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Julian Stallabrass

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Atrocity in Public Relations

Posted: 19/06/2013 09:42

Comparing the two demonstrations of US military power to which the media were invited--Vietnam and Iraq--the use of violent and atrocious images in each raises puzzles or even paradoxes. The management of the media is now a central element in Pentagon strategy, put on a par with the army, navy, air force and special forces, and its aim is to dominate the 'information battlespace'. Truly astonishing sums are spent on this military PR: the Bush regime spent $1.6bn on PR between 2002 and 2005, and half of that was spent by the Pentagon.

It may be tempting, in thinking back to Vietnam, to see this military concern with the media as new, but the endless picture parade of the moderately photogenic General Westmoreland strutting about the battlefield should give us pause: at the time, he boasted that he was the most photographed person in the world.

The Vietnam War is, of course, in retrospect seen as a PR disaster for US power: the spectacle that eventually emerged of the world's greatest military force applying its full weight and technological prowess against peasants and the very land on which they lived was an ugly one: the burning homes, the scorched flesh, the massacred children, the mass bombing and the torture echo down the decades, especially in photographs, and resonate today. It led to the unprecedented sight--for the US--of many of its citizens taking the side of the enemy, cheering on Ho Chi Minh and waving North Vietnamese flags, while displaying photographs of the atrocities committed by US troops. The US lost the war militarily, and was driven from Vietnam by the cost in American lives and money, leaving its client state to swift collapse.

Yet that military defeat was accompanied by an imperial victory, of which the bad PR was an integral part: what state would subsequently risk such wrath?--the millions dead, and millions more maimed, economic blockade, the land poisoned, leaving a dire legacy of genetic malformation for generations to come. This was the price of 'victory'. The terms on which Vietnam was admitted back into the global trading order in 1994 were a telling exercise of imperial power: that the Vietnamese state, one of the poorest on Earth, should pay off the war debts of the Saigon regime, should pay in fact for the cost of the arms used to destroy the country.

The Iraq War offers an extraordinary contrast and it was in many ways designed as the negative image of the perceived failures in Vietnam. The military victory was remarkably swift and complete, and it was accompanied--indeed it was an integral part of that victory--with a striking PR success. The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), the full application and integration of networked computer technology into warfare, promised faster, cheaper military operations in which much greater accuracy and speed would overwhelm an enemy's ability to coherently respond to an attack. The RMA delivered what the neo-conservatives said it would: a rapid, low-cost collapse of the enemy, with few Allied casualties and relatively few civilian ones. The embedding of journalists with troops tended to produce military spectacle, the extravagant, sublime and sometimes staged display of US power--arranged, framed, relayed and sold. It filled the press with pictures of hi-tech weaponry in use, of soldiers who looked competent or heroic brandishing their weapons and giving presents to Iraqi children, and of spectacular battle pictures of the destruction of the Iraqi armed forces.

Strategically, tactically, and in PR terms, the assault on Iraq was a remarkable success. The media campaign had done its job: most Iraqis were not prepared to fight for the regime that had led them into such prolonged catastrophe, and particularly not in regular units that would be vulnerable to such overwhelming technological superiority. The army largely melted away, without a fight but also without surrendering.

Two thoughts may have crept in to qualify the triumph. Firstly, that the media success was entirely a Western matter, especially among allied combatant nations, and it issued from a pliant, hollowed-out media that had long neglected foreign affairs. The Arab media, in particular, showed what the war and the occupation meant for civilians with explicit pictures of the dead, the wounded and the oppressed. Secondly, that this attack was launched against a nation that had crumbled, slowly and extensively, over a decade of deeply punitive sanctions. Its institutions had collapsed, its citizens were hungry, and died because the blockade denied them medicines. The Iraqis had been ordered to destroy some of the few weapons' systems that they still had which might have threatened the invading forces, and had done so openly. The only element of the state that continued to function was its ability to suppress and attack its own citizens. So this high-tech war was launched, with such self-glorification before thousands of lenses, on a nation strangled for a decade by sanctions and disarmed by international decree. If the RMA could not achieve victory in those circumstances, it never would.

Yet this 'full spectrum dominance' of the military and the media field led eventually to imperial defeat: to an army of occupation at war with much of the Iraqi population; to the establishment of a client government of staggering incompetence and corruption; to the fostering of long-term sectarian violence bordering on civil war; and to large costs, human and monetary which contributed greatly to the global financial collapse in which US global dominance is threatened.

With both wars, the relation between PR and final outcome is not what we may expect: in Vietnam, PR disaster was accompanied by imperial victory, of which it was an integral part; in Iraq, PR remained quite good, even as the occupation deteriorated and the horrors of Abu Ghraib were revealed, yet the strategic and economic outcome was a defeat. An implication of this contrast is that a fuller display in the Western press of the full disaster that had befallen the Iraqis would have aided compliance with US power. Two major factors that should hold us back from that conclusion: firstly, that unlike in Vietnam where the policy was simply to wipe out the peasantry, much of the destruction was inadvertent--it was not policy as such, but policy gone awry. The neo-cons really did believe, it seems, that following an easy military victory, secular democracy could be imposed on Iraq by foreign force, to the delight of the populace. This was an insouciant, criminally negligent discounting of the history of the region, particularly of its dire experiences with imperial power, and of the horrendous effects of sanctions, but the policy was not supposed to yield the public spectacle of mass murder.

Secondly, even if it had been, the global media climate into which that spectacle would issue has utterly changed, and such a display would deeply damage the power that wielded it. The victims in Vietnam could not talk to us directly, in the way so many eloquent bloggers did from Iraq. They could not generally make their own photographs or films, and the things they did make were censored from the mainstream press. Since then, the mediascape has utterly changed: Obama's terrorism--assassination attacks and drones--is directed against remote areas where people have little or no access to cameras, phones and the Internet. Those areas are shrinking fast along with the scope of the state to wield its murderous power with impunity.

Julian Stallabrass was a speaker at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn festival.

 
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