The Military and the Media

Ralph Peters has an excellent piece today explaining why the media is such a huge factor in waging modern war.

During the combat operations, al-Jazeera constantly aired trumped-up footage and insisted that U.S. Marines were destroying Fallujah and purposely targeting women and children, causing hundreds of innocent casualties as part of an American crusade against Arabs.

It was entirely untrue. But the truth didn’t matter. Al-Jazeera told a receptive audience what it wanted to believe. Oh, and the “Arab CNN” immediately followed the Fallujah clips with video of Israeli “atrocities.” Connecting the dots was easy for those nurtured on hatred.

The Marines in Fallujah weren’t beaten by the terrorists and insurgents, who were being eliminated effectively and accurately. They were beaten by al-Jazeera. By lies.

Get used to it.

This is the new reality of combat. Not only in Iraq. But in every broken country, plague pit and terrorist refuge to which our troops will have to go in the future. And we can’t change it. So we had better roll up our camouflage sleeves and deal with it.

His proposed solution is counter-intuitive but may well be right:

[W]e must develop the capabilities to fight within the “media cycle,” before journalists sympathetic to terrorists and murderers can twist the facts and portray us as the villains. Before the combat encounter is politicized globally. Before allied leaders panic. And before such reporting exacerbates bureaucratic rivalries within our own system.

Time is the new enemy.

Fighting faster at the dirty-boots level is going to be tough. As we develop new techniques, we’ll initially see higher casualties in the short term, perhaps on both sides.

But as we should have learned long ago, if we are not willing to face up to casualties sooner, the cumulative tally will be much, much higher later. We’re bleeding in Iraq now because a year ago we were unwilling even to shed the blood of our enemies.

The Global War on Terror is going to be a decades-long struggle. The military will not always be the appropriate tool to apply. But when a situation demands a military response, our forces must bring to bear such focused, hyper-fast power that our enemies are overwhelmed and destroyed before hostile cameras can defeat us.

If we do not learn to kill very, very swiftly, we will continue to lose slowly.

This isn’t a solution anyone is going to like but it may be the best available option. We can no longer count on a friendly media to consider the strategic impact of its coverage; indeed, there are likely to be more al Jazeeras as time goes on, as satellite dishes become the norm even in relatively impoverished countries.

Clausewitz’ holy trinity of war — the military, the government, and the people — must be in synch to win a long term campaign. The modern media environment may be such that maintaining cooperation within that trinity for an extended period is simply impossible. There’s a hostile foreign press and a cyncial domestic press. We also have a domestic political environment that no longer stops at the water’s edge. Opposition politicians no longer feel the slightest hesitation about undermining the war effort if it’ll make political points (and that’s a bipartisan phenomenon, as we saw in the 1990s). It may be that we simply don’t have very long to win anymore.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Meezer says:

    I watched a D-Day documentary yesterday. I thought I knew a fair amount but I learned of several (in hindsight) bad decisions that I had missed before. Like almost all the tanks of the US were lost before they got to Omaha and we pooh-poohed the new tank anti-mine ‘flail’ devices the British were trying on their beaches. And there were other decisions that cost more lives than perhaps was neccessary.

    I looked up some papers from that time. The difference between then and now is staggering. Imagine how the D-Day errors would have been played up today? And the fact that D-Day itself was successful burried on the last page.

  2. Ripper says:

    We do have ASAT technology, there is no need for JIhadist hardware to orbit unmolested.

  3. Dave says:

    Everything I read from “on the ground” folks suggests (at least) that Peters has two things wrong, though, that really bug me: that we were “beaten” in Fallujah, and that we’re “losing” right now.

    The only place I can see us losing (from reading various Iraqi blogs, blogs of those on the ground in Iraq, etc) is in the media. Everything else seems to be working (as in, positive progress being made), just too slowly for Peters and the rest of the pundit-crowd to notice it.

  4. Dave says:

    To clarify my last – it really bugs me that Ralph Peters seems unable, or unwilling, to check the freely available first-person accounts (or maybe has has a handful that he never checks anyone else), so therefore because he doesn’t like X, Y, or Z, or all of them, we MUST be losing. Oh, and it’s all Rumsfeld’s fault, because Ralph Peters says so.

  5. James Joyner says:


    I don’t disagree with any of what you say, especially Peters’ annoying Rumsfeld obsession.

    That said, he’s right on the strategic level. At the tactical level, remember, the U.S. never lost a battle in Vietnam. Even the infamous Tet Offensive was ultimately a huge tactical win. But we lost the war because we lost the media and the public.

    Remember, there are two ways to defeat an enemy: Break his hostile ability (rendering him too weak to fight back) or break his hostile will. No forseeable adversary will be able to accomplish the former. The Viet Cong and the Somali warlords accomplished the latter. If things don’t change soon, so will the Iraqi insurgents and their terrorist allies. Already, over half of the country thinks we’re in a lost cause. That can’t sustain itself.

  6. Chris says:

    Clausewitz’s trinity is not people, government, and army. Huge myth perpetrated by the otherwise great Harry Summers.

    It is reason, chance, and emotion.

    Three weeks of STAP for HI 301, James.

    STAP Ranger w/ OLC for Math

  7. Jem says:

    In addition to speeding things up to get inside our opponent’s (the media establishment is an opponent, much as we might wish it weren’t) decision loop, we need to consider options to damage our opponent directly.

    There’s no need to lie–all we need to do is demonstrate (and publish/broadcast) that the reporting isn’t credible. If we can undermine our opponent with their own words, their power will be reduced.

    To repeat, this is not a substitute for Peters’ argument, but a supplement–a “second front” so to speak.

  8. Steven G. Erickson says:

    I often posted on this very issue on, which might now be dead forever.

    I hope to blog somewhere else, even if eventually does come back up and running.

    Can I get an author account here, or do you know where else I can get one?

    I posted as Vikingas, but usually signed my name, “Steven G. Erickson”