Digital War
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Digital War

A Critical Introduction

William Merrin

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Digital War

A Critical Introduction

William Merrin

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About This Book

Digital War offers a comprehensive overview of the impact of digital technologies upon the military, the media, the global public and the concept of 'warfare' itself.

This introductory textbook explores the range of uses of digital technology in contemporary warfare and conflict. The book begins with the 1991 Gulf War, which showcased post-Vietnam technological developments and established a new model of close military and media management. It explores how this model was reapplied in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), and how, with the Web 2.0 revolution, this informational control broke down. New digital technologies allowed anyone to be an informational producer leading to the emergence of a new mode of 'participative war', as seen in Gaza, Iraq and Syria. The book examines major political events of recent times, such as 9/11 andthe War on Terror and its aftermath. It also considers how technological developments such as unmanned drones and cyberwar have impacted upon global conflict and explores emerging technologies such as soldier-systems, exo-skeletons, robotics and artificial intelligence and their possible future impact.

This book will be of much interest to students of war and media, security studies, political communication, new media, diplomacy and IR in general.

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1 Top-down war

Televising conflict in the 1990s

A new kind of war …

The 1991 Gulf War felt different. A western public who had had little recent experience of conflict tuned in to find a new type of war. This was a war in real-time, occurring on the screens in front of them; a war carried by global 24-hour rolling news channels with live coverage seemingly from the heart of the battlefield; a clean-war of high-tech, high-precision smart weaponry; a press-release war, with daily conferences and generals talking through the day’s message; and a video-game war and media spectacle consumed by the domestic audience as entertainment. The reality of the war was, of course, very different – all wars are ultimately about the violent destruction of fragile, physical bodies – but the public perception wasn’t wrong. In the military management of both the actual operations and the media coverage this was a different kind of war.
The reason why, however, owed a lot to the past. It seemed as if during the Gulf crisis the USA was fighting as much to exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam. Ironically, a conflict that would do so much to define the future model of war was explicitly designed to put to rest the trauma of the past. The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era proxy war, fought by the USA in aid of South Vietnam against the communist North from November 1955 to April 1975. It had ended with the capture of the South by Northern forces and the humiliating withdrawal of the USA after suffering over 58,000 dead and 300,000 injured servicemen. The defeat of the greatest military power by a small, third-world guerrilla army had led to a period of soul searching in the USA and an internal crisis of confidence in American power.
Unable to accept their military defeat, by the 1980s conservative politicians and commentators had come to agree a more palatable explanation for the USA’s failure. As Philip Taylor says, ‘Middle America and the US establishment remained convinced that an explanation for the single remaining blemish on America’s illustrious military record had been found: the enemy within had been their very own media’ (Taylor, 1998:2). Vietnam was widely considered the first ‘television war’, with US journalists free to roam across the combat zone, sending back footage of the conflict for the nightly news. Thus television (and, implicitly, liberal journalism) was blamed for alienating public sympathy and support. The daily, televisual drip-feed of horror, US and civilian casualties, and destruction, it was argued, had turned public opinion against the war, aiding the anti-war movement and weak politicians who hadn’t supported the military. In this way, the myth was created that the Vietnam War had been lost on the home front through the television set, rather than militarily. Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam vet John Rambo echoes this sentiment in the iconic 1985 Neo-Conservative action movie Rambo: First Blood Part II. Offered the chance of a return to ‘Nam’ by his commander Rambo famously asks, ‘Do we get to win this time?’ Thus, through the 1980s a powerful right-wing argument gained force that the USA needed to overcome the self-imposed paralysis of its defeat – the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ – to rediscover its pride and reassert itself on the world stage.
The problem remained of how to wage a war that wouldn’t be undermined by images of death and returning bodybags. The answer lay in wars with clear outcomes, with minimized casualties, with a prepared population and with tight control of the media. As Taylor points out, the British operation in ‘the Falklands War’ provided a model for this. The Argentinian military invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982 had led the UK to form a naval ‘task force’ to engage the Argentinian navy and airforce and attempt to retake the islands. What resulted was a short 74-day war, with simple and successful aims and a limited and controlled media coverage encompassing Ministry of Defence (MoD) briefings and reports from journalists accompanying the task force. With their control over access to and communication from the warzone the MoD could dictate terms to the media, including limiting the numbers of reporters, vetting individuals and imposing censorship agreements. The result was a highly successful propaganda campaign involving the suppression of information and the delaying of dangerous news not just to prevent any benefit to the enemy but also to manage domestic morale and opinion. In return for privileged access and caught up in the military operation they were reporting upon, the mainstream UK media proved eager to play this propaganda role, putting patriotism before objectivity.
The USA didn’t immediately learn these lessons. In the October 1983 military invasion of Grenada their control of the informational environment was so tight that the press were excluded and even fired upon, whilst in the December 1989 invasion of Panama the press were allowed access but were overly restricted in their movements in order to present an image of a bloodless operation. The Gulf War, however, would see the perfection of the USA’s military media management system.

Box 1.1 The Gulf War 1991

The 1991 Gulf War had its roots in existing regional conflicts. Following the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution that deposed its ally, the Shah, and its humiliation in the Iranian hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981, the USA’s regional policy shifted. America looked now to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a counterweight to both Islamic fundamentalism and to Soviet expansionism (following the latter’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979). Hence the USA’s support for Saddam Hussein when he launched the Iran–Iraq War on 22 September 1980. By 1982 this support included money, intelligence, weapons, equipment and training for Iraqi forces. Saddam’s actions were motivated by a history of border disputes with Iran and a fear that their revolution might inspire the suppressed Shia majority in Iraq, but his hopes of an easy victory and territorial gains proved naïve. The war ended after eight years on 20 August 1988 with a strategic stalemate and claimed loss of up to half a million soldiers and countless civilian lives. The war left Iraq with economic problems and debts. Suspecting that Kuwait was over-producing oil to depress Iraqi’s much needed oil revenues, it sought to rectify these problems by claiming disputed oil-rich territories on the Kuwaiti border. Having been told by US ambassador April Glaspie that America had ‘no opinion’ on Arab–Arab conflicts, Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, seizing control of the country by the next day and deposing its monarch, the Emir. The international community criticized the invasion. The UN Security Council passed resolution 660 on 3 August condemning the invasion and demanding the withdrawal of Iraqi forces, as well as resolution 661 on 6 August, imposing economic sanctions on Iraq, and resolution 678 on 29 November, which gave Iraq a deadline of 15 January to withdraw, authorizing member states to use all necessary means to force compliance after this date.
Alongside international diplomatic and political pressure on Iraq and international sanctions introduced on 6 August 1990 that would last until 2003, the USA launched ‘Operation Desert Shield’, forming a coalition of 34 countries and building up military forces in the region to defend Saudi Arabia and prepare for war. By the time the deadline passed on 15 January 1991 there were 956,000 coalition troops in the area, 543,000 of them US. When Iraq failed to withdraw, the USA launched ‘Operation Desert Storm’ on 17 January. The air campaign lasted until 24 February, quickly achieving air supremacy, flying over 100,000 sorties and dropping 88,500 tons of bombs on the Iraqi military and civilian infrastructure. The ground campaign, launched on 24 February was astonishingly successful, being called off after a PR-perfect 100 hours on the 28 February, following the destruction, mass retreat or surrender of the Iraqi army and the liberation of Kuwait.
Although the Iraqi army had been comprehensively defeated, the USA had no intention of pursuing it into Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. The war aims had been achieved and the USA recognized it needed a strong regional counterweight to Iran. It was also wary of taking responsibility for the long and difficult process of state building that would follow his overthrow. Long-term troop deployment would be costly, unpopular and risk turning into another Vietnam. Instead the USA encouraged uprisings by the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north but the Iraqi military brutally suppressed these with helicopter gunships. The USA was forced to implement ‘no-fly-zones’ in northern and southern Iraq which its airforce had to enforce for the next decade. The survival of Saddam, his Republican guard and his weapons programmes, together with Iraqi activity in the no-fly-zones necessitated continued US military action and major missile strikes on Iraq in 1993, 1996 and 1998. These unresolved issues and ongoing US antagonism towards Saddam would lead to Iraq being targeted again in 2003 in the Iraq War.

The Gulf War

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on the 2 August 1990 and the passage of UN Security Council resolutions demanding Iraqi withdrawal and authorizing the use of force to achieve this, the USA began to prepare for military action. As well as the physical build-up of troops in the region and international diplomacy and coalition building, this required the selling of the war on the domestic front. The US public and politicians needed to be convinced that the war was necessary and that the USA could overcome the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ to successfully fight it. Although there was considerable public and media support for war, the cause was helped by President Bush’s demonization of Saddam Hussein as equivalent to Hitler (a trope that would become common in the international coverage) as well as by highly publicized stories of Iraqi atrocities.
The most famous of these was the 10 October 1990 testimony of ‘Nayirah’, a volunteer nurse at the al-Addan hospital in Kuwait who told the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus that she had seen armed Iraqi soldiers enter the hospital and remove equipment and incubators to be taken back to Iraq, leaving the babies to die on the floor. Her story was widely reported, appearing on ABC and NBC TV news, being cited by senators in the Senate debate to approve military action and being quoted repeatedly by President Bush in the following weeks. It was only revealed in 1992 that ‘Nayirah’ was the daughter of the Kuwait ambassador to the USA and that her participation had been organized by the ‘Citizens for a Free Kuwait’ campaign run by the US public relations company Hill & Knowlton and funded by the Kuwaiti government. She had not been a volunteer at the hospital and although Iraqi soldiers had been involved in looting and violence there was no evidence to support the incubator story. Such was its emotive power, however, that, as Knightley says, it proved to be ‘the definitive moment in the campaign to prepare the American public for the need to go to war’ (Knightley, 2000:488).
By the time the UN deadline had passed the US-led coalition was prepared for war. Crucially the USA had realized it would be fighting two wars simultaneously: a physical, military campaign in the middle east and a global informational campaign. This media campaign had three key targets: first, it was aimed at domestic populations to aid morale and retain support for war; second it was aimed at an international audience and especially the broader coalition members to ensure their continued support and to demonstrate the legitimacy of the action; and third it was aimed at the enemy as propaganda, hoping to demoralize the Iraqi leadership by demonstrating the coalition power.
The coalition media campaign had three elements: official briefings by political leaders in Washington and London; closely controlled military briefings from the command centres in Dhahran and Riyadh, and reports from journalists who had been selected for combat zone access. The military developed a ‘pool system’ whereby a selected number of predominantly Anglo-American journalists were accredited by the military and allowed to operate alongside troops. They were organized in ‘media reporting units’ overseen by censors, with reports sent to ‘forward transmission units’ who also had the right to censor and who relayed reports home for copy to be freely distributed among news outlets. In the event, apart from the invasion plans, censorship was rare, partially as the pool system blurred the line between the military and journalists leading to a self-censorship caused by the close identification with the troops and the operations, and partially because there was little to report prior to the ground invasion and little chance to file copy once it had begun.
The Gulf War, Taylor says, ‘was the first major conflict fought against the background of accessible global telecommunications’ (Taylor, 1998:x). Hudson and Stanier describe it as ‘the most widely and swiftly reported war in history’ and ‘arguably the greatest media event in history’ (Hudson and Stanier, 1997:209). This is largely due to the television coverage, with the world’s public tuning into a near-continuous feed of 24-hour rolling news mixing studio commentary, expert opinion, official briefings, live coverage from reporters across the region and even, for the first time, broadcasts from the enemy capital itself. As Sturken argues, it was the Gulf War, not Vietnam, that was a ‘television war’, as the latter was shot almost exclusively on film and was subject to the delays of the developing process: ‘There was always at least a twenty-four-hour delay before images of the Vietnam War reached the United States. The Persian Gulf War, by contrast, took place in the era of satellite technology and highly portable video equipment. It was technologically possible for the world to watch the Persian Gulf War as it happened’ (Sturken, 1997:125–26). Cumings goes further: the reason, he says, why this was the real television war was not just because of the live reporting or saturation coverage but because of the way in which television itself imploded with the military operations, through its ‘radically distanced, technically controlled, eminently “cool” postmodern optic which, in the doing, became an instrument of the war itself’ (Cumings, 1992:103).
Indeed, television was almost co-substantial with the war: as Philip Taylor says, ‘the Gulf War broke out on television’ (Taylor, 1998:31), and viewers followed it that night in real-time. In the USA, ABC captured its outbreak, cutting into their 6.30pm news programme to go live to Gary Shepard in Baghdad who announced, ‘something is definitely underway here … Obviously an attack is underway of some sort’. However, it was CNN’s coverage of the first night of the bombing that would become one of the most famous moments in media history. Their rental of a ‘four-wire’ communications system enabled CNN to keep broadcasting after other news organizations were affected by the destruction of Baghdad’s communications tower and disruption of power supplies. Over a billion people worldwide watched CNN’s through-the-night telephone commentary from the Al-Rashid Hotel by Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman, including, remarkably, the political leaders in Washington, London and Baghdad, who used it for on-the-spot intelligence as to the progress of the campaign.
Quickly, the daily military briefings from US Central Command in Riyadh became one of the defining elements of the Gulf coverage, representing the most obvious example of the military’s control of the global perception of the war. It was here that the military decided upon, produced and disseminated the day’s message, narrativizing the conflict and its events for the global media. General Norman Schwarzkopf’s explanation of what was happening and the coalition’s military operations were aided by a powerful new tool: ‘smart-bomb’ videos. Laser-guided bombs (‘precision-guided munitions’, or PGM) had been developed and tested in Vietnam but by 1991, with the development of cheap, miniature computers and guidance systems, a new generation of ‘smart’ munitions was available. Most used a plane fitted with a nose-cone ‘forward-looking infrared radar’ (FLIR), which sent a laser signal to pick out a target for a bomb whose light-sensing nose-cone could follow this laser to the target. The aircraft’s computer could also send signals to adjust the bomb’s control fins in flight to increase its accuracy. The FLIR information could be converted into visible images shown on the computer console in the cockpit whilst some bombs also included nose cameras sending back a record of their fall. The primary aim of these videos was to aid damage assessment but the key development of the Gulf War was to employ them as part of the military briefings.
In this way, the smart-bomb became a dual weapon. As a military explosive it had a localized, precise, destructive effect, but as an image weapon it had a global, resonating, productive effect, carrying a message to the world about the US operation. Cumings argues the bomb was a ‘video press release’, ‘simultaneously image, warfare, news, spectacle, and advertisement for the Pentagon’ (Cumings, 1992:122). It functioned, therefore, as an advert for US power in the post-Cold War era and for its military and defence industries, whilst also providing imagery and news for the media and a spectacle for the watching population. Most importantly, the smart-bomb demonstrated a new ideal of a pinpoint, hi-tech, ‘clean’ war of ‘surgical strikes’ that avoided the civilian ‘collateral damage’ of dumb-munitions. As such it played a significant propaganda role by helping transform the image and idea of war itself. As Philip Knightley wrote:
Ever since the British invented military censorship in 1856 … wartime news management has had two main purposes: to deny information and comfort to the enemy and maintain public support. In the Gulf War the new element has been an effort to change public perception of the nature of war itself, to convince us that new technology has removed a lot of war’s horrors.
Taylor (1998:262)
With the smart-bomb, therefore, western violence was presented to its domestic audience as a moral force. As Aksoy and Robins argue
The clear message was that ‘smart’ was good, and brilliant was virtuous. ‘Smart’ weapons, it was being claimed, could actually save the lives of soldiers and civilians alike in the Gulf. To reduce error, to be so deadly accurate and efficient, was a reflection of the virtuous triumph of western technology’.
Aksoy and Robins (1991:331)
Broughton similarly sees the videos as aimed at the home front, ‘recruiting participation at the hearth of virtually every American living room’, with their violence ‘soliciting the perceptual complicity of the viewing citizenry’ (Broughton, 1996:140). The aim, he says, was to promote the ‘New World Order’ – the claimed dominance of western values in the post-Soviet era and the belief that these values could be globally policed. With its avoidance of civilian casualties, its precision and its vision of justice being carried out, the smart-bo...

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