Posted on: 10 November 2010 by Mike Miner
There is a school of thought in military circles that insists however much you dress war up in new theories or bold doctrines and however much technology seems to promise revolutions in Combat Art the essential nature of war remains timeless and immutable.
As Clausewitz insisted over two centuries ago “all wars are things of the same nature”.
So after something like the ‘Shock and Awe’ aerial attack on Baghdad roars across TV screens and seems to clinch a victory in hours, we should not be surprised to then see the relentless emergence of all the elements Clausewitz saw as the essence of war: danger, uncertainty, change, physical and moral exertion, and always, friction.
In the major wars I’ve covered I’ve been struck by the contrast between an almost science-fiction kaleidoscope of advanced weaponry, and the grim sameness of soldiers’ existence at the front.
When you step into the glistening command centres mounting display upon display of coloured battlefield markings and live aerial video amid the hum of ranked computers, it is tempting to believe the prophets of New Battle and feel millennia of warfare may have no relevance since the arrival of the microchip and instant global communication
And yet in the Kuwait desert in the Gulf War in 1991, I would see cold and sleepy-eyed marines rouse themselves in trenches at first light to scan the flat horizon for potential enemies in the unvarying morning ritual of soldiers since the dawn of warfare.
Similarly in Afghanistan I’ve joined Canadian soldiers outside Kandahar City clambering up solid wooden watch towers that could have been designed by Roman Centurions. Before a patrol I’ve found modern soldiers have the same tendency to laugh too easily and too loudly in the same tension that that their great-grandfathers might have shown before going into no-man’s land in Flanders in 1917.
I stress the mundane aspects of war because extraordinary changes in information technology seem to suggest the opposite --that at least the face of war is being dramatically altered before being presented to a confused civilian world.
Never has war coverage seemed so familiar given 24/7 television addiction to what has been called “Spectator Sport War”. Canadians have seen thousands of hours of footage of their troops patrolling in Kandahar province. And yet rarely has coverage seemed more remote in modern times, in terms of our understanding of it. Canada, like other Nato nations, is involved in a near decade-long war that seems now but a distant buzz. The media reports from the field on a steady basis, but with little depth, while Parliament shows no appetite to debate it. We’re not alone. In the recent mid-term US election even the grinding struggle of 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan rated scarcely a mention.
This curious remoteness flows in large part from the new approach to “Strategic Communications” undertaken by the US military in Iraq since 2003, and by NATO nations, including Canada, for years now in Afghanistan.
This is a form of coordinated, politicised communications management through all forms of media and public outlets which goes well beyond traditional public relations into the manipulation of the war’s “narrative” and “themes” and above all embraces the cause of Selling the War to the Home Front, as well as to local populations.
Strategic Communications flows from the top national leadership down and so is concerned with managing the image of the war in a way least likely to arouse debate. US Military writer and combat veteran Richard Halloran has noted that what’s new is the way it coordinates all aspects the manipulation of messages by all national leadership. “Strategic Communications is a way of persuading other people to accept one’s ideas, policies and courses of action. In that old saw it means “letting you have my way”.
When dealing with embedded media it means generally not lying to journalists, which is risky, but rather providing them with only half a loaf of information.
The desire is for media to show a form of strictly limited war in ways that don’t disturb the central and upbeat message of the Mission.
For the Canadian media Strategic Communications has seen the true extent of military operations in Afghanistan, especially the count of wounded troops, consistently covered-up for months at a time. Daily firefights go unrecorded unless an actual death is involved; rocket attacks on Canada’s Kandahar base cannot be reported by journalists.
This lid is imposed not by local commanders but rather by their masters in Ottawa and serves to minimize this country’s actual perspective on our largest war since Korea.(1950-53) .
In its most extreme version Strategic Communications has also seen the concentration of information on the war at the level of the Prime Minister’s office, to the frustration of officers and reporters alike as increasingly now information requests are judged by the defensive mindset of minority government.
While General Rick Hillier commanded Canadian troops in Afghanistan and later as Chief of Defence staff he promoted Communications as an essential part of the Combat Art and devised a remarkable mobilization of Canadian national icons behind populist “Support the Troops” movements. He enlisted events like the Grey Cup and sports celebrities to Don Cherry, in the process of whipping up its own “support our troops” sentiment Hockey Night in Canada was turned into what’s likely now the world’s most militarized sports broadcast.
Public relations in war is not new, for master commanders like Napoleon, Eisenhower, Mao or Giap used communications to maximum effect. What separates Strategic Communications most strikingly, however, is its aversion to showing images of death and suffering in war.
Do you recall ever having seen on television the image of a dead Taliban? It’s very unlikely you ever will. For Selling a War now requires fully sanitized images.
The Western militaries learned this lesson in the final hours of the Gulf War, when the International Coalition driving Iraq from Kuwait was shocked by horrific images of burnt Iraqi corpses immolated in US bombing runs along the so-called “Highway of Death”. The widespread shock helped persuade President George Bush Sr, to call off the ground offensive after 100 hours. It was a lesson about images officers never forgot---even pictures of enemy deaths can now damage a mission.
In Canada our familiarity with images of war’s suffering is largely limited to that which cannot be ignored: - the dead soldiers brought home in honoured ceremony along a Highway of Heroes ablaze with flags and “support our Troop” banners.
We see the coffins of the fallen, but very few of the nearly 1,000 wounded who have until very recently been shamefully neglected out of sight, out of mind.
To even be with troops in Afghanistan journalists make accommodations. Our crews do not record rocket attacks on our own bases, and are discouraged from filming casualties in the field. As for dead Taliban, they have never been shown, despite thousands lost in combat. Military guides ensure they go uncounted, and are off limits to camera crews, before being dumped into raw field graves. The official excuse is “we don’t do body counts”. The actual effect, however, is that to this day the Canadian public has never been informed how many their soldiers have killed in those foreign fields.
This sterility of war imagines protects the sensitivities of the Home Front, but also is designed to counter the communication of maximum violence employed by the Taliban and its allies. The Insurgents send a powerful message which deters popular opposition when they feed out violent images of bombings. NATO on the other hand only loses when connected to death.
The irony of the new Information age is that it gives us the ability to show a reality of war never approached before. But its potential impact on world-wide audiences has imposed a strategy on the military of hiding the true costs of combat by keeping at bay war’s most timeless element of all: images of dead and wounded.
This in effect takes us back to something like the limited view civilians had of the First World War when pictures of the slaughter were very rare.
As in that more innocent time, our modern sensitivity still permits war in our name, but seemingly does not permit us to examine it too closely.