Information Warfare: August 30, 2004

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There are more wars going on in Iraq, and Afghanistan, than are apparent. There is the war that is reported, but that is not the real war. More people know this now, because of the Internet and the greater access to telephones and email by the front line troops. The war that is reported is a combination of different interpretations of what is actually going on. 

Another problems is that, in the interest of fairness, most American media will include many foreign reports that are distorted or outright lies. In the interest of an exciting, and thus more likely to attract a larger audience, stories, the most negative view of the situation will be presented. Fairness and balance are not as important when ratings are at stake. Naturally, the enemy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan quickly learn how to play the American media. Knowing that American, and Western, journalists are looking for the right kind of bad news, it will be provided. Video cameras make it possible for exciting news footage to be faked. The absurdity of this was shown recently when a fake beheading video, made last May by two guys in San Francisco and simply placed on a file sharing system (along with the usual pirated movies and music), it was eventually picked up by an Arab news network as real, and was being picked up by Western media until Associated Press began to do a little investigating and quickly discovered that is was a fake. But many fakes are never uncovered. And the fakes work. 

The state of affairs is not going to change any time soon. Its nothing new and has been going on for centuries. Remember Robin Hood? The original Robin Hood was a local bandit with a knack for good public relations. He robbed and killed, but positioned himself and his followers as victims. There have been many Robin Hoods throughout history, and the power and pervasiveness of mass media today enable many more to exist simultaneously than ever happened in the past.

The army and marines try and interest the media in things they have done to reduce friendly, and civilian, casualties, or bring peace and prosperity to large portions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But good news doesnt sell. Provide a little scandal and youll have a stampede in your direction. 

Media reports can change public opinion, and government policies. The military leaders increasingly take this into account, as do their opponents. Al Qaeda went from a loose collection of often inept terrorists, to a seeming world threat, largely through their use of the medias appetite for scary news and outrageous threats. The media in many parts of the world likes to position terrorists as the little guy, fighting the good fight against the exploiter. This leads to the creation of good terrorists (Sunni Arab Iraqi gunmen from Fallujah, and Shia Arab followers of al Sadr), versus bad terrorists (whoever might pull off another attack that would kill hundreds, or thousands, of civilians.) 

This can even be seen in Iraq, where al Qaeda suicide bombings are universally condemned by Iraqis, while the depredations of Sunni Arab or Shia Arab gunmen are also criticized by Iraqis depending on how close these thugs are. The Shia dont much like the Shia fighters when they are close by. Same for the Sunni Arab militias. In Falluja, many of the locals have learned that the Sunni Arab gangs are about as bad as Saddam, but without the jobs and gifts that Saddam often dispensed. The Sunni gangs can only survive by plundering the Sunni Arabs that live near by. Reporters have a hard time getting locals to express their dislike for the gunmen. Saddam killed those who spoke against him, and the current crop of gunmen operate by the same rules. But there are those who do resist, and that is why more weapons caches and hideouts are being found. The government has learned how important it is to protect the identities of informants. Revenge has long been a feature of the cultural landscape in Iraq, although to many who lost family members to Saddams thugs, informing on them now, as the thugs pretend to be freedom fighters, balances the books a bit.

Few journalists get close enough to Iraqis to uncover the role revenge and fear still play in a country that has long been called, by the locals, the Republic of Fear. The Iraqi media is starting to cover this touchy subject, but the foreign media translate the situation into something their audience will understand. In the Arab press, Iraq is portrayed as being unjustly occupied by an infidel (non-Moslem) army. To the European press, Iraq is a big mistake. Most Europeans would rather try and work out some kind of deal with Saddam and terrorists. Both of these attitudes assume that leaving Saddam and his gang in power would have been OK. The Iraqis, of course, both praise the removal of Saddam and condemn the foreign army that was needed to do it. Iraqis want the foreign troops to leave, but not until the various remaining armed factions in Iraq are disarmed. Actually, when you discuss the situation with Iraqis, as Arab speaking Special Forces and Civil Affairs troops often do , there is understanding all around that the foreign troops did a good thing and want to go home as much as the Iraqis do. This angle has been used successfully to get Iraqis to join the police and security forces. Sure, its a job. But its a very dangerous one, and the deciding argument is usually not economic, but patriotic. 

In the United States, reporting on Iraq is filtered by the political leanings of reporters, or, especially, their employers. This is nothing new, and has been a staple of war reporting for every American conflict, including World War II. Its not going to change. So, if you want to find out what is really going on in Iraq, youre going to have to learn a bit about military history, and dig deeper into what is being reported from the combat zones. 


 


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