Information Warfare: March 11, 2004

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Events on the battlefield alone do not always dictate the course of the war. The reports of the battle given by the media will have an effect, too, particularly in the age of twenty-four hour news networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. These, as well as newspapers, pretty much function as intelligence agencies, albeit they are in it to make a profit, not to protect a country.

The media front is one not often discussed. It is there, nonetheless, and it often has a decisive effect on a war. The 1993 firefight in Mogadishu was, in fact, a tactical victory for the United States. The raid achieved its objectives, the capture of some high-ranking members of Mohammed Farah Aidids militia, and in the resulting firefight, Aidids militia suffered hundreds of casualties.

The problem, though, was in the media presentation. The sight of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets created such an outcry that the Clinton Administration ordered a pullout. This was not the first time the media had created the impression of defeat. Another big example was the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was remarkably similar the Viet Cong was defeated on the battlefield and finished as a fighting force, but the American media portrayed the battle as a major setback. The result was to turn popular opinion against the Vietnam War.

A battle can turn the entire tide of the war. In this day and age, it is possible for the media to turn a victory into a bloody defeat. That resulted in the Tomahawk diplomacy in several actions in the 1990s and the high-altitude attacks that were used over Kosovo in 1999, intended to minimize the chance of losing aircraft and having aircrew taken prisoner.

The media has become another front in war or operations short of war. Often, it can be used to justify starting a war (either international or civil). The recent claims by Hugo Chavez that the United States is funding his opposition in the upcoming referendum may be an example of this. The claim of outside interference could be used to either not hold the referendum or to nullify the results by imposing martial law.

Other times, the media can be used to let people know that America is viewing developments with interest. The British used this front prior to the 1982 Falklands War to keep tensions around the disputed islands from exploding. The announcement would be made that submarines were being deployed to the area. The Argentineans decided not to call the bluff. When the bluff was finally called in the form of the 1982 invasion, the cruiser General Belgrano was sent to the bottom of the South Atlantic.

The medias attention is a double-edged sword. Often, the price of letting someone know you are concerned is a loss of strategic surprise. Also, if things do turn into a battle, the medias portrayal may create an image at odds with the actual results. The British have less trouble with this due to the famous D notice which keeps a newspaper from publishing anything that the government doesnt want published, usually involving secrets. No such mechanism exists in America, and thus, secrets are sometimes revealed in news articles much to the chagrin of the military and intelligence establishments.

Winning the media battle is as important as winning on the battlefield. Information has long been the most valuable commodity in warfare its value is not only applicable to the battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of those on all sides. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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