Even when I disagree with Phil Carter, I seldom see him as flatly wrong; our disagreements typically come from a deeper division in how we see the alignment of issues and in relative priorities.
This weekend, though, I think he clinked one. And since it’s on an important topic, and leads to important questions, I want to play it up and see what you all think.
Phil criticizes changes in the DoD web news summary “The Early Bird” in his post “Cooking The Early Bird.” His criticisms are several, and they focus on one core issue:
The thrust of this website and its message is clear to me — the Defense Department hopes to make an end run around the media and put its message out there to the American public. [Ed. note: is this similar to bloggers who criticize the “mainstream media”?] It is trying to shore up public support for its operations by boosting public support for the troops. The hope is that public support for the troops will translate into increased support for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and that this will sustain U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan longer. The longevity of our operations depends as much on their military success as our political will, and so maintaining public support for these missions is crucial to perseverance there.
Assuming for a minute that he’s made an accurate description of the changes, the conclusion he draws seems sensible, and even laudable.He criticizes the DoD for:
…running National Review Online commentaries and blog notes favorable to the SecDef while ignoring articles in Slate, the American Prospect and the New Republic that were critical.
and uses the example of the Truman Commissions during WW II as support for the notion that challenges are not only a protected exercise of freedom, but useful themselves in the conduct of war:
There was a time, as I’ve read in Geoffrey Stone’s brilliant “Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime”, when it was considered patriotic to dissent in wartime and to ask such tough questions. Even during World War II, perhaps our last great patriotic war, this was true. Sen. Harry Truman aggressively chaired a committee during that war which examined war profiteering and unsavory practices by the Pentagon and defense contractors in the procurement field. Gen. George Marshall later told Truman that his committee was worth two divisions to the war effort, and that his criticism as a Senator was one of the highest forms of public service. I fear that we have lost this spirit, both in the halls of Congress and on the fields of public discourse. Every American ought to support the troops, and to support the nation when it is engaged in war. But it remains our patriotic right and duty to question the means and ends for which we have chosen to wage war, so that we may conserve our scarcest and most valuable resource: soldiers.
And here he jumps the shark.
There was, in World War II, very little public discussion of the “whys” of the war once the war began. Those who did question our entry into the war were rapidly marginalized, and in some cases, jailed. The Smith Act of 1940 was used to jail antiwar labor organizer Harry DeBoer and other members of Teamsters Local 574, for example.
In fact, there was a highly developed machine – driven by government intervention – including some classic Warner Brothers cartoons like “Draftee Daffy” and “Fifth Column Mouse”.
William Wyler wasn’t just randomly on board Memphis Belle when she flew her 25th mission over Europe; he was a part of a large, well organized propaganda machine funded as a part of the war effort.
This kind of organized propaganda didn’t end there. Michael Socolow writes about Nightline and the Iranian hostage crisis:
Were the editorial decisions made by the network news executives in 1979 to 1980 in the public interest? This remains a contested question. In their study of the Tehran hostage crisis, veteran journalists Robert Donovan and Ray Scherer detailed the manner in which the students surrounding the American embassy in Tehran exploited television’s power during the crisis. The atmosphere around the embassy resembled a carnival when the TV cameras were absent, but as soon as a camera crew arrived, the crowd chanted “Death to Carter!” and “Death to America!” while waving fists and burning flags.
The mob’s media savvy was so sophisticated that chants would be rendered in English, Persian and, occasionally, for the benefit of Canadian and French television, in French. The students clearly understood how to exploit the independent, non-governmental nature of American broadcasting. They also knew that reaching the American public was relatively easy, as there existed only three American broadcast networks, and all of them dedicated enormous time and resources to coverage of the story.
The Al Qaeda leadership has repeatedly emphasized this lesson to its followers. Reminding its followers of the Tet offensive, the Tehran crisis and the disastrous Somalia mission, Al Qaeda statements reveal the belief that it is far easier to demoralize Americans than to defeat its armed forces. For this reason, beheading videos have become an important strategic tool in Al Qaeda’s arsenal.
The President must articulate a raison d’etre that the American public can get behind. We need to know, as a nation, why we are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. The President has made a few lofty statements about spreading freedom and democracy, but I don’t think these have been enough. He ought to be criss-crossing the country to pound that message home, so that every military family understands why their loved ones are being sent into harm’s way, and every American family understands why the war is worth it too. This is what being Commmander-in-Chief is all about: public leadership. I think that such leadership would have a positive effect on public support for the war, far beyond any cute Pentagon websites. It might also do wonders for recruiting and retention, but that’s my optimistic take on the matter.
I agree, both that we need a well-articulated explanation of what we’re doing (although events seem to be making that clearer) and that it needs to be better expressed.
Opinion is shaped in three ways:
* You put out a compelling idea and it becomes contagious because it fits with the reality that people understand;
* You aggressively market that idea, both directly (flying around the country making speeches) and indirectly (hiring Warner Brothers to make cartoons and William Wyler to make documentaries);
* You suppress competing ideas (Harry DeBoer).
I think we’d all agree (except Susan Sontag and some others who feel that lack of adulation and immediate agreement constitutes suppression) that #3 is both bad and far less prevalent than it has been at almost any time in history.
I think we’d all agree that more of #1 would be a Good Thing.
How do we feel about #2? On one hand, it’s marketing – expanding the reach of our message. On the other, it’s propaganda, which is a pretty pejorative term.
What should – and can – we do about marketing our ideas?