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How US propaganda won Iraq’s ‘battlespace’


Now that it’s been 20 years since the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the politics of memory is sure to resurface along familiar fault lines.

Has the Bush administration irreparably damaged American prestige by leading the country into another quagmire? Did the Obama administration back down too early and allow al-Qaeda in Iraq to rebuild and transform into ISIL (ISIS)?

Apart from one some notable exceptions, the collective memory of the Iraq conflict in the United States falls within the narrow confines of these debates. The military campaign was largely framed in the news media by the US military information operations to achieve specific strategic goals.

The result was a series of skewed media stories that still hide many truths. Some will remember the deceit surrounding the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that would justify the invasion, but much more prominent is the memory of the uprising that became synonymous with the occupation. The claim that the US-led coalition has liberated Iraq from a brutal dictator obscures the anti-democratic state-building process conducted by an occupying power. The myth of the Civil War hid the reality of one dirty war.

Meanwhile, the so-called wave of 2007 presented a renewed counterinsurgency strategy as military genius, conveniently ignoring the fact that the armed fighters the US forces fought had been armed and trained by America in the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.

Propaganda has been war’s bedfellow throughout the 20th century, but the sophistication and violent impact of U.S. information operations have come a long way since the Uncle Sam posters of World War I.

In Iraq, propaganda did much more than dress up battlefield events in polite language. It also devised goals and set operational objectives. Propaganda is now a powerful and direct tool of war, an integral part of combat operations.

This transformation has been so profound that the concept of a battlefield has become obsolete. The invasion and occupation of Iraq took place within a battlefield – a boundless, multi-domain battlefield reaching into the abstract realms of information and cyberspace.

Drawing lessons from the US war in Vietnam, the US mission in Iraq defined victory as winning Iraqi and American hearts and minds. To this end, the media was enlisted as a force multiplier in the exercise of soft power, unlike in Southeast Asia where it was often seen as a fifth column.

In Vietnam, it was clear to ordinary Americans that a militarily inferior enemy was a great embarrassment to the world’s most powerful military because it had the support of its people. In Iraq, therefore, ‘perception management’ became a strategic priority.

This included carefully crafted press conferences and press releases, as well as selective leaking of information, which together structured assumptions about the basic facts on the ground. The embedding of journalists in military units helped control the perspective from which Americans viewed the conflict, with the experiences of American soldiers in the foreground and those of Iraqis in the background. Sometimes intelligence operations exaggerated the threat of enemies or even made one up.

An important consequence of the battlespace thinking was that it provided US military commanders with the rationale to treat providers of information as combatants, even individuals and institutions protected by the Geneva Conventions, such as journalists reporting US atrocities, hospitals releasing civilian casualties and Iraqi mosque leaders calling for able-bodied men to defend their communities.

While the suffering of American soldiers figures prominently in the American memory of the conflict, the plight of the Iraqis is almost completely ignored. This is no coincidence; this is how the conflict was framed from the start. The death and trauma of American soldiers served as a surrogate for the ethical questions surrounding the mission in Iraq. The American public could direct their empathy and attention to the apolitical topics of post-traumatic stress disorder treatments, the division between civilians and military personnel, and the trials of readjustment to civilian life; instead of questioning the ethics of sending soldiers to wage an unjust war.

Meanwhile, soft power required containment of bad news. Few Americans are aware of the number of civilians who have died alongside the so-called insurgents, most of whom were seen defending their homeland against aggressive invasion and occupation.

But for all the tales of military heroism, Iraq is remembered by Americans as a mistake – a tacit admission that it was a war of choice. The US chose to go to war based on a cost-benefit analysis that pitted, what they hoped, a low-risk operation with minimal coalition casualties against geopolitical gains.

The legitimacy of the American mission was itself a military goal. In the spring of 2004, the US changed its characterization of the Iraqi partisans from a combination of “Baathist loyalists” and “criminals” to an “insurgency”. This choice of language denied the rebels the legitimate status of belligerents. By mastering the vocabulary, the US military was able to structure the assumptions of the American public about facts on the ground.

Against the spirit of American exceptionalism, the sovereignty of the Iraqi state was never seriously entertained in official propaganda. But for Iraqis, sovereignty was everything. Although the formal occupation of Iraq ended in June 2004 when the US solemnly relinquished sovereignty and continued its mission under a Status of Forces Agreement; occupied Iraq and sovereign Iraq looked much the same.

Indeed, many Iraqis view the period from 2004 to 2011 as an actual occupation. They wish they could shake off the entire legacy of the US-led military campaign as easily as it was imposed on them – from the 2005 elections to the drafting of the Iraqi constitution and the widely unpopular muhasasa ethno-sectarian quota system that followed. follow the.

The success of US intelligence operations in generating the perception of legitimacy is reflected in US attitudes to the invasion itself. That was the invasion illegal under international law received little comment in the mainstream press. The violation of Iraqi sovereignty, as well as countless war crimes committed in Fallujah and elsewhere, were simply filtered out of media coverage and political discourse.

For Iraqis, the invasion was not a mistake. It was a crime, with dire consequences for their society.

However, the stark difference in the attitude of the American public to the invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggests something deeper than ordinary hypocrisy. Voices of condemnation for Putin’s aggression and calls to hold Russia accountable under international law have dominated US coverage of the conflict. But in 2002-2003 little attention was paid to the Bush administration’s well-documented attempts to the danger of Saddam Hussein and misleading the public about whether Iraq owned it weapons of mass destruction.

While the US media successfully raised the legal questions surrounding the invasion of Ukraine, the US propaganda apparatus diverted the public from asking similar questions about the invasion of Iraq.

That just a few months ago the US government could name it warship the USS Fallujah and getting away with minimal criticism speaks to the power of this propaganda.

Claims that the city had been overrun by al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordan Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were barely questioned, even after it emerged in 2006 that the US had conducted a psychological operation (PSYOP) campaign to exaggerate al-Zarqawi’s role in the violence against the occupation. No evidence of his presence in Fallujah has ever been produced. Nevertheless, the claims of American propagandists were accepted as casus belli for the second siege of Fallujah in November 2004, in which 4,000 to 6,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed. These figures never reached the American public, and the operation itself was celebrated as a liberation that paved the way for elections in January 2005, which many in Iraq’s Sunni community opposed being held under occupation.

In reality, by decimating the local, nationalist armed resistance in Fallujah, the US paved the way for al-Qaeda to enter and take over the city. That the collective American memory of the 2003 invasion and its aftermath is so deeply flawed matters—because of the destruction and suffering in Iraq and because of the implications for the health of American democracy.

After all, can clear, well-informed foreign policy decisions be made when propaganda designed to exploit short-term advantages in the battlespace clouds the collective mind?

In the end, the invasion and occupation of Iraq proved disastrous for the country’s people, with estimates of excess civilian deaths of more than a million. Iraqis continue to pay a high price for the war. Tens of thousands of American soldiers were also tricked into waging an unjust war, and 4,500 paid with their lives. No politicians or military planners have been held accountable.

As far as much of the mainstream media is concerned, Iraq is a forgotten country, the war a past event. Even among peace activists and anti-war colleagues, we have found a reluctance to talk about the Iraq conflict, and in some cases an outright refusal to participate in memorial work.

This thunderous silence points to a difficult truth: Two decades after the invasion, US propaganda has won the Iraqi battlespace conclusively.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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