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Information war

By Jackson Murphy
web posted February 25, 2002

President Bush has framed this war in terms of good and evil: we're good and they're evil. There is something absurd about the members of the media complaining about how this war is unfolding. First was the uproar of how terrorists were being treated. Now it is about information warfare. If we are the good, are we then obliged to carry out the war in a certain way?

The New York Times reported last week that the Pentagon is thinking about using the power of media to disseminate, "news items, possibly even false ones to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly an unfriendly countries."

Then the Times in editorials and op-eds galore got their collective panties in a knot and complained that the new Office of Strategic Influence was too secretive. If this is a new top-secret ploy by the Pentagon, they surely are not doing a very good job of not telling anyone. Maureen Dowd, never one to shy away from screeching like a banshee in the name of justice, wrote, "Our cause is just. So why not just tell the truth?"

The Times used this news to suggest that the U.S. was going to send out false information to the foreign or domestic press. But Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said that this was not the case, explaining that just as in the past the U.S. military would employ "tactical deception." That is a far cry from the accusations of false news stories.

Tactical deception isn't exactly new. During World War II the allies spent massive amounts of time and energy to ensure that the D-Day invasion was able to take place-basically tactical deception. That meant a campaign of seriously misleading the enemy and hiding the true intentions of the invasion time and place.

The debate over these new revelations of information warfare lead to some interesting questions: What does it mean to tell the truth during wartime? Does it mean that we need to hold preliminary press conferences before military action takes place? Does it mean that we telegraph our actions?

Frank Gaffney has pointed out that this sort of information warfare is needed now more than ever: "As the American armed forces mount worldwide operations under the unblinking gaze of seemingly omnipresent, 24/7 media coverage, the need to induce the enemy to misapprehend our plans and intentions becomes all the more challenging, even as it becomes more important."

The best argument against this new initiative is that much of the Islamic world already views the US with mistrust anyway and that purposeful lies or deceit may make matters worse. But seriously how bad could it get? They already think we lie all the time so why don't we lie a little to protect the troops and ensure victory?

The age of information doesn't mean that every piece of information has to be made public-doubly so during wartime. North American media have the luxury of protesting such perceived challenges to their power and monopoly on info.

"Truth is always a casualty in war," writes Michael Ignatieff in his 2000 book Virtual War. "[B]ut in virtual war, the media creates the illusion that what we are seeing is true. In reality, nothing is what it seems. Atrocities are not necessarily atrocities. Victories are not necessarily victories. Damage is not necessarily 'collateral'. But these deceptions have become intrinsic to the art of war. Virtual war is won by being spun. In these circumstances, a good citizen is a highly suspicious one."

And shouldn't a respectable news organization such as the Times be suspicious of all of its sources. But the media writ large doesn't necessarily do so. Take the wildly different reports on civilian casualties in the Afghanistan theatre. Originally the reports held that thousands upon thousands of civilians were killed by U.S. actions in Afghanistan. But the news organizations now put the figure at anywhere between 600 and 1,300. It is evidence that the media is equally guilty of misleading or in some cases capable of being simply flat out wrong.

It was Winston Churchill was said, "In a time of war, the truth is so precious that it must be attended by a bodyguard of lies." The problem today is that the media feels entitled to the truth even if it puts soldiers in danger and jeopardizes the outcome of the war. Their job is to question and ours to be suspicious. The government's job is to win the war and protect citizens. And if that is inconvenient for the media, tough.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is the editor of "Dispatches" a web site that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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