Information Warfare: In the Trenches

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August 9, 2006: What the military currently calls Information Warfare, was first developed two decades ago. Partly this was in response to the mass media turning on the military during the Vietnam War, and partly it was the beginning of Republican party realization that there were better ways available to deal with the media for achieving political ends.
Information War is nothing new, nor is military efforts to cope with the influence of media on wartime, or peacetime, operations. For example, during the American Civil War, military commanders, and politicians, on both sides, learned to deal with the relatively new mass media. The development of the telegraph, and the steam powered printing press (making cheap newspapers a mass market product), in the previous two decades, had revolutionized media. News traveled fast, and to most of the population could now afford to buy the papers and react to the news. That had never happened before, and politicians and generals had to deal as best they could. By the 1920s, the army appointed its first media liaison officer, Douglas MacArthur, a man who would go on to prove he was a master at manipulating the media (and the media still hates him for it.) MacArthur's methods for dealing with the media in wartime were not used during the Vietnam War, and that lesson has not been forgotten. MacArthur believed you had to control the message at all times, and maintain the right image. MacArthur made it look easy because he was also a brilliant general, winning victories using innovative tactics and techniques. MacArthur had his flaws, but understanding the media was not one of them.
The most senior commanders have been using Information War for a long time. In the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte tightly controlled the distribution of news in France and his conquered territories. Even further back, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great controlled what version of events was distributed as official, or even unofficial, news. And in ancient Egypt, where a permanent record of government achievements was painted or carved into the walls of government structures, archeologists have only recently discovered that many of those official records were subject to a lot of spin. Many of those ancient records, it turned out, were lies, told in order to influence public opinion. Hmmm, déjà vu and all that.
For the last two decades, the American military has been trying to institutionalize Information Warfare as one of the weapons to be used in combat. While this has been easy at the highest levels of command, getting Information War tactics and techniques down to level of the fighting troops has proved more difficult.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military got its first chance to practice Information War at the retail level. All other wars, since the development of modern Information War in the 1980s, did not lend themselves to getting down and dirty in this department. In Iraq and Afghanistan, however, American troops found themselves operating in countries where the losing side, while defeated and out of power, insisted on fighting on, using terror and Information War as their primary weapons. The results, especially in Iraq, led to a lot of U.S. casualties (22,000 in three years). The question is, could better use of Information War changed any of this?
Actually, no one is sure. The only thing that is known is that better Information War efforts would not have hurt, and probably would have helped. That's because one of the major problems, especially in 2003 and 2004, was simply communicating with the local civilians. This was important because, while the American media tended to notice the few hostile Iraqis still operating, there were a lot more Iraqis who wanted to build a better country than the one Saddam had created. Moreover, Iraq had not had a free press for decades, and it took the better part of a year for new media to develop. Many of those news outlets that did show up, were more interested in sensational news, or biased lies, which was often not helpful for American military operations.
While American military planners and trainers had developed a lot of the components needed to run a successful Information War campaign, these had not been, so to speak, "installed" in all American combat units. There were psychological warfare units, and troops trained to work on media with, and for, locals. But there was no standardized Information War organization and doctrine throughout the American military. Information War was still seen as a separate item, not one that must be integrated with combat units, just like artillery, engineer, medical or air support. For example, most training exercises did not include any realistic Information War action. That's a sure sign that a new element has not yet been fully accepted.
A major reason why Information War capabilities were not integrated into the combat brigades was because, for Information War to work, you needed adequate intelligence collection capabilities. Alas, intelligence is another of those areas that was undergoing a revolution. UAVs, satellite communications, the Internet, and lots of cheap computers, had given the intel people more tools, and powerful tools, than ever before. For Information War to work, there had to be close links with the intelligence people. That has been learned, and worked out, under fire during the last four years.
Iraq, and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, provided a situation where many Information War ideas could be tried out. Using media, and "viral communications" (rumors, posters and things like graffiti), to mould local civilian opinion is, is still a little too abstract for most troops to fully accept.
The army and marines are each trying to integrate all that experience into Information War units and doctrine (rules and advice for how to do it) for future Information War operations. It's still not clear if Information War has been fully accepted by the troops. When it comes to combat, the troops tend to focus on the most obvious things, like weapons and logistics. It may take a while to convince everyone that Information Warfare is here to stay, and worth the effort.

 


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