Debunked: "war of perception... conducted continuously using the news media"

Mick West

Staff member
In 2010 John Pilger wrote:

[ex=]In the US Army manual on counterinsurgency, the American commander General David Petraeus describes Afghanistan as a "war of perception... conducted continuously using the news media". What really matters is not so much the day-to-day battles against the Taliban as the way the adventure is sold in America where "the media directly influence the attitude of key audiences".[/ex]

I'm no fan of American imperialism, nor do I think the American media always gives an accurate account of the state of the world. However Pilger's use of Petraeus's words is also inaccurate.

Here's the full quote in context:

[EX=]5-25. Impartiality is a common theme for information activities when there are political, social, and sectarian divisions in the host nation. Counterinsurgents should avoid taking sides, when possible. Perceived favoritism can exacerbate civil strife and make counterinsurgents more desirable targets for sectarian violence.

5-26. Effective commanders directly engage in a dialog with the media and communicate command themes and messages personally. The worldwide proliferation of sophisticated communication technologies means that media coverage significantly affects COIN operations at all echelons. Civilian and military media coverage influences the perceptions of the political leaders and public of the host nation, United States, and international community. The media directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents, their operations, and the opposing insurgency. This situation creates a war of perceptions between insurgents and counterinsurgents conducted continuously using the news media.

5-27. Commanders often directly engage the local populace and stakeholders through face-to-face meetings, town meetings, and community events highlighting counterinsurgent community improvements. These engagements give commanders additional opportunities to assess their efforts' effects, address community issues and concerns, and personally dispel misinformation. These events often occur in the civil-military operations center.

5-28. The media are a permanent part of the information environment. Effective media/public affairs operations are critical to successful military operations. All aspects of military operations are subject to immediate scrutiny. Well-planned, properly coordinated, and clearly expressed themes and messages can significantly clarify confusing situations. Clear, accurate portrayals can improve the effectiveness and morale of counterinsurgents, reinforce the will of the U.S. public, and increase popular support for the HN government. The right messages can reduce misinformation, distractions, confusion, uncertainty, and other factors that cause public distress and undermine the COIN effort. Constructive and transparent information enhances understanding and support for continuing operations against the insurgency.

Firstly, this not not how he "describes Afganistan". Afganistan is not mentioned in chapter 5, and counterinsurgency operations in several countries are discussed in the full document. Of course Afganistan was a current operation at the time the manual was published in 2006, but then so was Iraq. It's not even clear if Petraeus even wrote those words, as it's part of a huge document that he oversaw, but certainly did not write entirely by himself.

Secondly, the war is not a "war of perception". Pilger is attempting to make it seem like Petraeus is characterizing the entire operation in Afganistan as a war of perception. Petraeus is just saying that there is a war of perception, but it's only a part of the larger operation. The section on dealing with the media is a small part of a huge document.

Thirdly, it's not just about "the way the adventure is sold in America". That's certainly part of it, but as you can see in the full context, the "host nation", and the international community are also targets.

Fourthly, directly related to the previous point, Petraeus is not singling out America as the place "where the media directly influence the attitude of key audiences". His point specifically applies to "the political leaders and public of the host nation, United States, and international community"

Pilger's piece is titled "Why are wars not being reported honestly", and yet here he's selectively quoting and distorting in order to make a point. His misrepresentation has since been taken up by many other writers. Eventually even Pilgers superficially correct quotes and context get blurred away, and you end up with things that are totally inaccurate like these examples found online:

How biased is the mainline media?. US Army counterinsurgency commander General David Petraeus describes Afghanistan as a war of perception conducted continuously using the news media. "What really matters is not so much the battles as the way they are sold in America where the media directly influences attitudes".
Content from External Source
[ex=]According to General Petraeus, there is now a war “of perception… conducted continuously through the news media”.[/ex]

One might argue that these are trivial distinctions, and that his underlying point is correct. There is a war of perception, and it does involve the American public. But I think clarity and honesty is important. Petraeus did not describe Afganistan as a war of perception, nor did he say that what really matters is how the story is sold in America. Unfortunately though that's the message people get, and repeat, and continue to distort. This initial misrepresentation is how bunk gets started. This is the best time to stop it.