Information Warfare: November 15, 2004

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The reporting of military events in StrategyPage often differs from how the mass media describes the same events. Thats because the mass media is under enormous pressure to report startling and "competitive," news. StrategyPage isnt. Our editors and contributors have a background in history and historical simulation (wargames), and that provides a very different perspective. Our analysis, based on historical trends and past performance, is far more accurate than the dramatic headlines the mass media use to describe the same events. But not as dramatic. Reality tends to be dull.

Dramatic headlines have, for over a century, been the key to success in the media business. While most reporters believe their job is simply to report what happens, as accurately as they can, editors know better. Accurate reporting loses out to sensationalistic reporting every time. Thus we like to say that, at least when it comes to long term accuracy, no pundit survives contact with a historian. 

Editors also rely on the fact that most consumers of mass media news do not revisit old stories to see how accurate they were. Historians, however, do that all the time. And that smaller subset of historians that use historical simulation to examine past (and future) events, are even more keen on digging into the details and probabilities of ongoing events. This is, in effect, a different way of looking at the news. An example of this was seen in the months before the 1991 Gulf War, when a wargame, Arabian Nightmare was published. It covered the coming war, and accurately predicted how that war would be fought. That was considered news, and the game got a lot of media play. An earlier game (Sinai) predicted the outcome of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Military professionals have been using this technique for over a century, and are much more often right, than wrong, in the predictions their games make. Wargames work, but they generally do not make the news.

StrategyPage was founded in 1999 with the intention of applying analytic and predictive techniques to reporting ongoing wars. Granted, that approach is going to appeal to a smaller audience (we currently have about 300,000 unique visitors a month.) But for those who can appreciate the more analytic approach, military events make a lot more sense. The more traditional approach will always have a larger audience because it is more exciting and appeals to the popularity of scary headlines and outrageous stories. 

Some people come across StrategyPage and assume that the editorial policy favors one political persuasion or another. Not so. We call them as we see them. The current war in Iraq is a good example of this. In early 2003 we pointed out, using many historical examples, that the upcoming invasion of Iraq would be over quickly. We also pointed out, long before the war was even fought, that the Sunni Arab minority that had been running the country for centuries, would not give up easily. We pointed out why, and explained what the troops you dont hear much about (civil affairs and Special Forces) were doing to deal with preventing the ongoing civil war in Iraq from spreading beyond the Sunni Arab areas. 

Contrast this with how the mass media covered the initial invasion. All you heard were predictions of hard fighting, heavy casualties and stalemate. Our prediction wasnt rocket science. We simply noted that the Iraqis had a dismal track record against well trained armies and would be able to stand up to a well trained and equipped force. And this should not be a new development for anyone who carefully covered the 1991 Gulf War. Back then the favorite media fright phrase was the million man, battle hardened Iraqi desert army. As I explained on CNN once, in late 1990, it was a matter of public record that the Iraqis had, at most, about 700,000 troops. The Iraqis had just recently fought an eight year war with Iran, but most Iraqi veterans of that desperate fight were battle scarred, not battle hardened. This was widely reported at the time. Lastly, the Iraqis had not fought that war in the desert, but in marshlands and mountains. You only needed a map to confirm that. Thus the phrase, million man, battle hardened Iraqi desert army, was an excellent example of scary, but misleading, reporting. Three misleading bits of information in one sound bite. And that example was but one of many. But since few people took a close look at that misleading phrase, or much of the other misleading reporting, everyone was ready to accept a new blizzard of sensationalism just thirteen years later.

The rapid collapse of Sunni Arab resistance in the recent battle of Fallujah should not have been a surprise to most people, but it was. American troops have already fought several urban battles in Iraq and the results have always been one-sided. Reports in StrategyPage explained why, pointing out that successful urban warfare tactics were first developed by American troops during World War II.

Meanwhile, not much will change. The vast majority of news consumers have not got the time, or inclination, to view news stories using historical and simulation tools. That sort of thing requires more effort and, for most of us, is not very entertaining. On the bright side, the Internet has allowed news outlets like StrategyPage to flourish. The Internet also gives people access to a lot of the sources we use for our reporting. Email enables us to get reports from people inside Iraq (civilians, aid workers, and troops.) But anyone can view blogs written by Iraqi residents, and a lot of the email from the troops gets passed around. 

That said, there is some good news. All that Internet access has forced the mass media to get a little less sensationalistic, and to pay attention to what the many troops, aid workers and Iraqis are reporting on the web. Of course, all that new information is sometimes simply used as the basis for another sensationalistic, and misleading headline grabber story. There is some progress, but not a lot of change. News is, after all, a very competitive business.

 


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