YouTube War/Conclusions and Recommendations
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The problem for the Army, and the larger military of course, is that it has no way to enforce or even pass on lessons that should be learned by the press. Yet it remains the case that a war against terrorism, or, if you prefer, against terrorists, is by definition a war of wills and therefore a war against propaganda and images. While I would argue that in a time of war it is not necessary for the press to be neutral for them to perform all their expected roles (which is why local sports reporters are often the harshest critics of home town teams and coaches), that is a debate for another time. By disseminating enemy propaganda without comment or critique, the press is failing its responsibilities, including, in any event, any responsibility to be neutral, for the media do unwittingly facilitate the terrorist’s purposes. A simple change in visual protocols, one already in use in other types of stories and therefore already available, would mean that the broadcast media could, if they insist on continuing the practice of using footage from the enemy of the enemy’s attacks on American forces, at least properly contextualize that material for their audience. That level of transparency would seem to be the very least they owe. The military can, and should, point this out, aggressively and regularly. PAOs at every level should complain when a story airs involving footage taken from insurgent websites—but should then say, if you’re going to use this material, the least you can do 85 is present it with a disclaimer; it would be easy enough to do. That said, the Army has to find ways to go around the press, to reach the American people in particular— and other audiences as well—directly, on the assumption that continuing to depend upon the media, and only the media, to get their message out will continue to be insufficient. The enemy has made today’s technologies work for them; the American military can and should do the same. This is not a question of propaganda, this would not be a violation of the Smith-Mundt Act (which is interpreted to forbid “progapandizing” the American people), this would be a simple continuation of the current public affairs obligations of every unit. The question is whether the military is currently able to fulfill those obligations effectively. If enemy propagandists are able to spread false information, and that information is being spread globally—in part through the American media—then the military’s public affairs obligations are not being fulfilled. Enemy propaganda and misinformation, whether textual or visual, have to be answered, whether they are being distributed to a foreign or domestic audience. No law can reasonably be interpreted as meaning the Army cannot correct lies being told to the American people by al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. If the truth is known, then military spokespeople need to be proactive, to engage in rapid response or, if at all possible, to get out ahead of stories that are predictable. To be sure, the military has gotten progressively better at this. When two soldiers were kidnapped in 2007, a massive search was underway for them in Iraq. Although the soldiers were not found during that initial search, insurgent video of their military ID cards was.165 86 Rather than get out ahead of that story, the Army waited for the insurgent propaganda video to appear, and then attempted to respond. In fact, possession of the video meant that while the inevitability of the propaganda video’s release was clear, the military had a huge advantage in terms of constructing a preemptive response. The choice to cede that advantage put the military, unnecessarily, in a reactive posture, when the military is already going to be in a reactive posture, unavoidably, all too often. Yet a few years later, military PAOs were being far more aggressive in getting out ahead of what the insurgents were about to do in terms of propaganda, so that when, for example, a suicide bomber in Afghanistan killed several children along with a number of other civilians in December 2008, they were not allowed to shape and frame the narrative to their liking but were themselves forced into the reactive posture, when surveillance video of the bomber detonating in plain view of the children was released, thus proving that the murder of the children had not only occurred but was an intentional act—the bomber clearly saw the children and made the choice not to wait until they had left the area to detonate. In this, the American military can take a lesson from the Israeli military. In 2006 the Israelis misunderstood the nature of the war they were fighting in Lebanon. As a result, they were quite literally fought to a standstill, not on the field of battle (and certainly not in the air) but on the airwaves, in the court of international public opinion. Ironically, international opinion began strongly on their side, with even Arab nations prepared to support their efforts against Hezbollah.166 But Hezbollah was able to manipulate the press coverage carefully—and through the coverage, opinion—to 87 the point that the demands for Israel to halt military operations were ultimately insurmountable. Israel responded with detailed refutations of Hezbollah’s charges—5 months later. Carefully documenting the way that airstrike after airstrike had been a response to Hezbollah rockets carefully hidden or placed among the civilian population may well have made an enormous difference in answering charges that Israel did not care about civilian casualties, was intentionally causing them, and was violating international law, if material had been released in real time. Five months after the fact was an after thought at best. Although this was in a report actually provided by a private group (run by a retired officer in military intelligence), the very first footnote states that the “study was supported by Military Intelligence, the Operations Division of the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] General Staff, the IDF Spokesperson, and the legal experts of the IDF and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”167 Its release was covered in the American press, but hardly as an item of vital importance in the moment.168 Yet 2 years later, when Israel launched military operations against Gaza, visual product was made available to the press on a regular basis, so that Israel’s claims about the nature of the targets they were hitting had some degree of visual support in a large amount of the American television coverage, at least. More than that, the same clips were released to the general public via Israel’s own YouTube channel.169 Indeed, an Israeli diplomat conducted what the New York Times believes to be the first-ever press conference on Twitter.170 MNF-I has its own YouTube channel as well. But while soldiers, sailors, and marines are all producing interesting, riveting, even moving material, all posted daily to the various video sharing sites such 88 as YouTube,171 very rarely is new material pegged for subscribers to the official MNF-I channel, and what material does go up and what material is pegged is almost invariably dry and boring.172 When it is suggested that all units should take advantage of soldiers’ familiarity with digital media and desire to record by designating someone to film every operation—if only to ensure there is a visual record to counter any lies told after the fact—this author has encountered serious resistance from military personnel, to include Public Affairs (PA) personnel. (Of course, there are some lessons the Israelis didn’t learn. In 2006, they refused to permit Western journalists to accompany their ground forces, which meant reporters wishing to cover the situation on the ground in Lebanon—which was basically all of them—had no choice but to go in through the Hezbollah controlled side, under Hezbollah’s rules, to see what Hezbollah wanted them to see, no more and no less, and to broadcast that, no more and no less. In 2008, they similarly refused to permit Western journalists access to Gaza, which meant there was no independent confirmation of any casualty reports, and Western news outlets could either report the numbers coming from Palestinian sources or report no numbers at all. Most split the difference by reporting very vague numbers for as long as they could, but surely the Israeli side would only have been helped by having independent witnesses on the ground.) The problem is that all too often the American military has responded to claims made against it by saying merely that an incident is under investigation. That is not a response. That is an answer that simultaneously freezes the potential for response— because what it says is that no real response will be forthcoming for an indefinite period of time—and one 89 that opens the possibility that the claims made by the other side might be true, because if they weren’t, what would be the need for an investigation? If in fact the truth is not known, then by all means an investigation is in order, because nothing will erode credibility more rapidly than to have to reverse positions already taken. But it is critical that investigations be completed as quickly as possible, while issues remain in the public eye, and that they not be used as a rhetorical crutch if there is no real need for them. Consider what happens when military units think strategically about the role the media play in operations. In November 2004, the first thing the marines did before beginning the full brunt of the assault on Fallujah was to take control of the hospital,173 ensuring that it could not be used as a center for negative, false propaganda—at least without that propaganda being immediately countered, or without Western media being able to confirm or deny claims for themselves.174 Despite the fact that much of the press coverage centered on a series of themes designed to downplay the marines’ accomplishment in clearing out the city of Fallujah,175 the overall effort was still perceived as a success—or at least was not seen as a failure. Several polls showed the slightest rise in positive attitudes toward the war at around that time.176 Put simply, the “absence of Western media in Fallujah allowed the insurgents greater control of information . . . Because Western reporters were at risk of capture and beheading, they stayed out and were forced to pool video shot by Arab cameramen and played on Al Jazeera.”177 By contrast, “[f]alse allegations of noncombatant casualties were made by Arab media in both campaigns, but in the second case embedded Western reporters offered a rebuttal.”178 90 Military spokespeople should be permitted to speak to the public and the press when they are only able to speak in terms of probabilities. So long as they make clear that they are only able to speak in those limited terms—we cannot be positive yet, we are in the midst of an accountability check to confirm, but we do not believe the claim that marines have been captured—there will be times when doing so will be far less damaging than saying nothing until they are able to speak with absolute certainty. There is, of course, more to being proactive. Opportunities come along to either get ahead of a particular story or, on occasion, make news, and the military has been too hesitant on both accounts. For example, when enemy media labs have been captured, some of the material found there has been what might best be referred to as Islamist blooper reels. So that : they put a video out, but when we find these places we find a lot of their edits, and . . . they have stuff they saved where they botched it up, for example a guy riding a horse with a gun and he’s trying to look tough and he hits a tree and it knocks him off.179 Let’s face it, that’s nothing short of comedy gold— you literally couldn’t make that up. Having footage of that nature fall into your hands presents an unbelievable opportunity. Why wasn’t that clip ever circulated to make that group look ridiculous, to puncture their carefully crafted image of strength, of toughness, and manliness—and most of all, of competence? Indeed, that wasn’t the only such video. [There was ] another one where a guy’s on the back of a motorcycle, he’s going to jump off and start shooting, he looks real tough, but when he jumps off he just falls head over heels, the guy goes flying.180 91 Obviously, that clip was never released either. What was the reason for the hesitance? There was, of course, a famous video released of Zarqawi that made him look exceedingly foolish—the highlight was probably the moment where he was supposed to be firing his weapon for dramatic effect, but it jams, and, unsure what to do next, he signals over an underling, who, also unsure what to do, grabs the gun by the (now very hot) barrel and very obviously burns himself. Apparently there were negative reactions to that video that led to the decision to hold-off on further releases: A lot of folks in the theater particularly reacted like we were making fun of him in a way [well, that would have been a correct interpretation of course, we were -cd], and we did do some polling and . . . , it didn’t come off so well, [which is] why we’re a little tentative.181 The polling data were unavailable, so it is impossible to comment on it specifically, but when a communications strategy does not work as well as hoped, it is often a better idea to look for ways to improve upon the execution of the strategy than to toss it entirely. Was the response to the Zarqawi video really so negative that it suggests there is absolutely no point revisiting the use of such material, in any configuration, with any framing or presentation, at any point? Or were there nuances to those responses that could be used in crafting such releases? I cannot say without access to the data, but surely there is some way to make use of material such as this when it falls into the military’s possession. Closer study of the Zarqawi data is clearly warranted—if this material has been found in some labs, it will be found in others, and having a skeletal strategy in place that takes that experience into account would be well worthwhile. 92 At a minimum, trying to determine if the negative response was to some extent context-based would be very important. The war against Islamist insurgents will continue to be, in large part, a war against arguments, symbols, and images. That such a war is being fought in an information context unlike any other only complicates the challenges faced by the U.S. Army, and the U.S. military generally. New information and communication technologies are being used to great synergistic effect by the enemy: the military has to understand how this works and be prepared to make use of such technologies to counter enemy messaging to the extent possible, as quickly as possible. This cannot, by definition, be left to the PAO community, but must be understood by, and participated in, the entire military to have a chance at success.