This essay is an adaptation of a speech given by Ross Caputi at conference, International Discussion on the Effects of the American Invasion of Iraq: The Province of Al Anbar as a Model, hosted by Al Anbar University, the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst on March 18, 2021.
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That truth is the first casualty of war is an old cliche. A slightly less banal way of putting it would be to say that contemporary wars weaponize information, but such assertions are often thrown around carelessly, hyperbolically, or in the form of a denunciation. And vague platitudes help us little in understanding the wars waging around us. No doubt, countries lie about why they go to war and how they fight them. Armies have forever exaggerated their own good deeds and the crimes of their enemies. But in what ways can information actually mask, facilitate, or participate in the violence of war?
The US-led sieges of Fallujah offer a revealing case study of just how essential propaganda has become to the violence of war. During the second siege of Fallujah, the way in which US propaganda depicted these events to the American public—with its carefully choreographed narrative, its deliberate characterization of the actors involved, its focus on strategic themes, and its tactical use of language—was as much a part of the battle plan as was the use of bombs and infantry. In other words, propaganda was instrumental not only in obscuring the vicious nature of the attacks on Fallujah, but also in the conduct of the violence itself.
In fact, Iraq has been a testing ground for new military doctrines of propaganda since the 1991 Gulf War, when new information technologies gave the U.S. military more leverage in their relationship with the media and brought significant change to their thinking about soft power and military-media relations.1 They came to see the news media as a “strategic enabler,”2 that is, as a minimally critical platform they could use for what they call “perception management” by influencing the images that domestic audiences see and the stories they hear about U.S. military actions around the world.3
These new military doctrines of propaganda have transformed the battlefield into a “battlespace” that extends the scope of military operations to actors and domains traditionally thought of as civilian.4 The metaphor of a “battle of ideas” has furnished the U.S. military with the rationale to treat journalists, doctors, clergy, and anyone else in a position to release information about US military actions as combatants, if they somehow threaten operational objectives. The US military now regards the colonizing of hearts and minds, whether in war zones or on the home front, as a military objective. And this is exactly what happened in Fallujah.
When we speak about American propaganda during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, what we are really talking about is US information operations. Information operations (or IO) refers to the coordination of a number of military capabilities—including electronic warfare, computer network operations, military deception and psychological operations (or PSYOPs).5 But the activities most concerned with the dissemination of information in narrative or propositional form was PSYOPs and Public Affairs. PSYOPs involved a broad set of activities such as sponsoring news media companies in Iraq that produces U.S.-friendly news, disseminating misinformation, playing inflammatory messages in Arabic through loudspeakers to provoke an enemy reaction, and dropping leafleted messages in civilian neighborhoods. Public affairs on the other hand was concerned primarily with messaging domestic audiences. This involved appointing specially trained military spokespersons to speak to the media, organizing Press Information Centers where news conferences could be staged, helping soldiers and military scholars publish memoirs and histories of the conflict, as well as embedding journalists in military units.
Through its vast resources and connections to mainstream media outlets, US information operations were able to saturate the American press with favorable images and stories about its actions in Iraq, while drowning out critical voices and Iraqi perspectives. While US information operations undoubtedly facilitated the violence of the occupation ten to eighteen years ago; today, the news reports, press conferences, and other materials it produced now pose a serious challenge for historians looking to build an ethical and balanced historiography. Furthermore, these materials still pose a threat to the well-being of Iraqis by obscuring the truth and helping to deny them the justice they deserve. Since so many of the available primary source materials on this conflict were produced or influenced by US information operations, and since there are at the same time so many silences in these sources; these materials, as historical documents, constitute a form of atemporal violence.
This line of research on information operations that began with The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (2019) is now being continued through the People’s History of Fallujah Digital Archive project.6 People’s History of Fallujah is envisioned as a public repository of primary source materials, study guides, and historical analyses, making the raw experiences of Fallujans and the broader history of these events available to an international audience.
People’s history, as it is envisioned in this project, is more than just a crude substitution of the voices of the victors for the voices of the victims, or an exercise in identity politics dressed up as scholarship. Identity politics often mistakes one’s positionality as a victim for an epistemic position, one that sees through the vales of power and propaganda. In this sense, Fallujan voices are not privileged in our historical narrations as sources of fact, but they are included, and their stories are told. Rather, people’s history is about confronting the power and violence that produced the propagandistic version of events in Fallujah—the one my commanding officers told to me—filling in its silences, and making an actionable history that lends itself to campaigns for justice and reparations for the people of Fallujah.
In what follows, I offer an overview of my research on the role of information operations in Fallujah and the implications for historians studying this conflict. My focus will be on military histories, embedded journalism, intelligence reports, veteran memoirs, and oral histories. The examples I offer are anecdotal and not necessarily representative of their respective genre. They were chosen not for their typicality, but for how they illustrate the violence of propaganda.
A Victor’s History
Perhaps an obvious starting point would be the massacre in front of the al-Qaid school in Fallujah on April 28th, 2003. This event, arguably, marks the birth of Fallujah’s armed resistance movement, yet the representation of this event in American military histories is more grounded in propaganda and speculation than actual documentation. On this date, US soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division fired into a crowd of unarmed protestors, killing 13 people and injuring more than 70. Even though Human Rights Watch conducted a ballistic analysis of the scene, finding no evidence that protestors fired at or were even in the presence of the soldiers;7 Vincent L. Foulk, an Army Civil Affairs officer and author of The Battle for Fallujah: Occupation, Resistance and Stalemate in the War in Iraq (2007) claims, without providing a citation or evidence, that the soldiers were “frightened” by individuals in the crowd who were firing AK-47s into the air and returned fire in self-defense.8 Colonel John R. Ballard makes a similar claim in his book Fighting for Fallujah: A New Dawn for Iraq (2006). And although he cites an article by an embedded CNN journalist, Karl Penhaul, the only mention that protestors may have been armed appears in a paraphrase of statements made by a US military spokesperson.10 With astounding use of the passive voice, Richard S. Lowrey’s New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah (2010) states simply, with no citation provided, that: “On April 28, 2003, a protest within the city turned violent and fifteen Iraqis were killed, further inflaming the local population.”11 Perhaps the most sensational claim is made by Bing West, a military advisor and author of No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah (2005), who writes that a single nefarious individual, who he describes as “an alcoholic former Baathist with several prior arrests and with ties to the gangster element in town,” organized the protest and planted gunmen in the crowd.12 No citation is provided.
There are several interesting things to note about these military histories. First, I treat these histories as primary rather than secondary sources because of how they participate in the propaganda campaign. These histories were hastily researched, published within a few short years after the operations, and put into print by a handful of publishers in the DC beltway with considerable support from military public affairs. To be sure, these histories are intended for US military fanboys and not serious scholars of the conflict. However, they play an important role in consolidating the otherwise fragmented and episodic reports from embedded journalists and military spokespersons into a coherent narrative. Second, to the extent that their narratives are grounded in primary sources, they rely excessively on the work of embedded journalists and veteran testimony, forming an intertextual narrative that reproduces the propaganda of US information operations as it reinforces it. And lastly, this massacre is an enormously important historical event, but these histories do not treat the resistance in Fallujah as a response to US aggression and violence, instead explaining it as a phenomenon born of irrational anti-American sentiments and religious zealotry.
I cannot overstate the role of embedded journalists in this propaganda campaign. In fact, the first siege of Fallujah drove the point home for the US military. Operation Vigilant Resolve began on April 4, 2004. After a month of fighting, human rights and solidarity organizations counted between 572 and 749 civilians killed, including at least 300 women and children.13,14 But because Al Jazeera was the only media organization that had a broadcast crew in Fallujah during the operation, they were able to capture images of dead and wounded civilians that spurred international outrage and condemnation of the American-led operation. The US dismissed these images as “insurgent propaganda”15 and accused Al Jazeera of being invited into Fallujah by the insurgents to broadcast false reports and “unsubstantiated” casualty figures.16
The US was only able to embed one journalist within the units involved in the attack—Robert D. Kaplan. Kaplan was able to publish a pair of articles in The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal dismissing, rebutting, and reframing the claims made by Al Jazeera and other human rights groups in Fallujah. However, Al Jazeera reached a larger audience with a more powerful message, generating enough international pressure to force the US to negotiate a retreat out of Fallujah. Not surprisingly, U.S. forces came to see Al Jazeera as an enemy in its information war, as well as an obstacle in their mission.
The US’s defeat during the first siege of Fallujah demonstrated the strategic necessity of controlling what they call the “informational realm.”17 In Fighting for Fallujah, Colonel John R. Ballard notes that,
by the end of April  the MEF’s [Marine Expeditionary Force] lack of robust Public Affairs (PA) and Information Operations (IO) activities had become obvious in relation to the effective efforts of the insurgents. So the MEF placed new emphasis on those techniques, and they began to figure much more prominently in the scheme of maneuver than they had in the initial operations order.18
In other words, the US military did not so much need to avoid killing civilians (which they blamed entirely on the insurgents); rather, they just needed to stop Al Jazeera from reporting it or provide a convincing counter-narrative.
These conclusions were echoed in an intelligence report by the US Army National Ground Intelligence Center, made available by WikiLeaks, titled “Complex Environments: Battle of Fallujah I, April 2004,” which argues that “Fallujah was not simply a military action, it was a political and informational battle.”19 One of the more interesting claims made in the report is that:
Insurgents exploited Coalition adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict in order to gain a tactical advantage. . . . Insurgents deliberately fought from sensitive areas such as mosques, schools and residential areas. Red Crescent ambulances transported fighters. Insurgents were aware of the Coalition’s concern for collateral damage, which they used as an asymmetric advantage. If the Coalition refrained from indirect counterfire the insurgents escaped unscathed. If the Coalition did respond with counterfire, any collateral damage was used for propaganda purposes. In general, insurgent blame of the Coalition for virtually all damage resonated with the population and received wide coverage throughout the Arab media.20
It is, of course, a question of perspective, whether the blame should fall on the US for choosing to lay siege to city full of residential neighborhoods and sweep through “sensitive areas,” or on the insurgents for choosing to fight back from those same areas. Interestingly, this report, rather than offering information or analysis, instead offers a way of reframing the civilian dead as “human shields” and presupposing the insurgents’ agency in their deaths. One might find this curious and ask further questions about the role of intelligence in information warfare. However, one could also read this report as a tactical review, offering rhetorical techniques for responding to insurgent IO in bulleted talking-points. Although published in 2006, years after the first two sieges of Fallujah, this way of responding to counter narratives is reflective of the tactics used by US information operations in 2004, which relied largely on assertion, dismissal, and reframing rather than fact.
For example, the report asserts that insurgents “fed disinformation to television networks,” that Al Jazeera reported 34 stories that “misreported or distorted battlefield events,” and that the insurgents “invited a reporter from Al Jazeera, Ahmed Mansour, and his film crew into Fallujah where they filmed scenes of dead babies from the hospital, presumably killed by Coalition air strikes.”21 However, no evidence for these claims is provided. This is strikingly similar to US claims that their airstrikes targeted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist army in Fallujah and that reports of civilian casualties were wildly exaggerated.
An illustrative example occurred in response to the tragic events of October 8th, 2004, when it was reported that a US airstrike destroyed a home where a wedding was taking place, killing the groom and ten others.22 In response, US forces invited Martha Raddatz, an embedded journalist for ABC News, to the workshop where they analyzed intelligence and selected targets for air strikes. However, instead of offering transparency, Raddtz’s visit was turned into a PR exercise in which she investigated nothing and offered only a series of quotes and paraphrases from US military officials. “The military says great care is taken to avoid killing innocent civilians,” she wrote. And “the military says the numbers [of innocent civilians killed] have been greatly exaggerated,” making little commentary of her own on the matter.23 Such was the American approach to information warfare. Ironically, information mattered less than assertion, framing, and visibility in the news media.
The Zarqawi PSYOP
After US forces withdrew from Fallujah in April 2004, they quickly launched a major campaign, with a renewed focus on propaganda, to “shape” the battlespace in anticipation of a second siege. The propaganda campaign included a shift in how US forces characterized their enemy from “former regime elements” to al-Qaeda militants led by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Military spokespersons and media commentators were now using labels like “jihadists,” “thugs,” “terrorists,” “insurgents,” and “al-Qaeda” interchangeably, conflating and demonizing all militant groups, regardless of their political goals or choice of tactics. No longer Baathist loyalists, the rebels in Fallujah were now reduced to jihadists with links to al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, the bombing campaign was justified to the news media by a PSYOP that exaggerated the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the broader anti-occupation resistance movement, while also claiming that he had made Fallujah his base of operations. The US had already been selectively leaking intelligence reports about Zarqawi to American journalists. And then in the midst of the first siege of Fallujah, a video emerged, entitled “Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi slaughters an American,” showing the decapitation of Nicholas Berg by masked Mujahideen, one of whom was assumed to be Zarqawi.24 Some Coalition intelligence analysts believed that the video was probably filmed in the Jolan neighborhood of Fallujah, though the evidence was inconclusive.25 Regardless, rumors soon emerged connecting Zarqawi with Sheikh Abdallah al-Janabi and other local mujahideen in Fallujah, like Omar Hadid. No proof that Zarqawi had even set foot in Fallujah was ever provided, yet the mainstream media repeatedly aired these rumors as if they were fact. And to this day Zarqawi remains a potent myth in the collective memory of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
This PSYOP campaign was revealed to the American press in 2006 in a series of leaked military documents.26 Army Colonel James Treadwell denied that this PSYOP was aimed at deceiving the American public, claiming that the goal was to elicit a “xenophobia [sic] response” in Iraqis by characterizing the Sunni resistance as both foreign and extremist. Brigadier General Kimmitt claimed that “[t]he Zarqawi PSYOP program [was] the most successful information campaign to date.” However, the measure of success for this operation is unclear. Those targeted most directly (Fallujans) were skeptical that Zarqawi even existed, let alone that he was present in their city; while those allegedly not targeted (the American public) had come to believe that Zarqawi constituted an existential threat.
What is clear is that the Zarqawi PSYOP and the airstrikes on Fallujah were essential and interrelated components of the shaping operations that set the stage for the second siege. In an oral history interview, Lieutenant General John Sattler, Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq in 2004, commented on these operations:
What we basically did, before we dropped a bomb, after about the two-week mark, [a] press release went out from us, telling what we did, why we did it, [that] the individual was a thug, a two-bit criminal who has killed “X” number of Iraqi civilians . . . So every time we struck, we told ‘em who [we] went after, who we thought we killed—i.e., a member of the Zarqawi network—and then we were able to also remind everybody that this is not Robin Hood . . . We twisted that over time; we turned it around to play the way it should be played. And believe it or not, after about a week of us getting the first shot out, their [information operations] campaign fell apart . . . We started to drive a wedge between the terrorists and the local residents, and then we drove a wedge between [Omar] Hadeed, one thug lord; Zarqawi, another thug lord; and [Abdullah al-] Janabi, another thug lord.27
Sattler’s analysis is wrong, however. There is significant evidence to suggest that the Mujahideen Council led by Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi was antagonistic to the al-Qaeda aligned militias that had made their way into Fallujah, and this antagonism arose, not out of the American information operations campaign, but out of incompatible interests and goals with the local militia groups.
Although a lie, the PSYOP was essential to convincing the American public that the airstrikes were necessary and that they weren’t killing civilians. According to Lieutenant General Thomas F. Metz, Commander of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, reports of civilian causalities were regarded as “IO challenges.”28 For example, Metz claims that the Coalition “took control of the hospital the evening before the main attack on Fallujah, removing it from the enemy’s IO platform,”29 because the U.S. military had long assumed the doctors at Fallujah hospital to be in full collusion with the insurgents and the hospital itself to be “little more than a nest of insurgent propagandists.”30
Further preparations for IO challenges included the Coalition’s decree that only embedded journalists would be allowed inside Fallujah for Operation Phantom Fury. The Media Commission in Iraq, which was established by Order 65 of Paul Bremer’s infamous 100 Orders, sent out a brazen warning to all journalists in Iraq that they should “stick to the government line on the U.S.-led offensive in Fallujah or face legal action.”31 Journalists who tried to enter Fallujah without being embedded with Coalition forces were detained. Unlike the first siege when US forces only embedded a single journalist; ninety-one journalists were embedded with Coalition units for the second siege.32
Another way that Coalition forces responded to “IO challenges” was by encouraging civilians to flee Fallujah “amid general threats of an imminent US attack”, creating 300,000 refugees.33 Also, the electricity and water supply to the city were cut “to induce the few remaining civilians to leave.”34 This provided a practical solution to the problem of crossing the “IO Threshold,” which General Metz describes as “the boundary below which the media is not interested and above which they are.”35 In other words, the IO Threshold was not about the actual level of violence used, but rather about limiting the extent to which it was reported in the media to avoid an “adverse political and public reaction” so that the “US shaping operations and later attacks could be conducted with impunity.”36
Operation al Fajr, the second siege of Fallujah, began on November 7th, 2004 and lasted 46 days. In the course of the violence, entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to the ground, others were left crumbling under the damage from airstrikes and gunfire, somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people became refugees, and an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 civilians were killed.37 Yet the operation was celebrated in the media as a liberation, even if some expressed discomfort with the use of “excessive force.” Still, the medias approval of the far more destructive second operation, compared to the international condemnation of the first demonstrates the success of US information operations. The point is made forcefully by Bing West:
The rationale for stopping the attack in April was a perception that the damage being done was too great. In the month of April, 150 air strikes had destroyed 75 to 100 buildings. In November the damage was vastly greater. There were 540 air strikes and 14,000 artillery and mortar shells fired, as well as 2,500 tank main gun rounds. Eighteen thousand of Fallujah’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.38
However, US information operations did much more than just provide a convincing lie about what American forces were doing in Fallujah. They also provided the rational for treating journalists and doctors as enemy combatants. Information operations were regarded as an essential component of operational success, and they furnished the mission with targets, like the Fallujah general hospital. In other words, American propaganda was a constitutive element of the violence in Fallujah. And if historians were to read the documents produced by US information operations in the context of their violent intent, a very different interpretation of these events emerges.
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1. Lawrence Freedman. Strategy: A History. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 214-216.
2. Leigh Armistead, Ed. Information Operations: Warfare and the Hard Reality of Soft Power. (Dulles: Brassey’s, 2004), 159.
3. Armistead, Information Operations, 128.
4. Dan Kuehl. foreword to Information Operations: Warfare and the Hard Reality of Soft Power, edited by Leigh Armistead (Dulles: Brassey’s, 2004), xviii.
5. See the definitions of “Information Operations” and “Offensive Information Operations” in US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Publication 3-13: Joint Doctrine for Information Operations (1998 GL-7, GL-9).
7. Peter Bouckaert and Fred Abrahams. “Violent Response.” Human Rights Watch, 15 No. 7 (2003).
8. Vincent L. Foulk. The Battle for Fallujah: Occupation, Resistance and Statement in the War in Iraq. (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2007), 7.
9. John R. Ballard. Fighting for Fallujah: A New Dawn for Iraq. (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006), 4.
10. “Karl Penhaul: Conflicting Stories from Fallujah.” CNN.com April 29, 2003.
11. Richard S. Lowry. New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah. (El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2010), 4.
12. Bing West. No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah. (New York: Bantam Books, 2005), 13.
13. Iraq Body Count. “No Longer Unknowable: Fallujah’s April 2004 Civilian Toll is 600.” October 26, 2004. Retrieved from https://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/reference/press-releases/9/
14. BRussells Tribunal. Remembering Fallujah: A dossier of the BRussells Tribunal, 38-53. Retrieved from https://wikispooks.com/wiki/File:Fallujah.pdf
15. Timothy S. McWilliams, U.S. Marines in Battle: Fallujah November – December 2004. (Quantico: Historical Division, United States Marine Corps, 2014), 2.
16. West, No True Glory, 93.
17. United States Army National Ground Intelligence Center, “Complex Environments: Battle of Fallujah 1, April 2004,” WikiLeaks, December 24, 2007 (2006): 14.
18. Ballard, Fighting for Fallujah, 20.
19. USANGIC, “Complex Environments,” 1.
20. USANGIC, “Complex Environments,” 12.
21. USANGIC, “Complex Environments,” 13.
22. Ahmed Mansour. Inside Fallujah: The Unembedded Story. (Northampton: Olive Branch Press, 2009), 287-288.
23. Martha Raddatz, “Inside the U.S.-Led Fallujah Airstrikes.” ABC News, October 12, 2004.
24. Michael Ware, “A Chilling Iraqi Terror Tape.” TIME, July 4, 2004.
25. West, No True Glory, 225-226.
26. Thomas E. Ricks, “Military Plays Up Role of Zarqawi.” The Washington Post, April 10, 2006.
27. John R. Way, “Fallujah—The Epicenter of the Insurgency: Interview with Lieutenant General John F. Sattler.” In Al Anbar Awakening, Volume 1, American Perspectives, ed. Timothy. S. McWilliams and Kurtis P. Wheeler. (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2009), 78.
28. Thomas F. Metz foreword to New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah by Richard S. Lowrey, x-xvi. (New York: Savas Beatie LLC, 2010), xvi.
29. Metz, “Foreword,” xvi.
30. Lowry, New Dawn, 77.
31. Dahr Jamail, “Media Repression in ‘Liberated’ Land.” Inter Press Service, November 18, 2004
32. US Army National Ground Intelligence Center, “Complex Environments,” 14.
33. Stephen Badsey, “Bridging the Firewall? Information Operations and US Military Doctrine in the Battles of Fallujah.” In Propaganda, Power and Persuasion: From World War I to Wikileaks, ed. David Welch (London: I.B.Taurus & Co. Ltd., 2014), 200.
34. West, No True Glory, 260.
35. Metz, “Foreword,” xiii.
36. Badsey, “Bridging the Firewall,” 201.
37. Ross Caputi, Ricard Hill, and Donna Mulhearn. The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History. (Amherst: UMass Press, 2019), 105.
38. West, No True Glory, 315-316.