Protracted War in the Information Age

By now, you’ve all seen and digested this. From the LA Times:

The paratroopers had their assignment: Check out reports that Afghan police had recovered the mangled remains of an insurgent suicide bomber. Try to get iris scans and fingerprints for identification.

The 82nd Airborne Division soldiers arrived at the police station in Afghanistan’s Zabol province in February 2010. They inspected the body parts. Then the mission turned macabre: The paratroopers posed for photos next to Afghan police, grinning while some held — and others squatted beside — the corpse’s severed legs.

A few months later, the same platoon was dispatched to investigate the remains of three insurgents who Afghan police said had accidentally blown themselves up. After obtaining a few fingerprints, they posed next to the remains, again grinning and mugging for photographs.

I think a lot of commentators have come around to the view that while regretable, this sort of thing happens in war. Indeed, making souvenirs — aka “war trophies” — is not uncommon either. 

Enter into the fray Andrew Exum. Exum’s gift for self-promotion is only matched by his ability to miss the forest for the trees on a regular basis. Exum writes:

Clearly, this incident reflects a failure on the part of whichever commissioned or noncommissioned officer had responsibility for the men in the picture. Afghans — most of whom will never see the pictures — will probably not be terribly offended by what U.S. soldiers do to the body of a suicide bomber. But Americans have a right to expect more from the men and women in uniform.


What’s new, as Horton noted, is the ubiquitous presence of cameras and camera phones on the battlefield. In my last unit, the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, we were under strict orders not to take any photos lest they compromise operational security. The few pictures I have of myself in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan were approved for release by our battalion’s intelligence officer.


Over time, the military leadership will come to include people who have a firmer grasp of both the potential and the dangers of new technologies. For now, though, the importance of small-unit leadership has never been more vital. If an 18-year- old paratrooper wants to snap a photo of himself with a dead Talib, his 21-year-old team leader has to intervene. And that 21-year-old team leader’s 24-year-old platoon leaders and 32- year-old platoon sergeant have to set clear expectations for what is appropriate and what is not.

Okay, look. This is not the first time around for this issue. Indeed, every few months something of this sort arise. The Abu Ghraib pictures came out in 2004, after all. And every time something like this happens, the Exums of this world will come out and hammer the small-unit leadership (though not all will bother to throw in self-serving references to their own service). But doesn’t it seem obvious that this isn’t an issue of small unit leadership, but rather a structural change in the conduct of war?

It isn’t just soldiers taking cell phone pictures. It is also reporters with small digital cameras appearing all over the battlefield. It is wikileaks showing releasing videos and documents. It is tens of thousands of people live tweeting from Tahrir Square. And this isn’t just something occuring organically. Transparency International distributes video cameras precisely to expose things like corruption. Wikileaks exists to spread stolen classified information.

The point is, we’re dealing with  a structural transformation in the nature of conflict, and one that cannot be solved at the tactical level, no matter how “tech savvy” are the next generation of combat leaders.

The ability to control information flows from the battlefield has always been a key element of warfare. Operational security is a key element of that, but in protracted wars, the ability to shape the narrative by controlling the flow of information is crucial. Indeed, this was one of the key lessons learned by the U.S. military after Vietnam. They were amazingly successful in a sense. The recent ability of the U.S. military to co-opt the mainstream press through conditional access and embedding that built rapport between troops and reporters has to be acknowledged as one of the great information operations successes in modern warfare.

But this is all breaking down. We now live in a world with blogs and tweets and NGOs can shape the narrative. Look that Koran burning issue from 2011. One idiot with a tiny congregation in Florida managed to affect operations in Afghanistan.

But this is the future. And we need to be thoughtful about the consequences. Now, I don’t know what all the implications are. But it does strike me that the information revolution — which is still accelerating, by the way — has a profound effect particularly on protracted warfare. Wars that last years, that require sustained public support, and particularly those that are posited on “winning hearts and minds” are particularly vulnerable to the effects of uncontrolled information flows that expose the ugly side of military operations.

As I’ve written before, “literally every single war features desecration, murder of innocents both accidental and deliberate, and rape.” The question becomes, what are the implications of the fact that nowadays this knowledge is not just something spoken in quiet rooms, but rather a reality that will, at least periodically, be broadcast to the entire world?

My sense is that the information revolution makes protracted war even more difficult, and as a consequence puts an additional premium on short, punctuated, limited military operations. I’ve written about how to accomplish this in the past, but I don’t claim to have the final word on this.

What I do claim, however, is that dealing with each of these incidents alone, scapegoating company-grade officers and NCOs, is not the answer.

The answer is to ask hard questions about whether our approach to wars like the one we’re waging in Afghanistan can made consistent with the periodic release of embarrassing evidence of desecration, atrocity, and rape. You can’t change the nature of war. You can’t change the nature of the information revolution. But you can change your strategy so that it is not jeopardized by predictable structural developments in the nature of the international environment.

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