Strategic Horizons: The Information Battlefield of Live-Cast War
By Steven Metz, on 19 Dec 2012.
The 20th century saw an expanded role for war correspondents in shaping public opinion. As photography improved and moving images were added, war became painfully more real to those back home. But it wasn’t until Vietnam, America's first televised war, that scenes of death and destruction were beamed nightly into American homes. To an unprecedented degree, journalists explicitly displayed war's brutality, undercutting public support for the conflict. America's Cold War enemies seized on these images to further tarnish the country’s image abroad. Following this, it took several decades for the U.S. military to again trust journalists enough to embed them with combat units. Even then, there were controls over the images and videos made public. The editors at media outlets still decided what to publish or air, but official pressure could be brought to bear if the pictures or videos endangered military forces or were inimical to national interests. This did not always stop them, but often it did.
Now technology has shattered any expectation of official control over the images and videos from armed conflict. Outside the most remote areas in the least developed countries, battlefields are populated not only by a multitude of news agencies from a variety of nations, but also by individuals able to capture and transmit cellphone videos and pass them to others for use in pressuring governments. From this point on, most military operations will be "live cast."
Recent events give clear signs of this trend. In 2010, a gun camera video clip from an American Apache helicopter in Iraq, taken in 2007, was released on the Internet by the group WikiLeaks. Two journalists from the news agency Reuters had died in the attack. The U.S. military's investigation found that the helicopter crews had followed correct procedures and had "neither reason nor probability to assume that neutral media personnel were embedded with enemy forces." Despite this, the killings added fuel to rumors that U.S. forces in Iraq targeted journalists, further eroding the increasingly fragile public support for the war.
While this particular tragedy involved the release of a stolen official video, the insurgents in Iraq also live-casted their operations for propaganda and training purposes. Nearly every insurgent attack was posted on the Internet within days, often within hours and sometimes even within minutes. Then the "Arab Spring" revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya saw the live-casting of violence reach new heights. Many of the battles and actions by government forces were broadcast in real time, and others were quickly uploaded to the Internet. War had become a transfixing public spectacle.
Although the live-casting of armed action has become the new norm, policymakers and military leaders have not yet adjusted. The normal American reaction when the ugliness of war becomes public is an investigation and an eventual public release of the findings. Unfortunately, the belief that truth will win out is old-fashioned, even quaint in an era of information profusion. Today explanations of events form and explode without waiting for a careful collection of the facts or even the truth to emerge. Ideas move with such rapidity and in such complex ways that it is impossible to identify or gauge the authority of their source. Information may have passed through hundreds, thousands and even millions of hands via email, online discussions, blogs, web pages, tweets and social media sites. No one knows its origin. The Internet and new media are rife with myths that sometimes subside and then reappear at unpredictable times. No idea, no matter how delusional, suffers a final death in the virtual world.
This world of rapidly emerging and changing narratives now forms part of the operating environment for the U.S. military. And, unfortunately, enemies unconstrained by the need to conform to the truth have an advantage that may become decisive. For the military commander on the ground, this means that any mistake will be publicized and used to discredit the United States. Even incidents like the attack on the Reuters reporters, which did not represent a mistake but simply part of the inherent horror and ugliness of war, can be used to erode support for U.S. actions and undercut public support.
In the short term, the best the U.S. military can do is limit mistakes by maximizing discipline and ethical training. However, when young people are forced to make life and death decisions in situations of extreme fear, anxiety and misunderstanding, they will stumble, sometimes with disastrous results. Each error is likely to become public and erode support for military operations and the military itself. At a broader level, the U.S. military must abandon its practice of making no comment until there is a full investigation. By then it is too late -- a narrative will have already formed, often one that casts the U.S. military and the United States itself in a negative light.
In the long term, the live-casting of military operations could fuel isolationism and pacifism in the United States and other democracies. The brutality of war is alien to the lives of most people. So long as they only saw it indirectly or in a filtered way, they could tolerate it. But when the horrors of armed conflict become searingly real through live or near real-time video, the public may demand that national leaders avoid military action unless national survival is at stake. This would mean forsaking involvement in the kinds of stabilization operations most likely to characterize conflict in the decades ahead. If this happens, that is, if the United States and other democracies are forced to abandon armed conflict and leave it solely to states and organizations without ethical constraints, the world would become a much grimmer place.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday.