The New War: The Primacy of Supporters vs. Territory Controlled.

Wars are won when one side capitulates to the strength of the other side.   Traditionally, that has been achieved by using military resources meant to kill people and control territory. But what happens when “strength” is measured in a different way?  Even if your military muscle is far greater than your opponent’s, how do you overcome your enemy if they are more capable of growing, coalescing and mobilizing supporters at the same time they are eroding your resolve? In other words, how will wars be won in the future, when strategic communications becomes a much more potent weapon?

This may seem to be a fanciful question at this time, but it’s a very real issue in current conflicts, and will become even more significant as the Communications Revolution accelerates.

STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS AS A WEAPON OF WAR. 

An ironic (and sad) example of the power of strategic communications as a military weapon can be seen in a war that cost an estimated $1 trillion, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands (mostly innocent casualties), and left a legacy of chaos that has spread around the world years after the mission was considered to be accomplished. I’m referring to the use of PR to convince the American public (and its allies) to support the war against Iraq, which most Americans now believe “wasn’t worth it.”

Look also at the proliferation of economic sanctions initiated by the U.S. and other nations against their enemies. The sanctions, which have had dramatic impact, don’t use bombs or boots on the ground, but flexes the might of strategic communications to demonize the enemy, which is necessary for the sanctions to be put in place. And then, of course, there is the example of ISIS’s use of strategic communications to recruit supporters who join not only in military action but also to support the ISIS mission in other ways across the globe. The ISIS image has been turned into a weapon of fear that weakens the spirits and erodes the morale of their enemies.

This reality has been recognized by the US Defense Department, dating back at least until 2008 when the U.S. Army Central Command acknowledged (as reported by The NY Times) that it was ready to deploy bloggers over the Internet as it would do with troops on the ground because “the battles of the present and the near future are of words, narratives and concepts.” The logic for this was noted in an article written by E. Margaret Phillips in the September-October 2010 issue of the Military Review. There, she argued that in the “irregular warfare” that we are coming to know, “attrition will prolong the conflict and strain the resources and resolve of the Nation.” Thus, our enemies, with less military and financial resources to achieve victory than we possess, can erode our resolve and then be able to outlast us and ultimately triumph. Is it any surprise that we are now engaged in Afghanistan in the longest war in our nation’s history? And what should we expect from the ongoing and growing war with ISIS (even if we refuse to call it a “war”)? Is it really all that important whether they or we control a certain city? Isn’t it more important who controls the will and fear of a population?

 

IN SHORT: As the capabilities and expertise of strategic communications grows, the examples of its use will also grow, and its power will become more formidable. In the future (actually, now) as the U.S. confronts hostile forces that become expert in using strategic communications including the use of social media throughout the world, the issue may not be so much how we triumph, but how we keep from being beaten.