervening period. Nor has it materially affected the US manpower pool or slowed the American economy, which is actually growing several times faster than France, which is not militarily engaged. The defeat being advertised by the press is a wholly new phenomenon: one which leaves the vanquished army untouched and the victor devastated; the economy of the vanquished burgeoning and that of the victor in destitution; the territory of the loser unoccupied and that of the winner garrisoned. It is an inversion of all the traditional metrics of victory and defeat. That the assertion is not instantly ludicrous is an indication of the arrival of a new and potentially revolutionary form of political wafare.

It was during the Vietnam War that the Left first discovered the potential war-winning ability of media coverage. The concept itself is merely an extension of the blitzkrieg notion that the enemy command structure, not his troop masses, are the true center of gravity on the battlefield. During the campaign of 1940, Heinz Guderian's panzers bypassed many French formations, leaving them unfought, knowing that if their command structure were severed, the whole musclebound mass would fall to the ground headless. What the Left gradually discovered during the course of the Vietnam war was that Guderian had not been bold enough. Guderian still felt it necessary to win on the battlefield. He had not realized that it was possible to ignore the battlefield altogether because it was the enemy political structure, not his military capability, that was the true center of gravity of an entire campaign. It was General Giap during the Vietnam War who first planned a military operation entirely around its possible media effect. The Tet offensive was a last desperate attempt to gain the upper hand in a war he was losing.

The Communist forces had taken a series of military defeats. the US/ARVN forces had pacified much of the south by the end of 1967 (222 out of 242 provinces). Operation Junction City (February-March 1967) and other sweeps had seriously disrupted NLF activity in the south and forced the COSVN into Cambodia.

At a July 1967 meeting the Communist Party leadership recognized their failures and decided to re-orientate their operations to target two key political weaknesses. Firstly, the deep gulf between the US public and the US government over support for the war and its actual progress. Secondly, the tensions existing between the US military and their Vietnamese allies.

The leadership decided to concentrate on a few high profile operations, that would take place in the public (and the US media) eye rather than fighting the conflict away from major urban centres. This would bolster Northern moral, possibly inspire uprisings in the South and provide the impression, and hopefully the reality, that the US/ARVN were not winning the war and it was likely to be a long time before they did. The new policy also marked a victory for the 'hawks' over the 'doves' in the Communist Party leadership, in late 1967 around 200 senior officials were purged.

Although Giap failed in every military respect, he succeeded in providing the press with the raw material necessary to alter the dynamics of American domestic politics. While he could not alter reality, the Giap could alter the perception of reality enough to give anti-war politicians a winning hand which they played it to the hilt.

The NLF and the NVA lost around 35,000 men killed, 60,000 wounded and 6,000 POWs for no military success. The US and ARVN dead totalled around 3,900 (1,100 US). But this was not the conflict as the US public saw it. Without there being an active conspiracy the US media reports were extremely damaging and shocked the American public and politicians. Apparently the depth of the US reaction even surprised the North Vietnamese leadership, as well as delighting them.

The emergence of the press and media as decisive implements of warfare arose from changes in the nature of late twentieth century war itself. If battlefield reality was paramount in earlier wars it was because literally everyone was there. During the Civil War 15 percent of the total white population took the field, a staggering 75% of military age white males. During the Great War the major combatants put even higher proportions of their men on the line. Even after World War 2 it was still natural for children to ask, 'Daddy what did you do in the War?' and expect an answer. Reality affected everybody. But beginning with the Vietnam War and continuing into the current Iraqi campaign, the numbers of those actually engaged on the battlefield as a proportion of the population became increasingly small. Just how small is illustrated by comparing a major battle in the Civil War, Gettysburg, which inflicted over 50,000 casualties on a nation of 31.5 million to a "major" battle in Iraq, Fallujah, in which 10 Marines died in the fighting itself, on a population of 300 million. A war in which the watchers vastly outnumbered the fighters was bound to be different from when the reverse was true. A reality experienced by the few could be overridden by a fantasy sold to the many. This exchange of proportions ensured that the political and media dimensions of the late twentieth century American wars dwarfed their military aspects.

But whereas General Giap was forced to rely on the Western media to carry his message home, modern day Jihadis have decided to create their own media outlets like Al Jazeera to shape public opinion. Moreover, they have extended proven methods of intimidating the Western media, described by CNN's Eason Jordan in his article in the New York Times to a standard operation of war. This set up a clash between two forces, one enjoying a preponderance in every area of military capability and skill but failing to recognize news coverage as a strategic weapon; and another whose military strategy was literally made for television.

The US discovered how expensive it was to be wholly outmatched in this key combat system. Just how expensive was underscored by the media coverage of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse incident in which newspapers in the United States and Britain published fake abuse photographs on top of the genuine ones without a rapid rebuttal. This blindness sprang not only from the tradition of keeping the military apart from civilian activities, but also from a reluctance to venture into areas protected by the First Amendment. It was nearly a year after OIF before the US began halting steps to redress the balance by establishing the Arabic Al Hurrah media outlet and creating a series of local television stations under the Spirit of America initiative.

Yet the extension of warfare into the area of media coverage is fraught with great danger, in no small part because it subtly alters the definition of where the battlefield lies and who an enemy combatant is. One of the enduring strengths of Western democracy and of the US Constitution in particular is the delineation between legitimate dissent and enemy activity, a boundary which enables a democracy to continue functioning, albeit in an impaired state, even in wartime. But the changing balance between the political and military aspects of war means that this line will begin to blur as military activities cross over into the political. Already, the Pentagon is beginning to offer direct news from Iraq. It has also reorganized its command structure in Iraq to explicitly recognize the role of political warfare.

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2004 – Two new military commands will stand up in Iraq May 15, replacing the current coalition military organization.

Multinational Corps Iraq and Multinational Force Iraq will replace Combined Joint Task Force 7.

Coalition military spokesman Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, at a Baghdad news conference today, said the change addresses a concern that a combined joint task force headquarters was not sufficient to handle the military workload in Iraq efficiently.

"It's certainly more than a formality," he said. "It is trying to get the proper command structure for the days, weeks and months ahead."

Kimmitt explained that Multinational Corps Iraq will focus on the tactical fight -- the day-to-day military operations and the maneuvering of the six multinational divisions on the ground. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz will command the corps. Meanwhile, Multinational Force Iraq will focus on more strategic aspects of the military presence in Iraq, such as talking with sheiks and political leaders, and on training, equipping and fielding Iraqi security forces.

The Left's very success at using the media as an arm in hyper-blitzkrieg inevitably invited, indeed necessitated, a riposte, with far reaching and probably regettable effects. One day Al Jazeera may be remembered in the same manner as the Dreadnought: the first in a series of ugly fusions between newly available technology and age-old malevolence; the vanguard in a flotilla of lies.


Reader BU writes to say you can access the Eason Jordan article referred to above for free at the following address:

Eason Jordan's "The News We Kept To Ourselves" April 11, 2003, is available as "The awful news CNN had to keep to itself:  Iraqis' torment" by Eason Jordan (IHT) Saturday, April 12, 2003