War and Information

It appears that the most recent chapter of the Israel-Lebanon war is close to wrapping up; I’d like to go back and examine some observations from the beginning of this conflict. Anthony Bourdain wrote in Salon of being stuck in Lebanon as Israeli airstrikes began:

“…in the blink of an eye, everything went sideways: Relaxed smiles froze and disappeared. Suddenly, there was the sound of automatic weapons firing randomly in the air from a nearby neighborhood. And fireworks. Then cars — a few of them — teenage kids, women and adults, some leaning out the windows and waving Hezbollah flags and flashing the “V” for victory sign, celebrating what we were told, after a few quick cellphone calls, was the grabbing of two Israeli soldiers. Our fixer, a Sunni; Ali, a Shiite; and “Marwan,” a Christian, who’d just minutes ago been pointing proudly at the mural — all three looked down in embarrassment, a look of sorrow, shame and then resignation on their faces. Someone muttered “assholes” bitterly. They knew — right away — what was going to happen next.

Our irregular “intel” (Mr. Wolfe’s favorite word) consists of printed analysis from a faraway corporate security company (useless speculation), BBC News (pretty good), local TV (excellent — though in Arabic), the Hizballah Channel (scary), Sky News (shockingly up-to-date and thorough), Some Guy From the Pool (almost always on target. He accurately predicts locations and times of airstrikes and seems to know which countries’ citizens are getting out and when), Somebody’s Mom Back in the States (excellent source), and Mr. Wolfe’s printouts from the AOL News Web site (always discouraging). We’ve heard the Israeli prime minister talk of knocking back Lebanon 20 years. And we believe him. We hear of pleasure boats filled with European nationals being turned back by Israeli ships. We call the embassy day after day and get no response. Nothing. Officially — after days of war — the State Department advice is to visit its Web site. Which contains nothing of use.

We watch the city we’d barely begun to know — and yet already started to love — destroyed, seemingly (from where we’re sitting) without sense or reason. We watch Blackhawk helicopters fly in and out of the embassy and hear panicked rumors that they’re evacuating the ambassador (false) and “non-essential personnel” (true, I believe). Around the pool, the increasingly frustrated, mostly Lebanese Americans exchange rumors and information gleaned from never-ending cellphone conversations with we don’t know who: relatives in the south, friends back in America, people who’ve already made it out. Friends who’ve spoken to their congressman. Guys who work at CNN. The list goes on. The news maddening, incomplete, incorrect — alternately hopeful, terrifying and dismaying.

The hotel empties and fills and empties again. We hear:

“The Italians got out!”
“The fucking Romanians got out!”
“The French are gone!”

What is clear — as far as we’re concerned — from all sources is that there is no official, announced plan. No real advice, or information, or public exit strategy or timetable. The news clip of President Bush, chawing open-mouthed on a buttered roll, then grabbing at another while Tony Blair tries to get him to focus on Lebanon — plays over and over on the TV, crushing our spirits and dampening all hope with every glassy-eyed mouthful. He seems intent on enjoying his food; Lebanon a tiny, annoying blip on an otherwise blank screen. I can’t tell you how depressing that innocuous bit of footage is to watch. That one, innocent, momentary preoccupation with a roll has a devastating effect on us that is out of all proportion. We’re looking for signs. And this, sadly, is all we have.

In the end we are among the lucky ones. The privileged, the fortunate, the relatively untouched. Unlike the Lebanese Americans who make it out, we don’t leave homes and loved ones behind, we will get out and return to business as usual. To unbroken homes, intact families, friends and jobs.

On the flight deck of the USS Nashville they’ve set up a refugee camp… On the smoking deck, a Marine shows off a Reuter’s cover photo — taken only a few hours earlier — of himself, nuzzling two babies as he carries them through the surf to the landing craft. His buddies are razzing him, busting his balls for how intolerably big-headed he’s going to be — now that he’s “famous.” He looks at the picture and says, “You don’t know what it felt like, man.” His eyes well up.

A Lebanon I never got to know, a Beirut I didn’t get to show the world disappears slowly over the horizon — a beautiful dream turned nightmare. It’s not what I saw happen in Beirut that I feel like talking about, though that’s what I’m doing, isn’t it? It’s not about what happened to me that remains an unfinished show, a not fully fleshed out story, or even a particularly interesting one. It feels shameful even writing this. It’s the story I didn’t get to tell. The Beirut I saw for two short days. The possibilities. The hope. Now only a dream.”[emphases added]

I don’t think there’s a whole lot that I can add to Bourdain’s observations (for one, I wasn’t there; for a second, he’s just a better writer); others have far better and more complete takes on the machinations of the war itself.

One thing I will say (that Bourdain touches on), is that this conflict shows how the democratization of information (both push and pull) is changing the nature of propaganda. Israel has some understanding of this

From mass targeting of mobile phones with voice and text messages to old-fashioned radio broadcasts warning of imminent attacks, Israel is deploying a range of old and new technologies in Lebanon as part of the psychological operations (“psyops”) campaign supplementing its military attacks.”

– and so does Hezbollah, using its satellite television station al-Manar to keep its compatriots (and its supporters throughout the Arab and Muslim world) aware of their take on the hostilities. Indeed, the continued existenct of al-Manar was a powerful propaganda tool in itself, as Israel repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) tried to destroy their facilities.

I think that this post from John Robb is a good way to close:

“If there was just one Nasrallah in every Arab country — one person with his dedication, intelligence, courage, strength and commitment — Arabs would not have had to suffer stolen land and defeat at the hands of Israel for 50 years,” said an Arab celebrity, Kuwaiti actor Daoud Hussein on Al-Jazeera. (Faiza Saleh Ambah, Arab World Riveted by Coverage of the ‘Sixth War.” Washington Post. August 14, 2006.)

This quote reflects an increasingly common desire: that global guerrillas (non-state forces that use 4GW tactics) are the only way to provide protection against external foes (and potentially against the depredations of their own internationally impotent but domestically repressive governments). Hezbollah’s victory (locked in by the ceasefire that will, despite its language, allow the group to retain both its tactical and strategic capabilities) has engineered a sea change in perception.

But it’s not just the use of 4GW on a purely military level – it’s the ability of these non- (and in the case of Hezbollah, quasi-) state actors to effectively and broadly communicate their message to a local, regional and global polity that’s effected this sea change in perception.

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One Response to War and Information

  1. […] A while back I wrote about the new methods of propaganda and discourse at work in the most recent conflagration between Israel and Lebanon. One of Israel’s, let’s say major annoyances in this latest iteration of a long conflict, was its inability to get Hezbollah’s satellite TV station, al-Manar, off the air. […]

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