Military Propaganda for Domestic Consumption

Retired Colonel Pat Lang is incensed by a widely-cited op-ed in yesterday’s WaPo by MG William Caldwell IV explaining “Why We Persevere” in Iraq.

This oped piece, written by the Iraq command’s chief information officer can only be seen as propaganda. It was placed on the neocon compliant editorial page of one of the leading American newspapers. The intended audience is obviously the American electorate. This is domestic propaganda conducted by the armed forces on behalf of the policy of a particular political party and administration. It is propaganda directed at the American people by a man in the uniform of the United States Army. The American people revere their Army.

Overseas propaganda in support of a military campaign or political goal is a legitimate activity. Domestic propaganda conducted by the US Armed forces to keep the American people “on board” is not.

I respectfully dissent.

Yes, this is “propaganda,” in the benign sense of providing information in an attempt to persuade an audience toward one’s point of view. To say that it is done “on behalf of the policy of a particular political party and administration,” though, is not quite right.

The United States is at war and the United States Army is the chief instrument of that war. This war was initiated by a duly elected president, who has since been re-elected, with the overwhelming support of both Houses of Congress. It is, therefore, the policy of the United States of America that Caldwell is defending, not that of a political faction. That remains true even though the war is now controversial and many, especially those in the opposition party, are opposed to its continuance.

Caldwell represents “137,000 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen” who daily “lace up their boots, strap on their body armor and drive ahead with our mission.” It is perfectly reasonable for him to tell the American people about those soldiers are doing and progress they are making. Doing so not only helps maintain troop morale but assures the public that their military is doing its job.

His op-ed makes no pitch for a change in policy or even for the continuation of the current one. He merely offers his professional opinion about a current topic of debate:

I studied civil wars at West Point and at the Army Command and Staff College. I respect the credentials and opinions of those who want to hang that label here. But I respectfully — and strongly — disagree. I see the Iraqi people suffering from overlapping terrorist campaigns by extremist groups combined with the mass criminality that too often accompanies the sudden toppling of a dictatorship. This poses a different military challenge than does a civil war.

I happen to agree with Caldwell’s position on the civil war debate, as I have noted before, and agree that whether it is a “civil war” or something else matters tactically and strategically. (For an excellent counterpoint, see Stephen Biddle’s “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon” in the March/April Foreign Affairs, arguing Iraq is in a “communal civil war.”)

Where exactly we should draw the line on serving officers talking to the American public about matters of public policy, I’m not sure. This seems to me to be well short of crossing it, however.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Media, Military Affairs, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ken says:

    James, you are leaving out the fact that any support that Bush enjoyed for his war on Iraq was based upon Bush and his administration, and other war supporters, telling lies to the American people.

    That these lies intimidated Congress into giving him an excuse to attack is irrelevant to the issue. Congressional cowardice is not justification for an illegal, immoral and unjust war.

  2. legion says:

    James,
    I think the problem is that a lot of people, including both Lang and myself, see the term ‘propaganda’ as having an inherently spin-based, even non-factual, implication. It’s all about salesmanship – trying to convince a group of people to support what we’re trying to do.

    There’s nothing wrong, in concept, with that target group being the US population, but the assumption is that if this were a legitimate national interest, we shouldn’t have to stretch things, let alone make stuff up, to get popular support. Caldwell’s piece doesn’t give me much hope, either, being full of complete crap:

    I don’t see a civil war in Iraq. I don’t see a constituency for civil war. The vast majority of the people want hope for their families, not to massacre their neighbors or divide their country.

    No shit, Sherlock. Has anyone ever really imagined that Iraqis _want_ a civil war?

    No wonder no “rebel army” steps forward to claim credit for vicious car bombs and cowardly executions of civilians.

    Huh? Is he serious? Or does he just think anything not accompanied by a Fox News runner blurb didn’t actually happen? Militas performing executions, kidnappings, etc. are a pretty regular occurrence. But it gets scant coverage in this country unless it’s directed at Americans.

    I see debates among Iraqis — often angry and sometimes divisive — but arguments characteristic of political discourse, not political breakdown.

    Except for when significant chunks of a party walk out on the Prime Minister…

    The Council of Representatives meets here in Baghdad as the sole legitimate sovereign representative of the people, 12 million of whom braved bombs and threats last December to vote.

    Yes, a gov’t whose leader we have undermined & derided as ineffective & would love to replace with Ahmad Chalabi…

    No party has seceded or claimed independent territory.

    Again, no shit. The various factions don’t want control of _part_ of the country, they want _all_ of it. Secession is by no means a requirement for ‘civil war’.

    I see a representative government exercising control over the sole legitimate armed authority in Iraq, the Iraqi Security Force.

    Really? So when US Army and Marine units perform patrols, raids, etc. without ISF participation (or after the ISF crumbles/runs away/starts shooting at our troops on the side of the insurgents) they’re committing war crimes? Good to know.

    I studied civil wars at West Point and at the Army Command and Staff College. I respect the credentials and opinions of those who want to hang that label here. But I respectfully — and strongly — disagree. I see the Iraqi people suffering from overlapping terrorist campaigns by extremist groups combined with the mass criminality that too often accompanies the sudden toppling of a dictatorship. This poses a different military challenge than does a civil war.

    It poses a different military challenge to _US_. Not to the Iraqis. The reason their civil war doesn’t look like ours is that in the 1860s, the US wasn’t occupied by a foreign power with a vested interest in one side winning over the other. I’ll admit, combining a civil war with a war against an occupying force complicates things slightly, but again – only for us.

    While I understand the role of a military spokesman is to put a certain point of view forward, MG Caldwell’s article is chock full of willful ignorance and total crap. I’m with Lang here – this is propaganda in its worst connotation, and disgraceful for a uniformed officer to put forward to his own countrymen.

  3. DC Loser says:

    If Caldwell were to try to sell this honestly to his colleagues he’d be laughed out of the room.

  4. M1EK says:

    “This war was initiated by a duly elected president, who has since been re-elected, with the overwhelming support of both Houses of Congress.”

    Can you point me to the declaration of war which was passed by both houses of Congress, please? Thanks in advance.

  5. James Joyner says:

    M1EK: Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq

    … “Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.”

  6. ken,

    You said: Congressional cowardice is not justification for an illegal, immoral and unjust war.

    One problem: the war isn’t illegal. Congress authorized it.

  7. cian says:

    ‘Arguments characteristic of political discourse, not political breakdown’.

    Is he mad? 3000 Iraqis dead in one month alone. Hundreds of bodies turning up with holes in their heads , put there by power drills. The prime minister clinging to power with the help of a Saddamesque crazy man and his militia. The army infiltrated by death squads. A police force whose only job is to act as the nations undertakers. American troops risking their lives to protect one sect only to have that same sect turn around the next day and kill them. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi professionals fleeing the country as fast as they can. Doctors butchered for attending to Sunnis. Doctors butchered for attending to Shiites.

    If Caldwell’s read on what is happening in Iraq makes James more comfortable with his own, fine. But for God’s sake don’t diminish the horror visited on thousands of Iraqi innocents every day

  8. Cernig says:

    James,

    I love that bit about Pentagon propaganda being OK if used abroad. Ever read the UK’s Daily Telegraph online?

    Robert,

    the war isn’t illegal. Congress authorized it.

    Given that this particular war may not be an illegal one. That’s because of the clause that says the Congress authorized the use of U.S. forces to uphold UNSC resolutions on Iraq in perpetuity (there was no cut-off date in the wording). As long as the UNSC keeps asking for a multi-national force, the U.S. component of that force is legal in itself although some of its conduct may not be.

    However, the U.S. Congress and/or president is simply not the final word in international law in exactly the same way as the British parliament is not or the Reichstag was not. It may be a pedantic point to Americans but I assure you it isn’t to the rest of us.

    Regards, C

  9. ken says:

    Robert Prather, legal wars are defined by our treaty joining the United Nations. Per our constitution treaties, once ratified and adapted, become the supreme law of the land. So yeah, the war on Iraq, authorized by cowardice in the face of lies, is illegal.

  10. M1EK says:

    James,

    That’s not a declaration of war. It’s an authorization to use force if diplomatic efforts failed. Not the same thing at all, and I know you know it.

    Do you have a link to an actual declaration of war? I’d really like to see one.

  11. James Joyner says:

    M1EK: C’mon. We haven’t had a formal “declaration of war” since 1941. Most wars we’ve fought since then–and there have been many–have been on pure presidential fiat. All of Clinton’s wars were done that way.

    The 1973 War Powers Act was an acknowledgment of that reality. Indeed, Nixon considered Congress taking back any authority over war making from the president so objectionable he vetoed it, requiring an override.

    Bush got an overwhelming authorization to use force from both Houses of Congress. That’s the modern way we “declare” wars.

  12. Pat Lang says:

    I tried to make it clear in the post on my blog that my objection to Caldwell’s oped lies in the intended target which is the American people. I do not believe that seeking to “guide” the thinking of the American people is a proper or legitimate activity for the US armed forces.