|The Media Have Changed War
By J.R. Dunn
January 29, 2007
The weekend before last showed us yet another facet of the problem of war and the modern media. On Saturday, 25 U.S. troops were killed -- 12 of them in a downed helicopter, 5 others while guarding a security meeting in Karbala. This was a bold operation, obviously staged to make an impression The Jihadis achieved complete surprise, approaching in SUVs painted to look like government vehicles. Iraqi checkpoints, displaying the perspicacity we've come to expect, waved them on through, courteously informing the meeting guards that they were on their way. After the raid, they disappeared into the desert without a trace.
Two days later, Baghdad was hit by a carefully coordinated bomb strike featuring both a suicide bomber and a stationary car bomb, resulting in 88 deaths. Another 12 were killed in a bombing in the town of Khalis. Over all, 137 civilians were killed in Iraq over the weekend.
These incidents represent the deadliest run in several months, and come as no accident. The same type of jump also occurred at the time of last summer's Forward Together offensive in Baghdad, and other actions in Anbar province and elsewhere. There's no mystery involved - simply put, a challenge was made, and one weekend ago was the response. For weeks the Jihadis have been hearing about the planned "surge", the upcoming change in strategy, and the pending appearance of General Petraeus. They responded in the way they knew best - with actions designed to spike the impact of the new operation even as it was unfolding.
Where did they hear all this? They heard it from everybody. From the administration, including President Bush on down. They heard it from Robert Gates. They heard it from General Petraeus. They heard it from the Congress. The carrier, of course, was the international media. It's impossible to imagine any of the above individuals dancing such a jig without the prompting of the media in the first place, the same as it's impossible imagining Roosevelt or Eisenhower doing any such thing. (Consider the results if the Normandy invasion had been treated the same way.) But that's where we stand at this stage of the information revolution. It's time we recognized that fact.
The status of the media as a driver of military activity in and of itself is something that has become apparent only with this war. In past conflicts such as Vietnam, the media was viewed as a factor that had to be taken into consideration as either an asset or hindrance, whatever the case might be. (Often an asset to the enemy, usually a hindrance to friendlies.) But in Iraq, it appears that the media, by its presence alone, is changing the very nature of warfare. On one hand, the media is hindering Coalition operations by undermining several very basic principles of war. On the other, it's acting as a strategic asset for the Jihadis, as the equivalent of a territory that can be "occupied" by carrying out certain events, as a force multiplier, and as an intelligence tool enabling them to plan and hone their operations.
This factor, rather than intentions or even actual activities, may turn out to be the most important effect that the media has on millennial warfare. We can be certain that detailed studies of the phenomenon will be carried out in years to come. For the moment, we'll focus on a single element: how media reportage seems to act as an enabler for insurgent activity.
The disturbing thing about the weekend before last's bloodletting is that nobody did anything wrong. Everyone was acting as they ought to act, by the lights of the early 21st century. This was not a case of an unauthorized leak or the New York Times revealing a secret program. The President was pitching his new strategy. The defense secretary was backing him up. General Petraeus was testifying to Congress, and the media was simply reporting was happening. Things operated as they always do, and people - a lot of people -- got killed.
Discussions of military operations in real time -- both before and while they're being carried out -- is something new. It's a byproduct of the information age. The structure of the Internet acts like an enormous vacuum that sucks in information as soon as it appears. Once it's out there, it's available to anybody with access, no matter where they are or what their intentions. You might anticipate that people would become a little more discreet under circumstances like these. You would be wrong.
That this is antithetical to military procedure goes without saying. Surprise and deception are key elements in strategy. Large passages of Sun Tzu's Art of War, the earliest and still superior handbook of strategy, are devoted to surprise and deception (in fact, it can be said that Sun Tzu's overriding goal of winning without confrontation was based almost entirely on