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On Enemy Propaganda

In case you haven’t heard, the L.A. Times uncovered new pictures of U.S. Soldiers posing with Afghan corpses and body parts. This is the latest in a group of stories that include the 5th Stryker Brigade, which was dubbed a “kill team” by some after killing civilians and posing with corpses. There was also the killing spree of 16 civilians in a village. And let’s not forget the video of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses. Most important of all, of course, there’s the Quran burning scandal (and yes, that’s an Al Jazeera opinion piece I just linked; give it a read if you don’t understand why I said the Quran burning was the most important).

I might have a somewhat unique perspective on these sorts of topics as my job in the Army was to disseminate information to counter enemy propaganda as well as to inform Afghans of the American intentions and bring them around to our side. That cliche about winning the hearts and minds? Yeah, that was my job. Clearly, we needed to do a better job of it, I know; and I’m not trying to make excuses, but it’s a difficult enough job to just counter the enemy. More and more, it seems we’re also battling the select few among ourselves that contribute to stories such as the ones above.

Despite the home field advantage enjoyed by the Taliban and its supporters, I was always a little embarrassed that we had such a difficult time with the information war. Given the edge in technology and experience, along with the fact that our major media outlets are unimaginably effective at setting the tone and topic of conversation for domestic audiences, I thought we could do better. However, when I realized that some members of the American military were routinely creating propaganda for the enemy that was just as strong, if not stronger, than anything the enemy themselves were creating, our struggles started to make some more sense.

You see, the best propaganda feeds into and reinforces previously-held worldviews and stereotypes. According to the extremist, militant, fundamentalist Islamic rhetoric, Americans are infidels–non-believers. Americans are not here to help, but to destroy the Muslim faith and their way of living. America is the devil, filled with vile, evil people. So when Americans do things like this… American troops who claim they are here to keep Afghans safe and promote the virtues of the newly formed government and to help build infrastructure and to make Afghan lives better by ridding them of the oppression of the Taliban… when American troops are responsible for the above-mentioned indiscretions, which storyline do you think Afghans will believe? We’re here to help? Probably not. Even if the vast majority of military personnel live the positive stories.

I’ve long believed that you can’t send people into war and not expect some mistakes or errors in judgment. I’ve always felt sympathetic to those who find themselves in hot water for a bad decision in the heat of the moment in combat.  If you haven’t seen the Rules of Engagement with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, give it a watch some time for a look at how gray the line can be. (I generally hate war movies; it’s a good one.)

But these acts of disrespect cross all of those lines and there is no excuse. These are not hair-splitting decisions made under fire. In acting this way, these American troops are quite literally advancing the enemy cause–creating enemy propaganda. It has the effect, though not the intent, of a low-level treason (if there is such thing as low-level treason).

In a war for control of a country or to crush a standing enemy Army, the Unites States military is incredibly effective. But the war in Afghanistan is now a war of securing and recruiting civilians to our cause; building the infrastructure of a nation to a functional level; promoting, securing and implementing a new government. Maybe the answer is that our nation shouldn’t take on that type of task. But that is superfluous right now to the reality that we are, in fact, involved in these activities.

As long as the United States military contains just enough of the bad apples to ruin our credibility with the Afghan people, those tasks will never be fully accomplished. In the mean time, the military will do what they can to train enough Afghans to keep some semblance of security after America heads for the door.  As soon as those Qurans went up in flames, the mission of winning hearts and minds went up in smoke with them. Now the mission is to minimize the damage before coming home. At some point, there is just too much enemy propaganda to ever be effectively countered (even with the truth); especially when rogue members of our military keep creating it for them.

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