Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rummy's propaganda and the stab-in-the-back legend

Stab-in-the-back illustrated on a 1924 rightwing German nationalist election poster (this stab-in-the-back legend was related to the First World War and is called the Dolchstosslegende in German)

This important article from this weekend, Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand by David Barstow New York Times 04/20/08, has received justifiable attention in the liberal blogosphere, though the poobahs of the Sunday morning talks shows didn't see anything in it worth mentioning. Barstow's article describes what was in fact (and probably in law as well) a propaganda operation aimed specifically at the American public, run by the Pentagon, using retired generals, many of whom were defense industry lobbyists, and relying on at least a tacit quid-pro-quo arrangement in which the lobbyists would spout the Rummy line of the day in exchange for "access" to Pentagon officials with decision-making power over contracts.

This story gives a grimly dramatic picture of how deeply corrupt the American news media have become, particularly TV news. As Barstow rights, the cases he discusses describe "a symbiotic relationship where the usual dividing lines between government and journalism have been obliterated".

Historian Gareth Porter (The Pentagon's Corrupt Sock Puppet "Military Analysts" Exposed Huffington Post 04/20/08) and The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel (NYT Investigation Exposes Pentagon Pimps & Propaganda Operation 04/20/08) have both made impassioned calls for public follow-up on the problems described in Barstow's article.

Others have put this story into some historical perspective of the massive dysfunction of our national political press, including Bob Somerby in his Daily Howler post 04/21/08 and Glenn Greenwald in Major revelation: U.S. media deceitfully disseminates government propagandaSalon 04/20/08).

One of the things that particularly caught my attention is how the stab-in-the-back theory of the loss of the Vietnam War played a significant role in this operation.


Barstow writes:

Kenneth Allard, a former NBC military analyst who has taught information warfare at the National Defense University, said the campaign amounted to a sophisticated information operation. "This was a coherent, active policy," he said. ...

In interviews, participants described a powerfully seductive environment — the uniformed escorts to Mr. Rumsfeld’s private conference room, the best government china laid out, the embossed name cards, the blizzard of PowerPoints, the solicitations of advice and counsel, the appeals to duty and country, the warm thank you notes from the secretary himself.

"Oh, you have no idea," Mr. Allard said, describing the effect. "You're back. They listen to you. They listen to what you say on TV." It was, he said, "psyops on steroids" — a nuanced exercise in influence through flattery and proximity. "It’s not like it's, 'We'll pay you $500 to get our story out,' " he said. "It's more subtle."

The access came with a condition. Participants were instructed not to quote their briefers directly or otherwise describe their contacts with the Pentagon. (my emphasis)
It's important to understand what "psyops" means in this connection, in which Allard's application of the term seems to be unfortunately correct.

Psyops, also known as "information operations", is propaganda aimed at the enemy, pursued as part of a military effort. Leaflets dropped from planes or balloons are a familiar, if fairly primitive and probably low-impact form of psyops.

But in this case, the psyops were directed by the Pentagon and were aimed at Congress and American public opinion. It's not clear if this operation technically violates US laws against propagandizing the US public, although if such operations like this one aren't illegal, they should be.

Because "the enemy" at which this secret psyops operation was aimed was Congress and the American public. How much more explicit does it get than this?

[On Aug. 4, 2005] James T. Conway, then director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, presided over another conference call with analysts. He urged them, a transcript shows, not to let the marines' [14] deaths [the previous day] further erode support for the war.

"The strategic target remains our population," General Conway said. "We can lose people day in and day out, but they’re never going to beat our military. What they can and will do if they can is strip away our support. And you guys can help us not let that happen." (my emphasis)
And the stab-in-the-back notion is a key part of the mindset that regards the democratic public of the country as the enemy of the Pentagon and its wars:

Many [of the analysts in question] also shared with Mr. Bush's national security team a belief that pessimistic war coverage broke the nation's will to win in Vietnam, and there was a mutual resolve not to let that happen with this war.

This was a major theme, for example, with Paul E. Vallely, a Fox News analyst from 2001 to 2007. A retired Army general who had specialized in psychological warfare, Mr. Vallely co-authored a paper in 1980 that accused American news organizations of failing to defend the nation from "enemy" propaganda during Vietnam.

"We lost the war — not because we were outfought, but because we were out Psyoped," he wrote. He urged a radically new approach to psychological operations in future wars — taking aim at not just foreign adversaries but domestic audiences, too. He called his approach "MindWar" — using network TV and radio to "strengthen our national will to victory."
This lazy excuse is unfortunately very popular in the officer corps and is practically a religious dogma for Republican conservatives.

But the notion is false. And its widespread popularity, particularly among the officer corps, is a very serious democratic deficit in the US. As we see in Barstow's story, it also has a toxic interaction with what is probably the most serious democratic deficit of all, the "train wreck" state of our Establishment political news media.

As long as military leaders and civilian officials define the manipulation of American public opinion as a military goal for which the Pentagon can and should be responsible, this kind of thing will happen. The military's emphasis is on achieving results and on protecting operational security. Given a choice, most military officers will play it safe and opt for more manipulation of information and less transparency to Congress and the public.

The separation between "political" and "military" functions may be somewhat fluid in a political theory sense. But in the practice of a Constitutional democracy, those boundaries have to be defined and respected. You could argue that Rummy's bullying, arrogant management style represented a strengthening of civilian control over the military. But, as we see here, Rummy's goal was actually to erase boundaries between what were properly military roles and civilian roles.

We've got the military running an elaborate psyops operation against the American public, mixed with the banana-republic style crony capitalism that is one of the defining characteristics of the Cheney era. And we have Bush publicly hiding behind the skirts of Savior-General Petraeus, pretending that he's just doing what the military tells him to, while Petraeus cooperates with the charade. We have a serious breakdown in the proper distinctions between military and civilian spheres. And it's the job of Congress first of all to recognize and correct the problem. It's also - don't laugh - the job of the mainstream media to expose and criticize this, though it's hard to see how that can happen on the necessary scale without new legislation restricting corporate control of the news media.

But military theorists themselves also have a responsibility to distinguish between democratic and undemocratic ideas in this regard. The notion that the military can or should regard the American public as the enemy in a foreign war is fundamentally incompatible with democratic governance.

They also embrace the stab-in-the-back lie

Military theorists and historians both military and civilian can also address this with honest work on the Vietnam War, as many have, and specific debunking aimed at the dishonest and phony notion that the military won the Vietnam War but the gutless civilians in Congress and the public which was unworthy of its glorious victories generals threw it all away. It's a deeply false version of history. And the ideological conclusions being drawn from it are deeply destructive to democracy. As well as being a lazy excuse for the officer corps to avoid dealing with the very real failings of their own processes and assumptions.

As one of many sound historical treatments of the war that do not indulge this false, ideologically-generated pseudohistory, I would mention here George Herring's America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1986 edition) and Jeffrey Record's The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam (1998).

It's also up to all of us to do what we can to ensure that the already-emerging stab-in-the-back version of the Iraq War doesn't gain the kind of traction that the Vietnam War stab-in-the-back lie has achieved.

That false claim doesn't have only anti-democratic implications at home. It's also at the foundation of the great Maverick McCain's strategy of opened-ended war in Iraq.

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