Mass media implications with U.S. military policy in Iraq and subsequent cross-cultural communication failures
(USA, Ohio Dominican University)
The implications of U.S. shallow doctrine in Iraq and subsequently vague mission objectives have been given thorough coverage in mass media. This reporting has, in turn, impacted U.S. execution of the war. Thus, mass media coverage conveys the story and has become part of the story it is reporting. Thus, there is a communicative nexus between mass media and war.
On June 1, 2007 I retired from the U.S. Air Force at the rank of Colonel after 30 years service in the reserves and on active duty. My entire career was in the intelligence community, with the final 14 years spent as an Air Force attache in China. Prior to that I was assigned to Special Operations Command/Pacific. Given my civilian background in higher education I was involved with military educational opportunities. I graduated from Squadron Officers School, Air Command & Staff College, Air War College (these courses are commonly referred to as Professional Military Education) and completed many other specialized courses. In the closing years of my military career, after the start of the Iraq war in 2003 in particular, I had the opportunity to speak at Army War College, serve as an adjunct faculty member at Joint Special Operations University and assist with war games exercises at the Pentagon (as recently as March, 2007) and Air War College (as recently as May, 2007).
This provided me with ample opportunity to become familiar with military doctrine and, after the start of the Iraq war in 2003, observe how primary tenets of established military theory were consistently ignored. At times it has almost been as if the U.S. invasion/liberation of Iraq was executed as a case study for future students to review and learn how not to address such a challenge. The inability to consider, let alone plan for, cross-cultural ramifications has been a central communication failure that has proven tremendously problematic. The mass media have been keen to report on these matters which, in turn, have modified public understanding of the matters being reported on.
I completed Air Command & Staff College in 1998 and Air War College in 2000. Air Command & Staff College (intermediate service school) completion is required for promotion from major to lieutenant colonel and Air War College (senior service school) is required for promotion from lieutenant colonel to colonel. Each branch of the military has these intermediate and senior service schools. Communication processes are consistently recognized as being primary concerns in these courses. My completion of both courses, being so close to September 11, 2001 and the March, 2003 start of the Iraq war, has allowed me to observe the U.S. military actions in relation to various areas of U.S. military theory. Some of this military theory conveyed inaccurate speculations but some of the speculations and assumptions have been incredibly accurate.
All works quoted in this report are from sources used in Professional Military Education course readings. The only exception is Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq
(Ricks, 2006) and a fall, 2007 CNN.com article quoting retired Army Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez. The Ricks book is used to compare and contrast U.S. military doctrine and theory against actual practices evidenced in Iraq as reported by Ricks.
In 1997 Russell Travers predicted "that the United States is on the threshold of a protracted military breathing space. During this period, U.S. leaders will be confronted with less risk of large-scale conflict than has been the case since the end of World War I" (Travers, 1997: 98). This speculation was obviously proven inaccurate as a result of the events of September 11, 2001. Hindsight provides an enhanced position for interpreting what has transpired since Travers wrote those words. However, for the most part, the Professional Military Education readings tend to be accurate and relevant in the assessments offered.
Charles Dunlap (1998) posited "Future adversaries may wage asymmetrical warfare by combining available low-tech equipment with a culturally oriented strategy . . . . an enemy could use a civilian airliner loaded with explosives to launch an attack on a high value target" (p. 4). He goes on to say "the kind of asymmetrical warfare adversaries may wage is not that which seeks to actually defeat U.S. or Western military forces, but rather that which assaults the psyche and will of the populations whose political support is required by Western democracies to sustain military operations" (p. 5).
Most of the Professional Military Education readings lay a foundation for understanding, among other things, under what conditions the United States should commit military troops and, when those troops are committed, considerations for guiding the deployment of troops. What follows is a general overview of some of the more common tenets. That is followed by representative excerpts from Fiasco
(Ricks, 2006) that, in addition to the facts of the war thus far, illustrate how many of these tenets have not only been disregarded but, in many cases, have been directly contradicted.
Department of Defense (DoD) Joint Publication 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations
(1993, v. 4) states there are three criteria for establishing a 'good' political objective for war. "The first criterion is that the objective must be easily understood . . . . The second is that the objective can be turned into a crusade that appeals to our moral sense . . . .The third is that the objective must represent a self-interest perceived to be worth the cost of the war . . . .Unless the objective is considered important and vital, Americans are hesitant to commit lives and resources on a large scale or for a long term to attain it" (page 4).
Drew and Snow (1988) stress the importance of national security objectives in Making Strategy: An Introduction to National Security Processes and Problems.
They state the initial task of the strategist is to define the national security objectives that support an intended operation. "If the objectives are ill defined, inconsistent, or unsupported by some degree of national consensus, the strategist's function becomes exceedingly difficult" (p. 4). They go on to stress that, without attention to this detail, the result will most likely be a decline in American national will and military morale (p. 6).
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry (2002) clarifies three elements to be considered regarding the use of force. The political element: "a judgment as to the nature of the interests at stake and whether the use or the threat of use of military force is the most appropriate way to protect those interests." The military element: "a judgment as to the capability of the U.S. military forces to achieve our goal and the probable losses entailed." The ethical element: "a judgment as to whether achieving our goals by military force is in keeping with America's fundamental respect for human life" (pp. 1-2). He states there are three different cases in which we may employ military power: "The first category is when our vital national interests are threatened. Our second category is when important, but not vital, national interests are threatened. The third category is when a situation causes us deep humanitarian concern" (p. 4). Perry goes on to say, regarding national political objectives, that "accurate identification and evaluation of national interests and the political objectives that support those interests are vital if war is to serve a rational purpose" (p. 20).
A caveat to this position by Michael Howard is acknowledged. Howard (1979) stresses "The military instrument is not equally applicable to the pursuit of all national political objectives. Use of military power, even in war, may be inappropriate for some objectives and may even be counterproductive for others" (p. 15).
Perry cautions against fighting wars with limited political objectives as we were doing in Iraq. "The differences between limited and unlimited objectives can be crucial in determining popular levels of support for a war, especially in a democracy. For example, Americans generally have supported unlimited political objectives in war. However, limited objectives, such as those in Korea and Vietnam have been far less popular" (Perry, 2002: 20). Similarly, Ambassador David Passage (1998) asserts "A truly democratic government has no business undertaking schemes that arouse genuine hostility among a significant percentage of its citizens; such schemes should be left for private institutions or others" (p. 30).
An overall theme that is consistently reinforced in professional military education centers on clarity. Before deploying U.S. troops the administration should have clearly stated goals that are well defined and can be understood, achievable, measurable and assessable. An exit strategy should have been established and there should have been public support. William Snyder (1995) stresses this line of thinking when he explains the importance of military strategy. He indicates "military strategy is a broad concept which includes a military objective and a plan for achieving that objective by means of military resources" (p. 3).
At this point insights about the "friction" of war, offered by Carl von Clausewitz, have considerable relevance in that they highlight the crucial consequence of unplanned variables. "So in war, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances . . . Friction is the only conception which in a general way corresponds to that which distinguishes real war from war on paper . . . . This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus incidents take place upon which it was impossible to calculate, their chief origin being chance" (von Clausewitz, 1962: 46-47). In the contemporary vernacular of today's contemporary soldier---"shit happens."
As a result of the aforementioned friction, and related variables, the original mission planning can spin toward unintended directions and the consequences can be daunting. These unintended issues often lead to "mission creep" whereby the original mission that was planned in detail grew into a plethora of unexpected sub-missions that needed to be addressed. A sub-mission could become larger than the original mission. Such has been the situation in Iraq. The original primary mission was to oust Saddam Hussein. This was accomplished in short order. However the aftermath, which was barely planned for (i.e. there was no exit strategy), has dragged on since March, 2003.
As a result we find the U.S. Army, which had planned for a "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein (which they successfully carried out), mired down with the overarching goal of trying to simmer a civil war among warring factions. Donald Snow, former professor at the Army War College, warns of this very phenomenon. "Do not think of peacekeeping and peace-enforcement either as an extension of what the Army does or as parallel and compatible missions. The Army has limited experience in peacekeeping . . . . Significant involvement in peace-enforcement and peacekeeping operations will require the Army to modify the way it does business . . . . Peace-enforcement will require some fairly basic changes in the way the Army prepares for war" (1993, pp. 5-6).
It is within this context that the findings from Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq
(Ricks, 2006) can be best illuminated. The book by itself is provocative and exceedingly relevant given the loss of life, on all sides of the issue, that occurs on a daily basis. That the reality it presents, regarding how the war is being executed, contradicts how our professional military education system prepares our military leaders to fight wars underscores the degree of confusion that exists within the U.S. government on this matter. The U.S. military, particularly the Army, is being given orders to fight a war that it is not prepared to fight. Significant in this scenario, according to Ricks, is a lack of awareness regarding cross-cultural communication dynamics (Ricks, 2006: 238). Add to that the continual mass media reporting of the war, gains and losses, and the resulting public mind that evolves.
His highlighting of cross-cultural concerns is couched within other themes in the book. Such topics include focus on the role of military doctrine, the Bush rationale for military intervention in Iraq, problems associated with strategy, confusion regarding the notion of counterinsurgency, misuse of the U.S. Army, cross-cultural issues and parallels with U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The relevance of mass media reporting of these topics is inherent in our understanding of them.
Ricks (2006) opens his study with an overarching interpretive foundation that he builds from.
President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 ultimately may come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy. The consequences of his choice won’t be clear for decades, but it already is abundantly apparent in mid-2006 that the U.S. government went to war in Iraq with scant solid international support and on the basis of incorrect information - about weapons of mass destruction and a supposed nexus between Saddam Hussain and al Qaeda’s terrorism—and then occupied the country negligently (p.1) He builds from this broad assertion throughout the book.
A central premise of the book is that Bush’s venture into Iraq has veered off course regarding longstanding military doctrine. In June 2002 Bush gave a speech at West Point where “he made preemption the national strategy—an astonishing departure from decades of practice and two centuries of tradition. Henceforth, the United States was prepared to attack before threats became full-fledged . . . . Bush stated ‘If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long’” (Ricks, 2006: 38). Earlier that year, during his State of the Union address in January 2002 that was widely disseminated via mass media venues, Bush had acknowledged Iraq, Iran and North Korea as rogue states. “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world” (Ricks, 2006: 35). As Ricks notes, “The first speech had done the targeting—that is, stated the goal. Then the West Point speech provided the doctrinal, or intellectual, rationale for doing it” (Ricks, 2006: 39).
Ricks (2006) proceeds to interpret the rationale used by Bush to defend his use of the military in this manner.
The Bush administration offered three basic rationales for U.S. intervention in Iraq: the threat it believed was posed by Saddam’s WMD; the supposed nexus it saw between Saddam Hussein’s government and transnational terrorism; and the need to liberate an oppressed people. In the spring of 2004, the first two arguments were undercut by the official findings by the same government that had invaded Iraq, and the third was tarred by the revelation of the Abu Ghraib scandal (p. 375).
Thus, according to Ricks, Bush is defined as being doctrinally bankrupt and operating from dubious premises. The implication being that such a scenario is a recipe for tragic results.
Much of the Ricks book lays out, in vivid detail, the absence of meaningful strategy that is an outgrowth of faulty doctrine and misguided rationale for military intervention in Iraq.
Strategy was seen (by the Bush administration’s national security team) as something vague and intellectual, at best a secondary issue, when in fact it was the core of the task they faced….An overly simplistic conception of the war led to a cascading undercutting of the war effort: too few troops, too little coordination with civilian and governmental/non-governmental agencies and too little allotted time to achieve success. A confused strategy can be every bit as lethal as a bullet (Ricks, 2006: 185).
Representative Ike Skelton sent a letter to Bush in which he invoked the advice of the highly regarded Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz “to remind the White House of the requirement in war ‘not to take the first step without considering the last step.’” ” That is, don’t go into war without an exit strategy. Similarly he quoted Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu “To win victory is easy; to preserve its fruits, difficult” (Ricks, 2006: 59).
This description of vacant strategy implies that the U.S. Army is one of the victims of U.S. military intervention in Iraq. What much of the Army leadership tried to caution against, and that we can see clearly in hindsight, is that there was not a clear overarching strategy in place prior to the invasion. “Speed didn’t kill the enemy—it bypassed him. It won the campaign, but it didn’t win the war, because the war plan was built on the mistaken strategic goal of capturing Baghdad, and it confused removing Iraq’s regime with the far more difficult task of changing the entire country” (Ricks, 2006: 127-128). Ricks goes on to convey example after example where this strategic void has led to tragic results.
“The effect was that the U.S. occupation in its very nature violated the fundamental military principle of unity of command—that is, having one person in charge of the effort, so that all hands have a common goal and work together toward it . . . .Chain of command—of all the problems in Iraq, this is the biggest problem” (Ricks, 2006: 179-180). Ricks explains that a casualty of the lacking chain of command is the absence of an understandable commander’s intent. “The U.S Army divisions operated like fingers without an operational hand or strategic arm to guide them….it works only if (they’re) guided by a larger strategy that coordinates each unit’s actions. In military shorthand, that direction is called the commander’s intent. (General) Sanchez didn’t provide it”
(Ricks, 2006: 225).
The Abu Ghraib prison situation reflects one of the more pronounced examples of how the U.S. Army subsequently has become a train wreck waiting to happen. The tragedy of the Abu Ghraib abuses can be attributed to a large degree to the lack of strategy. “As the need for actionable intelligence arose, the realization dawned (among U.S. commanders) that pre-war planning had not included planning for detainee operations.” It is bizarre to think this inevitability was not considered (Ricks, 2006: 291). The mass mediated visual images of Abu Ghraib prison abuses will haunt U.S. legitimacy in the region for years to come.
Thus, U.S. military intervention in Iraq is basically summarized as being thoroughly misguided because, among other things, without sound strategy it is left vacillating in prevailing political winds of the day. “Unless we ensure we have coherency in our policy, we will lose strategically….I do not believe we had a clearly defined war strategy, end state and exit strategy before we commenced our invasion” (Ricks, 2006: 362). Multiple misunderstandings have flowed from this situation. A key misunderstanding deals with a missing awareness of what a counterinsurgency is and how to combat it.
The Bush administration has been very slow to grasp the U.S. military is in the throes of a counterinsurgency. “The Iraqi people were the prize in this fight, not the playing field….(the) classic counterinsurgency strategy holds that the objective is first gain control of the population and then win their support” (Ricks, 2006: 250). Many problems can flow from a lack of awareness in this area. “The key to counterinsurgency is focusing on the people, not on the enemy….Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy….One of the keys to winning a counterinsurgency is to treat prisoners well, because today’s captive, if persuaded to enter politics, may become tomorrow’s mayor or city council member” (Ricks, 2006: 420-21).
There is no doubt that the U.S. holds the upper hand regarding weaponry however correct use of that weaponry is key. “Firepower must be viewed very differently (in a counterinsurgency) than in regular war. A soldier fired upon in conventional war who does not fire back with every available weapon would be guilty of dereliction of his duty; the reverse would be the case in counterinsurgency warfare, where the rule is to apply the minimum of fire” (Ricks, 2006: 266). This confusion about what kind of war we are fighting obviously places the U.S. soldier in a very difficult situation regarding how one is to proceed and react.
Kalev Sepp is a retired Special Forces officer who earned his Ph.D. in history at Harvard and became a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. Sepp drafted a short paper that distilled the lessons of fifty-three counterinsurgency campaigns in the twentieth century, with an eye to identifying the characteristics of those that had won and those that hadn’t….Sepp’s chart of the nine unsuccessful characteristics reads like a summary of the U.S. occupation in 2003-04. These were his hallmarks of failure: 1) primacy of military direction of counter-insurgency; 2) priority to kill-capture enemy, not on engaging population; 3) battalion-size operations as the norm; 4) military units concentrated on large bases for protection; 5) Special Forces focused on raiding; 6) adviser effort a low priority in personnel assignment; 7) building, training indigenous army in image of U.S. Army; 8) peacetime government processes; 9) open borders, airspace, coastlines (Ricks, 2006: 393-394).
Ricks portrays resulting frustrations among U.S. military personnel and implies such frustrations are understandable. One of the ways for soldiers to function in such an environment is depicted via them being able to remove themselves from that environment, even if it is counter to best practices for fighting a counterinsurgency. Since the 2003 Iraq invasion quality of life issues for U.S. soldiers has been stressed more and more.
In order to keep a volunteer force relatively happy and willing to come back for third and perhaps fourth tours, the Pentagon had to provide a high quality of life for its people. But counterinsurgency doctrine says that the only way to win such a campaign is to live among the people. One of the nine hallmarks of failure identified by Kalev Sepp was ‘military units concentrated on large bases’—and that was precisely the new force posture of the U.S. military….He knew that classic counterinsurgency theory held that troops must live among the people as much as possible, developing a sixth sense of how the society works (Ricks, 2006: 417-418).
U.S. military involvement in Iraq is painted as classic misuse of the U.S. Army. During my March, 2007 military tour at the Pentagon I noticed many copies of the Ricks book being read. The Pentagon library had many copies prominently displayed. It will no doubt be useful reading in future case study analysis for how U.S. leaders should not proceed. “What you see here is an unconventional war fought conventionally….In other words, U.S. forces were fighting hard, and might even be able eventually to claw their way to victory, but they were working far harder and less productively than necessary….They were pounding the square peg of the U.S. Army into the round hole of Iraq” (Ricks, 2006: 214).
As such the U.S. Army is praised and the Army leadership is not blamed for the prevailing circumstances. “The cause of the turmoil among the troops wasn’t the quality of the commanders, but rather the disconnect between what the Army was designed to do and what it actually found itself doing….We’ve got a military designed to fight big wars, and it’s constantly fighting small wars” (Ricks, 2006: 310). The reader can easily grasp the predicament this presents for the soldier trying to carry out his/her duty.
Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki appeared on Capitol Hill February 25, 2003 and presented his pessimistic view of the proposed invasion of Iraq. Among his key points was that the postwar force should be considerably larger than the wartime force. This put him in opposition to the plan being put forth by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Ricks, 2006: 96) and, as a result, Shinseki resigned. He is one of the few senior leaders who can be admired for transparent integrity.
There are numerous pockets of resulting problems that can be categorized compartmentally. Communication scholars can easily point to issues associated with cross-cultural communication misunderstandings. Colin Powell warned against military intervention into Iraq. Powell asserted to Bush “You are going to be the proud owner of twenty-five million people . . . . You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems.” (Ricks, 2006: 48). Powell also later resigned in frustration.
Important cultural norms were trampled as the Army sought to achieve their objectives. “Entering the private space of the house where the women and children were, then tying up and interrogating (i.e, humiliating) the man in the house in front of his family, the premier cultural value of family honor was violated….You’ve created a blood debt when you do that” (Ricks, 2006: 238). Such scenarios have played out over and over again during the U.S. military occupation of Iraq.
Making enemies when we should be making friends has created a disaster for the U.S. “Each Iraqi owed it to himself and his family to decide whether it made more sense to cooperate with us or to cooperate with somebody else, the insurgents. Unfortunately, because of our incompetence, more and more Iraqis have made the decision that their interests don’t lie with us” (Ricks, 2006: 325-326). This is depicted as one of the cascading failures. The mass mediated visual images of the Abu Ghraib abuses hurt our cause immensely in this regard.
Marine four-star General Anthony Zinni, who led the 1998 Desert Fox raids on Iraq, has been vocal in his opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. “The more I saw, the more I thought that this was the product of the neocons who didn’t understand the region and were going to create havoc there . . . .U.S. soldiers would wind up paying for the mistakes of Washington policy makers” (Ricks, 2006: 87-88). This lack of cross-cultural understanding among senior U.S. leaders is recognized as being an acute failure that will haunt us for years to come. The parallels with U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the 1960’s-1970’s are many.
In fall, 2003 General Zinni addressed the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association in Crystal City, Virginia (near the Pentagon). “It kills me when I hear of the casualties and the sacrifice that’s being made, especially because the casualties are being suffered because some policy wonk back here had a brain fart of an idea of a strategy” (Ricks, 2006: 242). Zinni closed by cautioning that Iraq was beginning to feel like the Vietnam War. He received a standing ovation.
In May 2004 a Washington Post/ABC poll indicated a majority of Americans felt the war in Iraq was not worth the losses incurred. “General Zinni came to a similar conclusion. ‘I have seen this movie,’ he said in April 2004. ‘It was called Vietnam’” (Ricks, 2006: 362). Zinni has periodically presented such views on the Sunday morning political talk shows. When a prominent retired Army four-star general conveys fervent opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq on national television this makes a strong impression with the viewing public.
What Ricks presents would stand alone as interesting and engaging reading even if it were fiction. That it is dealing with a factual situation, and so many lives are being destroyed in the wake of this scenario, makes it an imperative topic for discussion. The implications for the future are stunning.
In January 2005, the CIA’s internal think tank, the National Intelligence Council, concluded that Iraq had replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for a new generation of jihadist terrorists….Iraq is likely to dominate American foreign policy for years….What happens in Iraq will influence the fate of the Middle East for generations to come, with a profound impact on our own national security (Ricks, 2006: 430-431).
One is left wondering what, amid the staggering losses in Iraq, has been gained? Ricks searches for an answer to this question and concludes “Yet inside all these problems there lay a major victory for President Bush and his plan to transform the Middle East. Like it or not, the U.S. government through his actions has been tethered to Iraq and to the region around it as never before. Under him, the U.S. military has carried out its first ever occupation of an Arab nation…. The stakes are simply too high to let Iraq become a sanctuary for anti-U.S. terrorists” (Ricks, 2006: 433).
We in the U.S., individually and collectively, are left to draw our own conclusions of what this represents for the nation. It is a sensitive topic and one that might easily be avoided given the discomfort associated with it. Given what I’ve observed I am not opposed to U.S. involvement in Iraq, and the region overall if we have national security interests at risk, but I do oppose military intervention if there is no coherent plan in place that stresses goals that are defined, understandable, achievable, measurable, and assessable and if there is no exit strategy end game and public support. Otherwise, it seems to be a recipe for disaster for all concerned.
On March 17, 2007 the second largest anti-war protest against the Pentagon occurred as a means to register dissent against U.S. military involvement in Iraq (the largest had occurred 40 years earlier as a statement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam). The protesters gathered on the mall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and proceeded across the Memorial Bridge and onto the Pentagon. I was working a war game exercise that day at the Pentagon but arranged my duty day so I could go to the mall and then observe the march as it proceeded to the Pentagon. I was surprised at the number of counter-protesters who were at the mall to oppose the anti-war protesters. I was also surprised at the degree of feeling that both constituencies expressed. There were some fairly ugly confrontations.
As we enter the coming years, and U.S. involvement in Iraq continued, it is my guess we will see more expressions of dissent and support regarding U.S. military involvement in the region. The role of communication processes in such expressions, and the understanding of such expressions, will continue to be pivotal. Similarly the role of communication processes will be pivotal regarding the U.S. military functioning in Iraq. There will continue to be effective practices and ineffective practices. Regarding the effective practices, the Human Terrain System is worth noting. This innovative approach teams civilian anthropologists with Army brigades to advise military leaders regarding cross-cultural dynamics that can enhance mission effectiveness. It has been widely embraced.
All the while, however, the impact of an absent overall strategy continues to be felt. In October, 2007 Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, coalition commander in 2003-04, labeled the Iraq war as “a nightmare with no end in sight. . . .(and) the Iraq war plan from the start was catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic. . . . (involving) partisan politics that have prevented us from devising effective, executable and supportable strategies” (Sanchez, 2007). Hopefully lessons from the present will be heeded in the future.
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