Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Connecting some of the dots
We already knew most of this. We had the facts before us and many bloggers even commented on them at the time. But other facts were crowding in, also demanding our attention and the significance of the staged photo op was lost for a year.
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.

After the colonel — who was not named in the report — selected the statue as a "target of opportunity," the psychological team used loudspeakers to encourage Iraqi civilians to assist, according to an account by a unit member.

But Marines had draped an American flag over the statue's face.

"God bless them, but we were thinking … that this was just bad news," the member of the psychological unit said. "We didn't want to look like an occupation force, and some of the Iraqis were saying, 'No, we want an Iraqi flag!' "

Someone produced an Iraqi flag, and a sergeant in the psychological operations unit quickly replaced the American flag.

Ultimately, a Marine recovery vehicle toppled the statue with a chain, but the effort appeared to be Iraqi-inspired because the psychological team had managed to pack the vehicle with cheering Iraqi children.

At the time we knew that American Marines had rounded up a crowd to tear down the statue. We knew that an American soldier had climbed the statue and placed the first rope around Saddam’s neck. We knew about the awkward moment with the flags. We knew that ultimately an American vehicle had been necessary to pull the statue down. We knew that the square just happened to be in front of the hotel where the international press was staying. The mainstream media mentioned all of these facts over the following few days.

Some bloggers examined unedited news footage and commented on how small the crowd was and how the problem in getting the statue to fall wasn’t that the statue was too strong, but that there just were not enough people to take it down. This was no Prague or East Berlin. Yet we allowed that there was an element of truth behind all the prompting and let it go at that. We had bigger things to worry about. I think at the time most of us took a “what can you expect” attitude. To be reminded of now, many of us are with Atrios in feeling disgusted at the way the Bush administration takes us for chumps.
What makes me mad is that this stuff wasn't designed for Iraqi consumption - I'm all for a bit of harmless propaganda if it improves things over there. This stuff was done for the Bush'04 campaign. Iraqis knew what was going on.

David Neiwert points out that there is even more reason to be upset. The stunt was goes deeper than a mere campaign stunt (though the Bush administration has treated it as such). Neiwert latches on to the fact “that this project was specifically a product of the Pentagon's ‘psychological combat’ program.” Neiwert quotes Christopher Simpson, of American University, who has written extensively on psy-ops to explain the significance of this group.
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.

Again, part of this is something we all knew. Of course we were engaged a propaganda war alongside the physical one. Despite the name psy-ops is nothing new. Military thinkers since at least the days of Sun Tzu have written about the importance of breaking the enemy’s will. Today air dropped brochures, clandestine radio broadcasts, and carefully planted rumors are as important as firepower and intelligence in fighting a war.

Neiwert’s point—the point we less often consider—is that our government uses the same techniques are by to keep our support as it uses to destroy the enemy. Atrios was right, the falling statue image was not meant for Iraqi TV—they had no electricity at that point in time. The image was meant for our TV. But Atrios misses a point. Karl Rove was not in Baghdad directing the troops. These troops were trained to manipulate the American public into supporting the war, regardless of the enemy or the administration in charge.
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.


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. .

The statue photo op was not a particularly sophisticated operation. As far as we know, it was not scripted or planned in advance. A trained psy-ops professional saw an opportunity and exploited it, though no doubt he had been briefed to look for just such an opportunity.

The incident is telling because it shows how easily disparate elements come together to deceive us. In this case we have the institutional failings of the American news media, information overload of the citizenry, and the presence of propaganda professionals with an agenda.

If you are a regular reader of Neiwert, you are familiar with the weaknesses of the American news media. Their worst crime is not that they involved in an sort of conspiracy to mislead us in the service of this or that agenda. They are not. What they are guilty of is being lazy and eager to please. Most electronic news will gladly accept prepared spectacles in the place of real news because electronic news is very time sensitive and it is very difficult to gather all of the elements of an entertaining news program and still meet deadlines. Most individual reporters are honest and sincere enough, but they are easily seduced by access to the powerful. Asking too many embarrassing questions can endanger that access. So they accept what they are told and don’t dig any further than necessary. The most time sensitive and spectacle driven news is television news. Because of that, it the least likely to question official sources and the most shallow in its telling. By being first to print, television establishes the narrative structure of a story—the common wisdom that most subsequent tellings will follow. By the time a news story makes it out to newspapers and magazines, who have the time to investigate a story and tell it in depth, the images and narrative so firmly established as to be almost impossible to diverge from.

Meanwhile we as news consumers are buffeted by too much information and too little time to examine it critically. Americans are not stupid or naive where propaganda is concerned, when we have the time to stop and examine it. Americans can dissect advertising and other obvious propaganda with remarkable sophistication from a very early age. The problem with news is that it comes so fast and there is always another piece pushing it out of our mind before we can turn our critical facilities on to it. We get flashes and impressions that we either accept or reject at once and move on. Only real news junkies take the time to go beyond “do I believe that?” to “why are they telling us that now?” and “why are they telling it in that way?”

The third element in this problem are the psy-ops professionals. I’ll have more to say about them tomorrow night.

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