How US propaganda won Iraq’s ‘battlespace’

Ross Caputi & Richard Hil

With the 20th anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq upon us, the politics of memory are sure to resurface along familiar fault lines. Did the Bush administration do irreparable damage to American prestige by leading the country into another quagmire? Did the Obama administration withdraw too soon and allow al-Qaeda in Iraq to rebuild and morph into ISIL (ISIS)?
Apart from a few notable exceptions, the collective memory of the Iraq conflict in the United States falls within the narrow parameters of these debates. The military campaign was largely framed in the news media by US military information operations to meet specific strategic objectives. The upshot was a range of skewed media narratives which continue to conceal many truths. Some will remember the deceit surrounding the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that allegedly justified the invasion, but far more prominent is the memory of insurgency that became synonymous with the occupation. The assertion that the US-led coalition liberated Iraq from a vicious dictator obscures the antidemocratic process of state building conducted by an occupying power. The myth of civil war hid the reality of a dirty war.
Meanwhile, the so-called surge of 2007 presented a renewed counterinsurgency strategy as military genius, conveniently side-stepping the fact that the armed fighters the US troops were battling had been armed and trained by America in Iraq’s Ministry of Interior. Propaganda has been a bedfellow of war for the entirety of the 20th century, but the sophistication and violent impact of US 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 invented targets and set operational objectives. Propaganda is now a powerful and direct instrument of warfare, an integral part of combat operations. This transformation has been so profound that the very concept of a battlefield has become outdated. The invasion and occupation of Iraq took place within a battlespace – an unbounded, multi-domain battlefield that reaches into the abstract realms of information and cyberspace. Drawing lessons from the American war in Vietnam, the US mission in Iraq defined victory as the winning of Iraqi and American hearts and minds. To that end, the media was enlisted as a force multiplier in the exercise of soft power, unlike in Southeast Asia, where it was often viewed as a fifth column.
In Vietnam, it was clear to ordinary Americans that a militarily inferior enemy embarrassed the world’s most powerful army in good part because it had the support of its people. In Iraq, therefore, “perception management” became a strategic priority. This involved carefully crafted press conferences and press releases as well as the selective leaking of information, which together structured assumptions about the basic facts on the ground. The embedding of journalists within military units helped control the perspective from which Americans viewed the conflict, with the experiences of US soldiers foregrounded and those of Iraqis relegated to the background. Sometimes information operations exaggerated the threat of enemies or even invented one altogether. A significant consequence of battlespace thinking was that it afforded US military commanders the rationale to treat purveyors of information as combatants, even individuals and institutions protected by the Geneva Conventions, such as journalists reporting American atrocities, hospitals releasing civilian casualty figures and Iraqi mosque leaders calling on able-bodied men to defend their communities.
While the suffering of US soldiers figures prominently in America’s memory of the conflict, the plight of Iraqis is almost entirely ignored. This is no accident; it’s how the conflict was framed right from the outset. The death and trauma of US soldiers functioned as a surrogate for the ethical questions surrounding the Iraq mission. The American public could direct their empathy and attention towards the apolitical topics of treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, the civilian-military divide, and the tribulations of readjusting to civilian life; rather than questioning the ethics of sending soldiers to fight an unjust war. Meanwhile, soft power required the containment of bad news. Few Americans are aware of how many civilians were killed alongside the so-called insurgents, most of whom saw themselves as defending their homeland from an aggressive invasion and occupation. Yet for all the narratives 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 on a cost-benefit analysis that pitted, what they hoped would be, a low-risk operation with minimal coalition casualties against geopolitical gains.
The legitimacy of the American mission was itself a military objective. In the spring of 2004, the US changed its characterisation of the Iraqi partisans from being a combination of “Baathist loyalists” and “criminals” to an “insurgency.” This choice of language denied the rebels the legitimate status of belligerents. By controlling the vocabulary, the US military was able to structure the American public’s assumptions about facts on the ground. Set against the spirit of American exceptionalism, the sovereignty of the Iraqi state was never seriously entertained in the official propaganda. But for Iraqis, sovereignty was everything. Although the formal occupation of Iraq ended in June 2004 when the US ceremoniously handed sovereignty back and continued its mission under a Status of Forces Agreement; occupied Iraq and sovereign Iraq looked pretty much the same. Indeed, many Iraqis regard the period from 2004 to 2011 as a de facto 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 election in 2005 to the writing of Iraq’s constitution and the widely unpopular muhasasa ethno-sectarian quota system that followed.
The success of US information operations in generating the perception of legitimacy is reflected in American attitudes about the invasion, itself. That the invasion was illegal under international law drew little comment in the mainstream press. The violation of Iraqi sovereignty, as well as numerous war crimes committed in Fallujah and elsewhere, were simply filtered out of media coverage and political discourse. For Iraqis, the invasion wasn’t a mistake. It was a crime, with dire consequences for their society. However, the stark difference in the US public’s attitudes towards 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 to international law have dominated American coverage of the conflict. But in 2002-03, little attention was given to the Bush administration’s well-documented attempts to exaggerate the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and deceive the public on whether Iraq possessed WMDs.
While the American media has successfully highlighted the legal questions surrounding the invasion of Ukraine, the US propaganda apparatus distracted the public from asking similar questions about the Iraq invasion. That just a few months ago the US government could name a warship the USS Fallujah and get away with minimal criticism speaks of the power of this propaganda. The claims that the city had been overrun by al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were hardly even questioned, even after it was revealed in 2006 that the US had been running a psychological operation (PSYOP) campaign to exaggerate al-Zarqawi’s role in the anti-occupation violence. No evidence of his presence in Fallujah was ever produced. Nonetheless, the claims of American propagandists were accepted as a casus belli for the second siege of Fallujah in November of 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 opened the way for elections in January 2005, which many in Iraq’s Sunni community were opposed to holding under occupation.
In reality, by decimating the local, nationalist armed resistance in Fallujah, the US paved the way for al-Qaeda to move in 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 consequences for the health of US democracy. After all, can clear, informed foreign policy decisions be made when propaganda intended to leverage short-term battlespace advantages fogs the collective mind? Ultimately, the invasion and occupation of Iraq proved calamitous for that nation’s people, with estimates of excess civilian deaths surpassing a million. Iraqis continue to pay a heavy price for the war. Tens of thousands of American soldiers were also deceived into fighting an unjust war, and 4,500 paid with their lives. No politicians or military planners have been held to account.
As far as much of the mainstream media is concerned, Iraq is a forgotten country, the war a past occurrence. Even among peace activists and antiwar colleagues, we have found a reluctance to talk about the Iraq conflict, and in some cases point-blank refusal to engage in commemoration work. This thunderous silence points to a difficult truth: two decades after the invasion, American propaganda has conclusively won the Iraqi battlespace.