On War #311: Ideas as Weapons

William S. Lind
21 July 2009

Ideas as Weapons is the title of a new book, a collection of essays edited by two Marine Corps officers, G.J. David Jr. and T.R. McKeldin (the publisher is Potomac Books). Subtitled “Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare,” the volume is dedicated to exploring the aspect of war most neglected by the Second Generation American military, ideas. The U.S. armed forces have never grasped the centrality of John Boyd’s dictum that for winning wars, people are most important, ideas come second and hardware is only third.

Mostly, the U.S. military reduces ideas to “Information Operations,” or IO, in which some junior officers and NCOs churn out leaflets, films etc. of indifferent quality. The idea, central to Fourth Generation war, that Information Operations are what you do, not what you say, is missed entirely. The results of typical IO range from minimal to hilarious. The book recalls one incident during the siege of Fallujah where Marines made and broadcast a film intended to show American troops feeding Iraqi refugees halal rations. It actually showed them feeding Arabs kosher rations, which did not play too well locally.

As with all collections, chapters vary in quality. They are organized in four parts, Geopolitical, Strategic, Operational (it’s nice to see Marines using that word correctly form once) and Tactical. In my view, the best chapter in the Geopolitical section is Ambassador David Passage’s “Reflections on Psychological Operations: The Imperative of Engaging a Conflicted Population.” He argues that “It has long been axiomatic in guerrilla warfare that a defending force (such as a government the United States is associated with) will find itself confronted with almost insuperable odds unless it can enlist the active — not passive — support of its own citizens in countering an insurgency.” Contrasting America’s failure in Vietnam with success in El Salvador, Ambassador Passage suggests the usual psyops messages are ineffective:

The modern age has reached the point where, given the babble of conflicting, contradicting, and combative messages, populations are decreasingly likely to simply accept what they are told. In the welter of competing messages and mediums, government-sponsored messages are at a particular disadvantage…

A better approach might be to ask questions rather that provide answers…

The fundamental message to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries in conflict needs to be, as the U.S. message was in El Salvador twenty years ago, “This is your country; the kind of country it’s going to be is up to you – not to the United States or any foreign country. What kind of country do you want it to be? Are you willing to help restore order, and law, and civility – or are you going to sit quietly while those who seek to destroy what you have do their work?”

A strong chapter in the Strategic section is Colonel William M. Darley USA’s “Clausewitz’s Theory of War and Information Operations.” Darley argues that “Contrary to entrenched perceptions, IO is not merely a family of related skill sets or capabilities that in all cases augment “kinetic operation.” Collectively, they are properly understood as a specific purpose and emphasis within an overall plan of action that under some circumstances might be the main effort.” I would add that in 4GW, they are usually the main effort.

Darley offers a Clausewitzian definition of IO, far broader than the current American technical definition. It reflects Clausewitz’s discussion of the power of “moral” factors in what is essentially a political contest. His chapter concludes with a quotation from Clausewitz that strikes to the heart of ongoing American failures in 4GW:

Political considerations do not determine the posting of guards or the employment of patrols. But they are the more influential in the planning of war, of the campaign, and often even of the battle … The only question, therefore, is whether, when war is being planned the political point of view should give way to the purely military … or should the political point of view remain dominant and the military (military force and violence) be subordinated to it?

The book’s Operational segment includes a devastating critique of the U.S. military’s whole intelligence system, “Clouding the Issue: Intelligence Collection, Analysis, and Dissemination during Operation Iraqi Freedom,” by Army Lt. Col. George J. Stroumpos. Too lengthy to summarize here, it proceeds from the statement that

Our intelligence apparatus has been our Achilles’ heel… the Coalition intelligence apparatus is a hodgepodge pick-up team, conflicting in its organization and lost in a sea of data. This, coupled with the sheer volume and complexity of the environment, is the primary problem…is poor information management and the resulting syntheses that follow from poor technique.

Ideas as Weapons‘ Tactical segment, which junior-level practitioners will find of
particular value, includes a superb chapter, “Tactical Information Operations in West Rashid: An Iraqi National Police Battalion and Its Assigned U.S. Transition Team,” by Major E. Lawson Quinn, USMC. This chapter gets at one of the central fallacies of the whole American effort in Iraq (and elsewhere), namely that what local government forces need is American training in techniques. In reality, cultural factors are far more important than technical skills (Saddam’s forces, after all, were technically quite capable of maintaining order in Iraq without American training). Major Quinn gets at the central problem when he writes:

The Sunni population in West Rashid unquestionably viewed 2/7/2 (an Iraqi National Police battalion) as a sectarian organization that served the interests of the Shi’a majority at the expense of the Sunnis, if not an instrument of or in collusion with the Shi’a militias. The very demographic makeup of 2/7/2, less than ten Sunnis among the four hundred or so Shi’a members of the battalion, precluded overcoming that sectarian perception even if the Shi’a majority and leadership wanted to do so, but their actions clearly did not evince the slightest proclivity toward it.

In fact, it was quite clear that at least the battalion leadership understood the value of information operations in reinforcing that perception. Even the casual Western observer…would have understood the message trumpeted by the large Shi’a flag posted at the front of the compound high atop the tallest building.

Ideas as Weapons is a book that should be high on the reading list of every American commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the theater level down through company. I stress commanders, not just intelligence officers, because IO properly defined are at the heart of Fourth Generation war. Until American commanders at all levels understand that fact, we will continue to rocket and bomb our way to defeat.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

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Mr. William S. Lind
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