7.4.3  The Impact of Propaganda

(This is an archived extract from the book Patterns of Power: Edition 2)

The use of force provides plenty of material to supply propaganda (which is a word that is taken here to mean news reporting presented in such a way that it carries a persuasive political message on behalf of one side in a conflict).  There are several sources of propaganda:

·      Leaders can easily present an invasion or the threat of invasion as a threat to their people’s security, way of life and independence; these leaders are then strengthened by being able to call for unity to combat the threat (6.3.6).  For example, "when Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, the Israeli invasion and presence decisively contributed to the strength of Hezbollah." [1]

·      Civilian casualties, particularly where children are involved, make emotive headlines.  For example, George W Bush referred to children to stir up American public feeling in his “axis of evil” State of the Union Speech following Al-Qaeda’s acts of terrorism on 9/11.[2]

·      News travels very quickly nowadays to reach a global audience, and it is made more vivid with photographs and video clips that can be made by anybody with a modern mobile phone.  A constant stream of such clips emanated from the resistance against President Assad's use of force against his own people in Syria in 2011-12; these clips were posted on the Internet and were widely broadcast on news programmes in the mainstream media.[3]

·      When an invasion involves soldiers on the ground they will suffer casualties.  Their fear, and their resentment on behalf of their injured comrades, creates a state of mind where it is all too easy for the behaviour of these troops to become both aggressive and vengeful.  If they inflict human rights abuses against those whom they see as their enemies, the reporting of those abuses can be turned into very effective propaganda against the invasion.  This happened with the widely-reported behaviour at the Abu Ghraib prison during the invasion of Iraq in 2004,[4] where prisoners were humiliated and assaulted, and the incident in January 2012 when a video was circulated showing American Marines urinating on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan.[5]

·      Remotely-operated drones, used against specific targets, kill many civilians as well as combatants so they provide a fertile source of propaganda against the perpetrators.[6]

The resulting propaganda can have a very damaging effect upon the operation itself and upon the countries which participate in it:

·      Propaganda stiffens the morale among those against whom the force is used: it helps to recruit people, including suicide bombers, to the resistance forces and it encourages civilians to help the insurgents in any way they can – by hiding them, feeding them, and giving them medical help. 

·      There is a danger of actions being presented as religiously motivated, with the effect of widening the zone of conflict and merging it with the global jihad (7.3.3).[7]   It was easy for Al-Qaeda to present America and Britain as conducting a “crusade” against Islam – especially after George W Bush used that word, with all its dreadful connotations for Muslims, when launching his “war on terrorism” on 16 September 2001.[8]  The invasion of Iraq provided propaganda which persuaded UK-born Muslims to join the jihad and to carry out bombings in London on 07/07/2004, as explained by one of the bombers (Mohammad Sidique Khan):

“Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world.

And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.” [9]

·      Bad publicity saps both domestic and international support for a government which is using force; the massacre at My Lai, for example, helped to turn the American public against the war in Vietnam and also drew wide international condemnation of America.[10]

Many of the things which happen in a conflict may not have been intended by those who launched it, but it is inevitable that collateral damage will occur and misjudgements will be made; these will be used to generate harmful propaganda – increasing the scale of the military task to be performed and reducing their country’s political standing in the world.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] Richard English, in his book Terrorism: How to Respond, commented on how Israel’s invasion of Lebanon strengthened Hezbollah’s leadership (p. 13).

[2] George W Bush made the following references to children in his State of the Union address in January 2002:

"Every day a retired firefighter returns to Ground Zero to feel closer to his two sons who died there. At a memorial in New York, a little boy left his football with a note for his lost father: "Dear Daddy, please take this to Heaven. I don't want to play football until I can play with you again someday.""

The text of this speech was available in May 2014 at http://edition.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/01/29/bush.speech.txt/.

[3] The BBC report on 29 April 2012, entitled Syrian activists film UN monitors touring Homs, provides an example of mainstream media using amateur video material supplied by the resistance movement in Syria.  This report was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17889651.

[4] The abuse of Iraqi prisoners by their American captors at the Abu Ghraib prison was widely reported as, for example, in a CBS report which was available in May 2014 at http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500164_162-615781.html.

[5] A Washington Post report on 11 January 2012, entitled Video appears to show troops urinating on corpses, was available in May 2014 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/checkpoint-washington/post/video-appears-to-show-troops-urinating-on-corpses/2012/01/11/gIQAywxhrP_blog.html.

[6] Recent figures reveal the extent of the drone programme:

“The total number of people killed by drones is estimated at 2,528 to 3,648. Civilian casualties are estimated at 416 to 948, with 168 to 200 of those being children. As many as another 1,545 are estimated to have been injured in those strikes.”

These figures were quoted by Yahoo! News on 13 November 2013 in an article entitled New book: Obama told aides that drones make him 'really good at killing people', which was available in May 2014 at http://news.yahoo.com/new-book--obama-told-aides-that-drones-make-him--really-good-at-killing-people--144734667.html.

[7] In April 2006 the CIA published a National Intelligence Estimate entitled Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States, which included the following statement:

“The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

This excerpt was quoted in an article entitled Seven Years in Iraq: An Iraq War Timeline, published by Time on 19 March 2010, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1967340_1967352_1968020,00.html.

A full copy of the report was available in May 2014 at http://www.governmentattic.org/5docs/NIE-2006-02R.pdf.

[8] George W Bush's use of the word 'crusade', on 16 September 2001 (a few days after 9/11), was widely reported.  The New York Times report was available in May 2014 at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/17/us/after-attacks-white-house-bush-warns-wrathful-shadowy-inventive-war.html?pagewanted=all.

The word ‘crusade’ was not in Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress and the nation on 20 September 2001 which was published by the Washington Post and which was available in May 2014 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_092001.html.

On 23rd of September 2001, Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper analysed some of the reasoning behind the Bush speeches, in a report entitled Bush speech crafted to unify hawks and doves in cabinet, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1341385/Bush-speech-crafted-to-unify-hawks-and-doves-in-cabinet.html.  This described his use of the word ‘crusade’ as “impromptu”, and that he regretted it.

The word was immediately used against him.  A report by the BBC entitled Bin Laden rails against Crusaders and UN, on 3 November 2001, referring to a speech by Osama bin Laden in which he described the 'war against terrorism' as “the most ferocious, serious, and violent Crusade campaign against Islam ever since the message was revealed to Muhammad”; he called upon all Muslims to support his global jihad.  This BBC report was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/monitoring/media_reports/1636782.stm.

[9] BBC News online quoted the London bomber: Text in full, on 1 September 2005; this was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4206800.stm.

[10] There are numerous reports and videos on the My Lai massacre on the Internet.  A succinct summary was available in May 2014 at http://www.history.com/topics/my-lai-massacre, which stated that “the massacre sparked a wave of international outrage” and “exacerbated growing antiwar sentiment on the home front in the United States”.