Tuesday, September 9, 2003

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The media and asymmetrical warfare

Glenn Reynolds has a post and links to the media's role in asymmetrical warfare -- namely, how a necesary condition for a victory by guerillas over syanding armies is that the media interprets tactical losses as strategic victories:

In Somalia, the Somalis took over 30 casualties for every American killed or wounded. That was done through the use of superior American training, firepower (on the ground, and in helicopters overhead) and situational awareness (helicopters and more radios.) The battle in Mogadishu is only considered an American defeat because the American government considered 18 dead G.I.’s a defeat, even if over 500 Somali fighters died as well. At the time, the Somalis considered themselves defeated, and feared the return of the Army Rangers the next day to finish off the Somali militia that was terrorizing Mogadishu. The media declared the battle an American defeat, and that’s how it became known. Asymmetric warfare includes having the media in your corner, for that can easily turn a military defeat into a media victory.

That makes Donald Rumsfeld's comments yesterday about media criticism a bit more understandable:

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday that terrorists may be gaining encouragement by some Americans' criticism of the Bush administration's actions in Iraq.

"We know for a fact ... that terrorists studied Somalia and they studied instances where the United States was dealt a blow and tucked in and persuaded themselves they could, in fact, cause us to acquiesce in whatever it is they wanted us to do," Rumsfeld told reporters as he flew back to Washington after a four-day tour of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even if Rumsfeld has a point, he's overreaching -- it's not the place of the Secretary of Defense to insinuate that the media is providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

posted by Dan on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM


Why wouldn't it be the place of the Secretary of Defense to say to the public what he thinks we need to know?

Far too many in the media are unaware, or choose to ignore, the fact that our enemies do indeed take heart from certain aspects of their reporting. Whether they choose to change those aspects is, of course, up to them, but there's nothing wrong in informing them of it. One of the functions of senior government officials is to educate the body politic, after all.

Coming from somebody like the Attorney General, who heads an organization empowered to put citizens in jail, such a statement would have the ring of a threat, but that isn't the case here.

posted by: Ray on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

Who's place is it, then? The media's? ;-)

posted by: Dan on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

Ray and Dan,

I take your points, but the libertarian in me gets veeeery twitchy when I hear the #2 in the military chain-of-command talking about treason. Saying "at leas it's not the Attorney General" doesn't make me feel much better.

It would be better for private actors to carry the water on this argument.

posted by: Dan on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

A big part of planning for an operation like this is making sure that you are going to have enough political capital to see it through. The fact that we are going through a protracted and politically expensive geurrilla war was easily predictable. The administration cannot blame others because they did not forsee the political consequences of their actions.

By the way, some conservatives are fond of making the point that the worst case scenario never happened. I accept this, but also note that this is all the more damning considering that we were not adequately prepared for even the medium case scenario that we are seeing now.

posted by: Michael Jones on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

Anyone who wasn't prepared for it to take longer than a couple of months to pacify Iraq just wasn't paying attention.

As for the media, their training teaches them -- and their bosses reward them -- for reporting the bad stuff, no matter what the subject area. That's what they believe they are there for. It's the "conflict" that is the story -- always. Unless it's some puff feature.

But that doesn't take away from the fact that overall they are slanting their coverage and not telling the whole story by only focusing on the conflicts and not the positives. That's a problem endemic with the field -- and probably always has been but is only becoming more known, I think, with the advent of the Internet and greater availability of information.

I also think Rumseld should tell it like it is. That's pretty much the only way such a viewpoint would get any print or air time. True, such a comment will be sneered at, but that would be true no matter who makes the comment.

posted by: Anne on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

Regarding Mogadishu, wasn't the relevant fact that the militia had an objective and achieved it? They drove the U.S. out of the country. The relative number of combatants killed was irrelevant. We didn't "decide" it was a loss because we don't like to see soldiers killed; it _was_ a loss because they achieved their objective and we did not.

If Instapundit is as bad a law professor as he is a. . . whatever he is, I pity his students.

posted by: Andrew on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

Andrew - the point is that the militants did not drive the U.S. out of the country tactically, but politically. The primary objective of the Mogadishu raid - to capture two Aideed lieutenants - was accomplished. The problem was that by losing 19 soldiers in accomplishing the tactical objective, we lost the political will to continue pursuing the strategic objectives. That is where the casualty ratio comes into play - if we lost 19 men while killing 10 and failing to complete the primary objective, it's a complete failure. Instead, we lost 19 men while causing around a thousand casualties on the other side - on our way out, after completing the primary objective. So, regardless of whether it was the right decision or not, we, in fact, did decide it was a loss because we did not like seeing our soldiers killed.

posted by: George on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

George: My point was that the notion that "the media declared the battle a defeat" is pretty silly. You don't deny losing simply because you could have kept fighting. You lose when you fail to achieve what you set out to achieve. Capturing the warlords was certainly winning the battle, but we also, by pulling out of Somalia, lost that particular war. Maybe it was winning a skirmish and losing a battle. However you want to look at it, Glenn Reynold's (unsurprisingly unsophisticated) triumphalism is misplaced. The worthwhile lesson from Mogadishu isn't that asymmetrical warfare depends on winning a war of perception (true enough though that point is). Instead, it's that we may be on the outmanned side of the asymmetry. The notion that the people willing to fight us is, at this point, in some way finite is the basic idiocy of the "flypaper" theory. The asymmetry of our loss calculus in Mogadishu shows why that's important.

posted by: Andrew on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]


"Anyone who wasn't prepared for it to take longer than a couple of months to pacify Iraq just wasn't paying attention."

- That would include Paul Wolfowitz, Jay Garner and associates, if memory serves me. I'm getting bone-tired of this "Oh, but we knew that all along" line.

posted by: Dave L on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

Come on guys. The Donald needs to step up and become a leader in this administration by taking responsibility for the consequences of his decisions. While I doubt that the average terrorist reads O’Dowd, I guess anything is possible. But I would think that if the players for the “Darkside” would receive any comfort it just might just be from the Keystone cop-style antics of our leadership.

posted by: Keith on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

I guess folks feel obliged to take a lesson from Mogadishu because Osama claims that he did.

However, I wouldn't say it was considered a defeat by the US government primarily because 19 American troop were killed and in spite the fact that many multiples of that died on the Somali side. It was considered a defeat because no one on the US side considered killing Somalis to be the principal objective, or a reasonable measure of success.

The Tet Offensive in Viet Nam is another good example. Militarily, it was a US victory. However, it somewhat undermined US claims to be making great strides in pacifying the country, so it became a bit of a PR disaster.

I doubt that Rumsfeld is really making news with the observation that terrorists believe that ultimately, their success or failure will depend on American will, which will be reflected in US public opinion and the media.

However, Rumsfeld should not be suggesting that Administration critics are aiding the enemy. He should thank them for providing the impetus for making the Admin case, and then do so.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

"Anyone who wasn't prepared for it to take longer than a couple of months to pacify Iraq just wasn't paying attention."

Sorry, Anne's right. We have been repeatedly told that the task will be difficult and require great effort. Speeches before, during and after the opening of hostilities can be reread and parsed, but that message was clear. If people claim it was not, then they either did not pay attention, took their cue from others misinformed or simply refuse to ackowledge the forewarnings.

The failure in Somalia was three-fold. The administration made political rather than military choices in the prosecution of the action, the media portrayed it as a military debacle counter to the effective gains of the units on the ground, and the American people seemingly demonstrated an unwillingness to follow though with the uncomfortable work of striking back. Leadership at the time might have rallied the American people to do what was necessary, but instead, the administration played to the polls, media spin and the images on TV.

I am more than a little disheartened by the number of seemingly reasonable people who expect the success in Iraq to occur in weeks or months, rather than in years. The goals are long term, and the resolve demanded is prodigious. Sending the message that we're tired and unwilling is not effective to acieving the goals of reconstruction or democracy. Our enemies believe we are exactly that weakwilled and easily distracted, and they count on it. The VietCong played to it, fully aware of what they were doing. Osama plays the same game.

posted by: tmid on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

What is so hard to understand that the Bush Administration will do what ever it takes to win the war?

It looks to me that the real September 10th versus 12th divide is that the "tenthers" don't comprehend the concept of war, so there is no way they can look at someone trying to achieve a victory in war and understand. All the "tenthers" see is evil conspiracies because they have no other frame of reference to fit the reality fighting a war to win it.

"Victory in War" is something the "tenthers" can't "Grok" or understand either as individual words or as a phrase.

posted by: Trent Telenko on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]


First, let me be clear on one thing: I personally never, ever expected Iraq to be anything but long, hard and expensive.

But you are just plain wrong to say "We have been repeatedly told that the task will be difficult and require great effort." How were we meant to interpret Wolfowitz chastising Gen. Shinseki for warning that an occupation would require 200,000 troops, or Garner saying (from Kuwait) that his team planned to finish its work in three to six months?

The whole thrust of most Neo-Conservative writing about post-Saddam Iraq was that it would be comparatively easy to pacify and democratize this literate and urban population. In the period leading up to the invasion, it was left almost exclusively to opponents of the war to question these assumptions, which were obviously made with a view to rendering the war more palatable to Congress and the public.

Trent Telenko -

Two questions about the war:
1. Please tell me who the enemy is.
2. Please define "victory".

Be precise; "terrorists" doesn't come close, and "Islamo-fascists" isn't much better.

I'm all for victory in wars, but I lean more to the Powell doctrine. Our present ill-defined, open-ended conflict looks like a plan to convert the entire Muslim world into our own private Gaza.

posted by: Dave L on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

Dave L.

If you don't understand either by now, you never will.

No attempt to explain on my part will make a bit of difference.

posted by: Trent Telenko on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

Here is the DoD transcript with Rumsfeld's remarks. Much less frightening in context.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 09.09.03 at 11:37 AM [permalink]

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