The War on Terror Entailed Mass Deception

The United States legitimized military conquest during the War on Terror by using an expansive battlespace that disciplined citizens and soldiers alike. It spread lies, deception, and military propaganda to sow confusion and produce consent.

A screen in Times Square shows President George W. Bush delivering a State of the Union address. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The Iraq War — or, more accurately, the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq — is widely remembered by Americans as a mistake. But appreciate for a moment how remarkable it is that our invasion of Iraq could be regarded simply as a mistake. Not only does this reframing presuppose that it was an “intelligence failure” that led us into the conflict rather than a deception by the George W. Bush administration; it also redirects attention from our moral and legal responsibility for the invasion to the pragmatics of empire, in which going to war is decided by a cost-benefit analysis.

Iraq did not have WMDs, or any connections to al-Qaeda, as the Bush administration claimed. So the 4,614 American soldiers who were killed in Iraq did, in the most tragic way, die for nothing. As did over one million Iraqis. The invasion itself was a war crime. Such is the consensus view of legal experts. And by all standards of foreign policy, the entire endeavor was a failure. So how could the fact that we were deceived into supporting an illegal invasion and foreign policy disaster not be front and center in our memory of the conflict?

There are likely several factors, but only one, argue Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall in their new book, Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on Terror, threatens to undermine our democracy: propaganda.

More and more in our democracy, information is being wielded like an instrument of statecraft to build domestic support for predetermined policies and to construct legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Propaganda was once a temporary retreat from the liberal values of transparency and open debate during times of war. But according to Coyne and Hall, it has grown into a permanent and pervasive enterprise of the political elite that threatens to transform our democracy into a veiled authoritarian state. In their words, “Government propaganda is a direct threat to freedom and liberty because it empowers a small political elite who wields awesome discretionary powers to shape policies while keeping citizens in the dark about the underlying realities and the array of alternative options available.”

In short, propaganda is no longer the opaque Uncle Sam posters of WWI. Nor is it simply the sterile and euphemistic speech we’ve all come to expect from government and military spokespersons. Our contemporary propaganda apparatus is a whole-of-government activity with the resources and sophistication capable of inverting the relationship between the citizenry and the state such that the public is regarded as an obstacle to policy rather than its end. And it is exactly these kinds of “information asymmetries” and their causes that are the focus of Manufacturing Militarism.

While the field of propaganda studies has traditionally focused on the rhetorical analysis of propaganda messages, Manufacturing Militarism breaks from this trend by offering a political economy of the propaganda function. Coyne and Hall interrogate the “pathologies” of our democratic system that allow for information asymmetries to develop between policymakers and the public, which incentivize manipulative government messaging, secrecy, and the exaggeration of external threats. While some amount of government secrecy in a war of self-defense might be justifiable (though the United States hasn’t fought one of those in a very long time, arguably ever), Coyne and Hall argue that American policymakers have exploited their prerogative to secrecy and their access to information to their own ends.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Manufacturing Militarism is its final chapter that highlights four potential constraints on our propaganda apparatus — domestic law, whistleblowers, media criticism, and critical citizenship. Unfortunately, the first three offer more loopholes for government officials to exploit than they do protections for the public.

There is, in fact, a set of domestic laws in place aimed at constraining the abuses of propaganda; but due to a conjunction of factors — a lack of federal oversight, unwillingness on the part of the DOJ to prosecute, and the difficulty of defining what exactly constitutes propaganda — these laws have done little to protect Americans. Similarly, flaws in the legal protections for whistleblowers make the dissemination of classified information, even if it reveals government deception and wrongdoing, an act of martyrdom, as the examples of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning demonstrate. Even journalists and media corporations can be prosecuted for publishing classified information. When the media is willing to report critically on government and military actions, they can provide an important check on government propaganda. And there have been exceptionally brave journalists who, at great personal risk, have pulled the curtains back on government deception. However, these individuals are often bucking the trend of media complicity with government propaganda.

With little reason to believe that the federal government will police its own propaganda activities, Coyne and Hall place their hopes in an informed and vigilant citizenry. Since consent is the objective of propaganda, Americans need only realize, they argue, that by removing their consent, by demanding transparency and access to information, we have the power to undermine the would-be propagandists.

There’s only one problem. We can only speak out against propaganda if we can recognize it in lies and misinformation. And if we couldn’t do this in 2003 to stop the invasion of Iraq, why should we think we’re capable of this now?

Coyne and Hall’s case study of the propaganda leading up to the Iraq invasion illustrates my point well. They rightly highlight the Bush administration’s manipulation of the intelligence surrounding Iraqi WMD programs and the alleged connection with al-Qaeda, and are duly critical of the practices of press information centers, the embedding of journalists in military units, and the selective leaking of intelligence that created such a distorted public understanding of our mission in Iraq. However, the historical narrative they offer reproduces elements of propaganda. There is no mention of war crimes nor any detailed account of Iraqi experiences or perspectives. Also, some of the legitimizing vocabulary of American propagandists slips through in their analysis. Was it a war? Was there even an insurgency, as Coyne and Hall presuppose? I don’t point this out as irony or as a takedown but only to highlight the level to which propaganda has saturated the historical memory of the conflict and the challenge this poses to scholars.

It was in the spring of 2004 when the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) — the occupation government in Iraq — made a deliberate shift in its characterization of the anti-occupation militants from being “former regime elements” and “criminals” to “insurgents.” The term “insurgent” was chosen specifically because it denied the militants the status, as far as international law is concerned, of being belligerents. And the dubbing of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a “war” was a similar attempt at perception management. For the same reason that the appellation the “German-Polish War of 1939” obscures Nazi aggression, the characterization of our actions in Iraq as a “war” was an attempt to legitimize the invasion. Legitimacy was, after all, the primary military objective of the occupation, and US forces sought to achieve this objective through military means, including propaganda.

So if Coyne and Hall’s very excellent case study on Iraq propaganda assumes some of the vocabulary and framing peddled by the war’s propagandists, how can we expect ordinary citizens to speak out against propaganda when even the experts don’t always know it when they see it?

After all, Coyne and Hall admit that contemporary propaganda is diffuse while being hidden in plain sight. Manipulative government messaging has invaded our personal lives through pop culture and the news media. It is present in everything from sporting events to superhero movies, through the Department of Defense’s efforts to parade soldiers around during every halftime show and the State Department’s efforts to liaison with Hollywood. Our lives are saturated with militaristic messages that are impossible to trace, even if we’re capable of recognizing them as propaganda. I agree with Coyne and Hall that change must begin with critical citizenship, but I’m skeptical that such an awakening could occur without targeted political action. And the areas highlighted in their final chapter, perhaps especially domestic law, offer a good place to start.

One could read the sense of urgency in Manufacturing Militarism as a call to action, one intended to shock readers out of their lethargic trust in government officials and compel them to action. But how long have things been this bad? The tools of political economy that Coyne and Hall bring to the study of propaganda undoubtedly shine new light on its function in our democratic system. But for all their attention to the propaganda function, one could ask for greater attention to the propaganda apparatus and how it has evolved over time. One might assume from their analysis that our propaganda during WWII and Vietnam was equally deleterious as it is today. I don’t believe this to be true. American propaganda, in recent decades, has only become more militarized and opaque across government communications.

The transformation of propaganda from public relations into a warfighting activity occurred shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, when the US military underwent a revolution in military affairs that gave new strategic importance to the application of soft power in combat operations. By the start of the Global War on Terror, the new military discipline of information operations had been integrated into all combat activities. Moreover, the new strategic emphasis on soft power rendered the traditional concept of a battlefield obsolete, to be replaced by a multidomain battlespace reaching into the abstract realms of information and cyberspace. These doctrinal and conceptual developments have created a militarized way of thinking about information and purveyors of information among American propagandists, and one consequence of this has been an erosion of the distinction between the war zone and the home front. For the last two decades, Iraqis and Americans have been living in a battlespace together, without knowing it, and we have both been subject to the same propaganda.

Information operations may be the most dangerous wing of our propaganda apparatus, since they mislead us in the area of policy with the most human lives at stake. But propaganda is now a cross-government activity, unified by the concept of strategic communications, with a militarized cynicism toward the consent of the governed permeating our political institutions.

Three years ago, in a call with the president on how to handle the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, then secretary of defense Mark Esper urged state governors “to dominate the battlespace.” During the early years of the Global War on Terror, many commentators warned that our adoption of counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan threatened to leak into our domestic security apparatus, furnishing the police and the FBI with the rationale to view the American public as the enemy. In many ways, these warnings have proven true. Unfortunately, the danger posed by the battlespace was overlooked, and we are only now beginning to recognize how it empowered a political elite to view our hearts and minds as objects to be governed.

The winning of Iraqi hearts and minds was the central military objective of the occupation, and the word “winning” accurately reflects the extent to which persuasion was being treated as a military activity. We certainly weren’t there to respect Iraqi hearts and minds. We were there to win them. And if Iraqis wanted something other than what we were offering, this was viewed as only a temporary state of affairs until we could convince or coerce them to want something else.

The American state-building mission in Iraq depended on, if not actual Iraqi consent, at least the appearance of their consent as its source of legitimacy. Iraqis, in fact, violently rejected the American mission in the form of an armed national liberation movement. But through the practice of perception management, the United States was able to depict the Iraqi resistance as an ideologically fringe movement of religious extremists in order to secure the consent of American audiences for the continuation of the occupation.

If I could offer an example from my own research to highlight the problem, the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is illustrative, but not exceptional. His name first entered American political discourse in 2002, when the Bush administration alleged that he, a jihadist who had joined Osama bin Laden’s cause in Afghanistan, was now leading a terrorist cell in northern Iraq. After the invasion, nearly a year passed before his name reemerged, curiously around the same time the CPA began characterizing the anti-occupation violence as an insurgency led by al-Qaeda. A communication that he had written to the al-Qaeda leadership was intercepted by the United States and leaked to the New York Times, which ran the story alleging scary new developments for American forces in Iraq.

After the United States was forced to cancel its first attempt to sack Fallujah in April 2004 due to political backlash for the deaths of over five hundred civilians, American military spokespersons began claiming that Zarqawi himself was in Fallujah recruiting soldiers for al-Qaeda in Iraq. No hard evidence has ever been produced placing Zarqawi in Fallujah. Nonetheless, his presence was uncritically accepted in the American media and was treated a casus belli for the second siege of Fallujah in November 2004. Just before the second siege began, Fallujah’s political and military leadership held negotiations with the new Interim Iraqi Government (IIG) and US officials to reach a peace settlement. However, the United States and the IIG demanded that Fallujans turn over Zarqawi as a condition for peace. The operation proceeded, this time killing an estimated four to six thousand civilians, producing over two hundred thousand refugees, and destroying half the city. Yet through a reinvigorated campaign of information operations, the US military was able to sell the story to the Western media that we had in fact “liberated” Fallujah.

It was later revealed, in 2006, that the US military was conducting a psyop to exaggerate Zarqawi’s role in the anti-occupation violence. Military spokespersons claimed that the objective wasn’t to target Americans but Iraqis with misinformation. However, most Fallujans didn’t even believe Zarqawi existed. They regarded him as no more than a boogeyman invented by the Americans to justify attacking their city. In fact, Fallujah’s own city council was so frustrated by the US military’s repeated appeals to the presence of Zarqawi as a justification for bombing his “network” in Fallujah that they placed a bounty on his head. Meanwhile, Zarqawi had become a familiar, menacing figure in the American news coverage of the occupation and American audiences had come to believe deeply that he posed an existential threat to the Iraqis we claimed to be liberating, to our soldiers in Iraq, and to American national security more generally.

In the case of Zarqawi, it is near impossible to separate the outsize myth of Zarqawi’s deeds and his role in the anti-occupation violence from fact. The Zarqawi psyop spread such pervasive rumors about his leadership role and his presence in Fallujah that they became conventional wisdom among American policymakers and military planners. So as a Marine infantryman in Fallujah in 2004, I believed it when a platoon commander told us that he just received word from our intel shop that Zarqawi was just a few blocks away and he was wounded in the leg. Keep fighting, he said. To this day, I still struggle to understand which levels of command were in on the deception and who believed our own propaganda.

Coyne and Hall have issued us an important wake-up call to the dangers of our propaganda apparatus, currently subject to no checks and balances apart from the feeble Freedom of Information Act. (At the time of writing, I have had a FOIA request in the queue with CENTCOM requesting documents on information operations in Iraq for over three years now.) But awareness that we do in fact have a propaganda apparatus may not be enough, as the Zarqawi psyop illustrates. Even experts struggle to sift truth from propaganda without intimate knowledge of how our apparatus is structured and what each component is doing. But we must start somewhere, and Manufacturing Militarism is a welcome call to action.

About the Author

Ross Caputi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the main author of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (2019) and is the director of archives at Archive Iraq.