Pentagon, Inc.: How to Sell an Unpopular War

Call this episode "The Men Who Stare at Senators."

We've been down this road before, that is, the U.S. military pulling out all the stops to sell an unpopular war.

A Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings, yes he of General Stanley McChrystal fame, reports that illegal propaganda tactics were used on American VIPs and visiting foreign dignitaries to try to influence their support for the war in Afghanistan.

It is certainly an embarrassing story to the U.S. military, but the story has just one main source, Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, and relies on his narrative to carry all the charges.

U.S. military psychological operations (PSYOP or psy-ops) and information operations (IO) are supposed to be directed to local and enemy populations in overseas "theaters," specific geographical areas of armed conflict, not where you watch Auntie Mame perform.

When I worked at the United States Information Agency (USIA), we engaged in public information and public affairs campaigns, public diplomacy, and white PSYOP activities where the source of the information was identified. The Pentagon oversaw all black (covert) and gray (unattributed, ambiguous) PSYOP and IO. The Smith-Mundt Act and other federal legislation prohibited both USIA and the Department of Defense from directing its propaganda to American citizens.

For my nearly twenty years either studying or working in the American propaganda sector, I've been taught to believe that the most manipulative propaganda is what we use when we have to -- against the enemy in times of war. Foreign civilians are targeted with similar propaganda tactics when they live and work among the targeted enemy populations.

Okay, so that's the theory. You can lie and deceive your enemy and those sympathetic to your enemy, but you can't lie to your friends. The American people and our political representatives in Congress are friends.

In practice, behind-the-scenes influence tracks do overlap. All it takes is a directive to go full throttle, as in this case where three-star Lt. General William Caldwell is accused of directing the IO head Holmes to get inside the heads of the friendlies and figure out where their soft spots and pressure points are.

It all sounds like a psychological Reiki session. And when it happens, the firewall between just-the-facts information and influence-led packaged information is crossed. This is not the first time. It won't be the last.

Why is my skin not crawling here? It's not a problem of a runaway general, as Rolling Stone chooses to call Lt. General William Caldwell. It's our problem. The way we do business today is one big influence bazaar. Corporate marketing, public relations, and spin are the smooth sugar coating for the bitter little pills of truth we must swallow.

We're in the longest war in U.S. history. It will be ten years in October. Remember all that public support for hunting the Taliban and Al Qaeda just weeks after 9/11? It's all gone, and yet the warriors are still there. Each man and woman serving in Afghanistan costs us $1 million to support annually. Afghanistan alone has cost about 134 American Revolutions. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost American taxpayers over $1 trillion and the theater brass are rallying for billions more. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, the point is ladies and gentlemen that war, for lack of a better word, is business-as-usual. Since our founding, the United States has been engaged in war about 20 percent of the time or one in every five years.

The American army still engages in a war far, far away but the American citizenry isn't there. We don't engage. We don't support that far-away war, but we continue to pay for it. It's precisely because of this disconnect between apathetic or weak public support for the Afghanistan war and a costly war raging on at a distance that leads to a full-spectrum influence strategy where public relations, public diplomacy, info ops and psy-ops -- and now Information Engagement cells -- are the soup to nuts menu for getting the purse-holders to board the train.

How ironic that in the midst of all this war marketing talk that some straight talk emerged.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates allowed the little pill of truth to get exposed from all that smooth sugar coating when he said this to a gathering of West Point cadets today:

"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."

Spoken like a man who needs no persuading.