Robert Kaplan was with the First Battalion of the Fifth Marine Regiment when it led the Marines into Falluja; his account, titled “The Real Story of Fallujah,” is riveting. Kaplan’s main focus, though, is on the public relations side of the war. I agree with all that he says:
We live in a world of burning visual images: As Marines assaulted Fallujah, the administration should have been holding dramatic slide shows for the public, of the kind that battalion and company commanders were giving their troops, explaining how this or that particular mosque was being militarily used, and how much was being done to avoid destroying them, at great risk to Marine lives. Complaining about the slanted coverage of Al-Jazeera–as administration officials did–was as pathetic as Jimmy Carter complaining that Soviet Communist Party boss Leonid Brezhnev had lied to him. Given its long-standing track record, how else could Al-Jazeera have been expected to report the story? [I would say, likewise, how else could the American television networks have been expected to report on Fallujah?] You had the feeling that the Pentagon was reacting; not anticipating.
And had the administration adequately explained to the public about what the Marines were doing after Fallujah, there might have been less disappointment and mystification about quitting the fight there. But instead of a gripping storyline to compete with that of the global media’s, spokesmen for the White House, Pentagon, Coalition Provisional Authority and the Baghdad-based military coalition, in their regular briefings about events in Iraq, continue to feed the public insipid summaries, with little visual context, that have all the pungency of watery gruel.
Without a communications strategy that gives the public the same sense of mission that a company captain imparts to his noncommissioned officers, victory in warfare nowadays is impossible. Looking beyond Iraq, the American military needs battlefield doctrine for influencing the public in the same way that the Army and the Marines already have doctrine for individual infantry tasks and squad-level operations (the Ranger Handbook, the Fleet Marine Force Manual, etc.).
The centerpiece of that doctrine must be the flattening out of bureaucratic hierarchies within the Defense Department, so that spokesmen can tap directly into the experiences of company and battalion commanders and entwine their smell-of-the-ground experiences into daily briefings. Nothing is more destructive for the public-relations side of warfare than field reports that have to make their way up antiquated, Industrial Age layers of command, diluting riveting stories of useful content in the process. Journalists with little knowledge of military history or tactics and with various agendas to peddle can go directly to lieutenants and sergeants, yet the very spokesmen of these soldiers and Marines themselves–even through their aides–seem unable to do so.
The American public can accept 50 casualties per week if the path to some sort of success is convincingly laid out. If it isn’t, the public won’t accept even two casualties per week. It could not be helped that the shame of My Lai, as awful as it was, should have been allowed to blot out American heroism at places like Hue: The phenomenon of the media as we know it was new back then. But if the stain of Abu Ghraib, for example, is not placed in its rightful perspective against everything else that soldiers and Marines are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Colombia and many other places in the War on Terrorism, then it won’t be the media’s fault alone.
All I can say is, Amen. We are long past the point where the fact that the vast majority of the American media care much more about defeating a Republican President than about winning the war can be a surprise to anyone. The administration needs to play the hand it’s been dealt, and if it is incapable of mounting a decent public relations effort, it deserves to lose.