What Propaganda Means and Why It Matters

U.S. Air Force EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft, designed for psychological and information operations. (Federation of American Scientists, original source unknown)

Let’s suppose that a large American newspaper ran an editorial deflecting accusations that its political opinions were too partisan. It deflected those who argued against the newspaper’s position and advanced the position that the newspaper’s opinion were correct and fair. Would any reasonable person accuse the newspaper of engaging in propaganda? Of course not.

Yet that’s essentially what Tom Vanden Brook engaged in through his column in USA Today this week. If you don’t believe me, just read the two definitions of propaganda he cites in his article arguing that the U.S. military engages in propaganda.

I’m not arguing that Vanden Brook or USA Today engage in propaganda. I am arguing that Vanden Brook is engaging in typically sloppy thinking about what constitutes propaganda, a word so broad and thick that it obscures, contrary to what he argues, far more than it illuminates. Vanden Brook quotes Webster’s Dictionary, which provides the fairly standard definition of propaganda, and compares it to the Government Accountability Office’s definition of Military Information Support Operations.

It’s a neat trick, except that Vanden Brook should know better: Military Information Support Operations (MISO, also known as psychological operations) is a subset of Information Operations (Infoops), about which Vanden Brook has written before.  So he knows that he’s not giving the whole story by citing these two definitions. But then if you parse the dictionary’s sloppy and vague language, you could easily apply it to Vanden Brook’s article: propaganda is a “systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of a particular idea…to further one’s own cause or to damage and opposing one”. He’s making a concerted argument, in the third-largest newspaper in the country, supporting his contention and undermining opposing viewpoints. Is that propaganda? Of course not. It just demonstrates what unsound ground he’s writing on.

Vanden Brook would like propaganda to cover a lot of common ground.  He wants it to describe all  of what the military communicates in theater operations to be described as propaganda. But here the differences are important. Like too many policymakers, practitioners and journalists before him, Vanden Brook confuses MISO and Information Operations. MISO is primarily concerned with “foreign audiences” – that is, the civilian population. Infoops, when not also including all the other tools of information warfare (including network warfare, electronic jamming, military deception and the like), is specifically targeted against enemy forces. So: is a MISO campaign to warn civilians of unexploded ordinance propaganda? Is an infoops leaflet urging enemy insurgents to join the government militia propaganda? Is a public affairs radio broadcast encouraging voter turnout propaganda?

It should be noted that beyond the doctrinal confusion – the Joint Manual insists that MISO must work with Public Affairs, whose entire credibility relies on truth, but can also engage in military deception, like Infoops – this gets hopelessly tangled in the complex environment of modern operations, particularly in counterinsurgency. In peacekeeping, stability operations, and counterinsurgency, there is simply no neat division between civilian and combatant, so there is no functional difference between MISO and Infoops. The unfortunate fact that MISO and Infoops sound so much alike in name just adds to the confusion.

But throwing it all into a box and slapping on the propaganda label doesn’t help. I am sympathetic to the journalist and editor who need a simple, demotic vocabulary to describe these confusing, even subtle, distinctions to the public in readily accessible prose. But in this case, propaganda is more inflaming and obscuring than clarifying. It doesn’t explain what the military is doing in these difficult, often treacherous, environments. “Propaganda” doesn’t describe anything. It characterizes.

The solution is better reporting and better writing. By showing what soldiers, Marines and Airmen do on these operations, and their intended effect, good journalism could even help clarify the confusion about the fundamental difference between Infoops and MISO. I’ve read about some activities that look like public diplomacy, and I’m not entirely clear on how public affairs fits into complex counterinsurgency or stability operations environments, either. None of this fits neatly under the rubric “propaganda,” nor should it. And to try to do so entirely misses the point.

Because if Vanden Brook had read his theory, he’d know that the stakes couldn’t be higher: David Petraeus wrote in his seminal counterinsurgency manual that the information operations “[logical line of operations] LLO may often be the decisive LLO.” Theorists from Clausewitz to David Galula wrote about the importance of the strategic struggle for information, public opinion and perception. Wars have been fought and lost over this ground for centuries. Many have argued it is at least as important as the combat itself.

I have written extensively and in depth about the doctrinal, operational and theoretical problems of propaganda and the operational communications community in my forthcoming book on public diplomacy. I hope this short article and my book provide the opportunity to untangle and redevelop the tools necessary to communicate in the complex and dangerous tactical environments we will no doubt face in the years ahead.


The Marine Corps and the Public Diplomacy of Deeds

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Leuis teaches earthquake victims how to use a hand-cranked radio at the Landing Zone 6 distribution center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 21, 2010. U.S. and international military units and civilian aid agencies are conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations after an earthquake devastated the nation. Leuis is assigned to the 3rd Marine Special Operations Command. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Prentice Colter

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Leuis teaches earthquake victims how to use a hand-cranked radio  in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 21, 2010.  U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Prentice Colter

 You may have come across a new recruiting video online for the U.S. Marine Corps, “Toward Chaos,” which is part of an ambitious integrated recruitment and promotional campaign you can see at marines.com. The Marine Corps have always had exceptional recruiting and marketing (“a few good men” has been a Marine trademark since 1779), and this campaign is no different.

But watching these two videos (below), based on recent operations, reminded me of a little-cited quote by the former Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy during the Bush Administration, Karen Hughes. She often talked about the “diplomacy of deeds,” which was a subtle way of saying that our actions speak louder than our words – that policy is more important than posturing.

Working in public diplomacy, I can attest to the importance of getting the words right.  Getting words wrong can get you a whole lot of trouble.  As my former colleague at NATO Jamie Shea once said, “A media campaign will not win you a war. But a bad media campaign can and will lose you a war.” Having been the inestimable voice of the Alliance during the Kosovo conflict, he knew what he was talking about.

Nonetheless, these Marine Corps videos, though they are intended as recruitment tools, talk about getting the actions right, too. They visually capture two compelling recent humanitarian missions that had real effects for real people in dire circumstances: the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment to Haiti in January 2010 with Operation United Response following the earthquake that devastated Port au Prince, and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment to Japan in March 2011 with Operation Tomadachi following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated that country.

I’ve written previously about combat camera crews and here you can see the importance of deploying them to document the important and vital work the Marine Corps and Navy (and other branches) do under incredibly difficult circumstances. The resulting videos are workmanlike – no fancy camera shots or complex narrative arcs – but they get the job done. They introduce an awesome crisis, show the Marines gearing up and going into the teeth of an awful mess, and helping people in need.

That’s why I think the videos could – and should – be used as public diplomacy videos, promoted abroad, through the State Department, embassies and other means, adapted perhaps and translated into other languages for foreign audiences.

While working at NATO and talking to occasionally skeptical and pacifist audiences, I often pointed to the military as an example of what do-gooders (like my skeptics) would want to have on hand to do good in the world.  When calamity strikes, when people need help right now, the armed forces have the means to move lots of people, equipment and supplies where they are needed most quickly.  (And frankly, the military doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should for do-gooding of this sort.)

These recruitment videos give an idea of what could have been done with Operation Unified Assistance, the U.S. Navy’s comprehensive response to the 2004 tsunami disaster in Indonesia. The United States led the world in dollar and physical assistance, donating nearly $1 billion and deploying more than 12,500 military personnel and the full resources of a carrier strike group led by the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and an expeditionary strike group led by the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, together deploying nearly 50 helicopters – the only means, in many cases, to reach remote and cut-off regions of the country after the disaster.  (By contrast, the Indonesian government had only two helicopters on hand to fly missions for all of Sumatra.)

As it was, following the calamity and the unprecedented American humanitarian response, public opinion in predominantly Muslim Indonesia improved dramatically – from 15 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2005 — and the United States began to expand its relationship with the Indonesian government as always. That gives you a very good idea of what Undersecretary Hughes was talking about when she coined the expression “the diplomacy of deeds”: good actions improve our international esteem (I would argue similar actions contribute, at least in part, to our consistently high levels of public approval in Africa). We’ve always had strong relations with Haiti and Japan, but these videos give you an idea of just how important our actions can be.

Nonetheless, there is always a need to communicate those actions.  Many may have heard about the Indonesian effort because of its sheer scale. But perhaps lost in the chaos and horror of the Fukashima disaster was the Marines’ deployment. Those actions count, too, and are worth talking about. The public diplomacy of deeds, sometimes, still requires public diplomacy.