by Ross Caputi | 06/04/20
Three days ago Trump was heard chastising state governors in a leaked phone call, in which he urged them to not be “weak” and to “dominate,” arrest, and prosecute the protestors, who he called “terrorists” and “anarchists.” Trump’s single-minded determination to “put down” the protests through “total domination” was disturbing enough, both for the word salad of nonsensical military jargon he was throwing around and the seemingly little thought he gave to the possibility that the use of force could inflame or just forestall the rage fueling these protests. But also the comments of Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, describing the protests across the country as a “battlespace,” alarmed many.
Most got the gist—Trump and his aids are thinking about these protests in militarized terms and they’re only seeing military solutions to this crisis. But the deeper significance of the term “battlespace” and what its use tells us about the thinking within the Trump administration has been lost or misunderstood.
Origins of the Battlespace
At some point over the last 30 years a consensus formed within the military that the notion of the “battlefield” was obsolete. With the arrival of the Information Age and the increased presence of the media on the battlefield, there were now additional factors beyond the traditional military considerations of terrain, tactics, and weapons that determine operational success. Now an operation could succeed in destroying the enemy, but ultimately fail if it were portrayed negatively by the media and elicited political backlash. Military thinkers came to see that how people perceived military action now mattered more in this new information environment, and they began conceiving of military actions as tacking place in a battlespace that included the physical space where combat occurred and the more abstract information realm of cyberspace and news media discourse.
These ideas were gaining prominence just as the Global War on Terror began and the way they were put into use in that conflict had a strong impact on our military’s evolving doctrines concerning the symbiotic us of violence and propaganda within the battlespace. In the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—which had complicated missions that included regime change, counterinsurgency, and state building—the role of information soft-power became more pronounced to address the social and political dynamics of the battlespace.
Winning Hearts and Minds
This aspect of the mission was boiled down into the slogan of “winning hearts and minds.” Note, that hearts and minds—the beliefs, wants, and values of a people—are regarded as an object to be won through military means, rather than something to be respected. In other words, if Iraqis and Afghans objected to having their countries invaded by foreign armies and their political systems rebuilt in the image of Western capitalist nations, this (in the view of US policy makers) didn’t mean that the US was imposing anything on them. US propaganda just hadn’t yet succeeded in bringing them along with the mission. Thus, popular resistance wasn’t seen as the expression of the population’s will, but as an “insurgency” that needed to be dealt with through military measures.
But of course, “hearts and minds” also referred to domestic and international audiences. Americans had to be brought to believe as much as Iraqis that the US war was beneficial to all.
Information Operations in Fallujah
The sieges of Fallujah are an instructive example. The city quickly became a hotspot of nationalist resistance after US forces massacred civilian protestors just a few weeks after Baghdad fell. Over the course of the next year, the violence escalated and culminated in the spring of 2004 with the infamous incident of the Blackwater USA mercenaries being killed and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. The US responded with a hastily planned siege of the city—the first siege of Fallujah—which ended with US forces retreating, not because they couldn’t defeat the insurgents militarily, but because they couldn’t do so without destroying entire neighborhoods and killing hundreds of civilians.
US military leaders quickly concluded that they had failed to control the information realm and successfully counter the reports of high civilian deaths in the media, which created the political pressure to end the operation. So they immediately began making preparations for a second siege that would achieve “information dominance.” This time 91 journalists would be embedded with US forces to create a dominant narrative of the operation that privileged the perspective of American soldiers. Extensive US PSYOPS were also conducted to drive the 300,000 inhabitants out of their homes (to avoid civilian casualties (unsuccessfully)), and to convince the world that Fallujah had been taken over by al-Qaeda (not true) and US forces were going in to “liberate” the city.
Even though the second siege of Fallujah in November 2004 was far more destructive than the first, both in terms of property damage and civilian lives lost, the former is still regarded as a great victory against al-Qaeda while the later is remembered as an embarrassing failure. The different outcome is largely due to the efforts taken by the US to control the battlespace. But most importantly, the use of propaganda during the second siege didn’t just influence the way the battle was perceived and remembered, it allowed US forces to complete their mission with minimal interference from political forces and international opinion.
The Battlespace at Home
While some commentators have understood Esper’s remark as signaling that he and others within the Trump administration are just now bringing George W. Bush era thinking to the increasingly authoritarian culture in the White House; the truth is that we have been living in a battlespace for nearly twenty years.
Apart from Trumps tweets and official statements which shift the blame for the riots from the cops to the protestors, liken all protestors to “terrorists” and “anarchists,” and focus on the destruction of property (which naturally cedes the topic of police brutality and systemic racism to the background); its too early to know the full picture of how the White House has tried to manage the battlespace after the murder of George Floyd.
And the White House may not be the only actor in this battlespace. A number of social media posts and eyewitness reports point to unknown sources who are trying to influence the way Americans perceive the protestors:
- Provocateurs posing as protestors as they try to instigate and escalate protests.
- Fake BLM social media posts threatening to murder white people.
- Fake reports about the riots.
- Exaggerated claims about antifa’s intentions and deeds.
In this confusing and chaotic information environment, it’s hardly surprising that so many give way to conspiracy theories that point to evil puppeteers manipulating us all in unseen ways. But there is a half-truth in many of these conspiracy theories: There is a war going on for our hearts and minds.
The powerful have always tried to pursued the rest of us to accept rather than resist their hegemony. This much isn’t new. What’s new about the battlespace is an understanding that real power requires the synchronized use of force and propaganda. And this is the reality that we now live in. It’s not a “marketplace of ideas,” it’s a battlespace. And it was brought to us by our own militarism, which had to find increasingly coercive measures to maintain the illusion amongst the American public of a benevolent empire.