Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The psychological combat field

It's one thing to realize you've been had. But even more important, perhaps, is to realize why it's happened.

The natural reaction that most people have to the discovery that the shots of the statue of Saddam coming down in Baghdad as Americans took control were not, in fact, a spontaneous demonstration, but were part of a carefully staged event for the TV cameras, is one of simple disgust -- to remark, as Atrios did the other day, that the incident reveals what suckers the Bush administration has played the public for.

Even more disturbing, however, is to read the L.A. Times report carefully and observe that this project was specifically a product of the Pentagon's "psychological combat" program:
The Army's internal study of the war in Iraq criticizes some efforts by its own psychological operations units, but one spur-of-the-moment effort last year produced the most memorable image of the invasion.

As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel -- not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images -- who decided to topple the statue, the Army report said. And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking.

Psychological operations -- or "PsyOps," as they are known in lingo -- are the subject of a multitude of conspiracy theories, in no small part because they are in fact cloaked in so much official secrecy. Much of the accusatory material that circulates about the programs is bogus, but there are serious scholars who have examined it and remain useful sources of what we do know about them. (A reasonably factual collection of documents can be found at The Information Warfare Site, while this Wikipedia page can give you a quick rundown on what's known.)

One of these scholars is Christopher Simpson, the American University professor who has written extensively on the subject, notably in Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960 (an excerpt of which you can read here).

One of the important points that Simpson raises is that the combat field for psychological warfare is not merely the physical field of combat, but the home front as well. In an interview with Simpson, he discussed this point a little further:
From its inception psychological warfare has been the mating of violence on the one hand and what people would call today propaganda or mass communication on the other hand. Another thing that's interesting about psychological warfare, from its inception it has also targeted the people of the United States, the common preconception is that for better or for worse this is something we do to them. The reality is that from the government's standpoint, from the standpoint of those who are paying the bills for its development the targets always involve not only foreign audiences but domestic audiences as well.

We have in fact known from even before the outset that the war against Iraq would prominently feature psychological warfare. Most people have assumed that this warfare would be directed against the enemy and the subject citizens. They have not stopped to consider that, by definition, it would also be directed toward the American public as well.

This reality raises a serious concern about the fragility of democracy during wartime. Because under the aegis of a seemingly eternal war, the American government has clearly been involving the public in its psychological combat, and has hijacked the nation's press in the process. The entire meaning of the Iraq war -- and by extension, the "war on terrorism" -- is inextricably bound up in the psychological manipulation of the voting public through a relentless barrage of propaganda.

This is why the both the runup to the war and its subsequent mishandling have been so replete with highly symbolic media events -- many of them played repeatedly on nightly newscasts -- that have proven so hollow at their core, from the declarations of imminent threat from Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, to phony images of Saddam's statue being torn down, to flyboy antics aboard airline carriers, to meaningless "handovers" of power. It also explains why certain important and humanizing symbols of wartime -- civilian casualties, the returning flag-draped coffins -- have been so notably absent from our views of the war.

The role of the media in this manipulation cannot be understated. The abdication of the media's role as an independent watchdog and its whole subsumation as a propaganda organ bodes ill for any democracy, because a well-informed public is vital to its functioning.

But the fact that the military establishment, in the context of the "war on terror," clearly views the American public as the subject of a psychological combat operation should give us all pause regarding the ability of democracy to withstand this kind of assault.

In the end, I think there is enough innate resistance to this kind of propagandization in a free society to win out. But the November election will be a crucial test of whether or not this is true.

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