The Psychological Aspect of the War

By April 3, 2003 No Comments

Terrorism is part communication and part violent action. The two are inseparable because the medium is the message. A bomb exploded at the “right” time in the “right” place can be a more powerful message than a thousand media statements. As Brian Jenkins famously advised, nearly 30 years ago, “terrorism is theatre”.

The day-to-day propaganda that accompanies all aspects of terrorism and counter-terrorism, fills the airwaves with images and sound-bites. For the most part, this is “tactical” propaganda, the trench warfare of the mind. Today, however, I want to describe what I call “strategic” propaganda – the motivating belief-systems that often make all the difference between victory and defeat.

In all manner of wars (not just terrorism), leaders strive to create what, for purpose of illustration, I call “Trinities”. These trinities represent in simplified form the “appropriate” way of thinking about the conflict demanded of soldiers and civilians alike by their own leaders. The Trinity requires its audience (whether an alliance of millions or a terrorist group of dozens) to believe these three essentials:

  1. The Righteousness of the cause – ideological, religious, racist, nationalist, survival, whatever;
  2. The Evil of all who oppose the cause – the reverse mirror image of the above,
  3. The Inevitability of Victory – the most difficult element to create and sustain, and probably the most important. Often it links the cause to historical or mythic or sacred influence.

Needless to say, selling such a Trinity is a lot easier in a tightly disciplined nation or revolutionary group than in an open liberal democracy, where people prefer to generate their own ideas. In full-scale wars of the traditional sort, democratic governments have sometimes gone far toward suspending democracy “for the duration” to protect their Trinities against doubters. A good example can be found in the work of America’s George Creel in 1917-18.

The war in Vietnam demonstrated the difficulties of maintaining an American trinity in the face of mass media and the increased power of the press. Nevertheless, the nation stood by its Armed Forces for years, until the consensus collapsed and the Trinity came tumbling down. To some extent, the disaster owed to North Vietnamese propaganda, amplified by the USSR through front organizations created for that purpose. This attack damaged America’s “Righteousness of the Cause” concept and redirected media attention away from successes toward excesses. Hanoi never attempted to burnish its own reputation in GIs’ perceptions, and America’s demonisation of the “Evil Enemy” remained intact.

The fatal blow was aimed at the “Inevitability of Victory” component of the US trinity. Critics at home and observers in theatre began to doubt the war could be won, and of course this could quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The Tet Offensive, a failure for the North, was reported by the US media as a stunning defeat for the Americans. Once the trinity collapsed, all else was pulled down with it.

The US Army is right to dread another Vietnam. At the highest political level, maintaining Armed Forces’ morale and civilian confidence (in the form of a strong trinity) ought to be a constant priority. But propaganda cannot succeed in contradiction of visible facts; Hitler and Stalin made this mistake at various occasions, and it cost them dear.

What can we see today of the rival trinities in the War against Terror?

The Arab/Islamic fundamentalists have been spreading the righteousness of their Islamic cause, the evil of infidels (specifically the western democracies, and of course the USA), and the inevitability of Islamic victory. This is surely the strongest Trinity the world has seen since the glory days of fascism and Marxism-Leninism. Moreover, it has global reach through modern communications and Islamic settlers in target states.

The prime source of psychological indoctrination to sustain this trinity is Saudi Arabia, and the key mover is the Wahhabi sect based there. Through the overseas network, devotion to extremism and hatred of the West had flourished for many years before 9/11, but went barely noticed by western populations and attracted only weak response by their governments. The 9/11 attack on the US Homeland must have provided the faithful everywhere with proof positive of the credibility of militant Islam and the vulnerability of the Great Satan, thus crowning their trinity with belief in inevitable victory.

9/11 also jump-started a US trinity in opposition to terror, one that was far stronger in the target country, the US, than elsewhere in the democracies. This western trinity was also confined in its messages by the need NOT to include the entire Arab/Islamic world in the “Evil Enemy” category; hence, one assumes, the choice of an abstract – terrorism – as the Evil Enemy.

As and when the US/UK attack on Iraq begins, Arab confidence will be tested. Insofar as Saddam holds his own, he might strengthen the pan-Arab belief in ultimate victory, but if resistance fades quickly, credibility may be lost. To offset a negative outcome, the Wahhabi/Al-Qaeda purists may assist the heretical Saddam and his Baathists by carrying out attacks in the “outside world”, while Saddam uses whatever WMD he has against the invaders (with some kept aside for Israel).

The American public’s certain belief that their side will win may also be put to the test, particularly if a rapid victory in Iraq is denied and casualties are high. Both in Iraq and the wider war on terror, fear will create difficulties. Today’s threat differs in two respects from anything faced before: the probable use of WMD, and the apparent hostile commitment to kill as many infidels as possible. All at once, terrorism has the potential of a free-standing victorious strategy. It would seem that outside the US and UK, politicians are reluctant or unable to educate their publics on these somber facts, trading a quiet life today for possible blind panic later.

The No War movement has copied the 1980s Peace Movement by practising displacement. The rational concern about Al-Qaeda attacks is denied, and instead all fear is attributed to the dangers of resisting terrorism. The world is at risk because of President Bush’s War Against Terror, not because of the terrorism itself. And it may not end there.

Adam Garfinkle reports

Particularly in post-Christian Europe in the internet age, the infusion of religious energies into politics – even in some cases, the subsumption of political energies by an unrecognized and still unnamed “secular” religion – goes hand in hand with the building of a new polity: a federated European Union. The popular, folk religion of that new political civilization was manifest on the streets of major European cities this month, complete with elements of spectacle and ritual common to all religions. The protestors were, in essence, praying for peace in the idiom of the new faith which is normatively multiculturalist, anti-nationalist, anti-globalizationist, anti-Zionist and sometimes anti-Semitic and, above all, anti-American. Almost entirely unattached to traditional faith, moreover, it is an amalgam of emotion and new superstition with eerie overtones. As G K Chesterton said, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing; he’ll believe in anything.

If Garfinkle is right, we have the ingredients of a potentially hostile and really Unholy Trinity at the heart of European civilization.