by Ross Caputi
I began studying the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq shortly after my unit’s deployment to Anbar Province ended and I was discharged from the US Marine Corps. I was an infantry soldier during the second siege of Fallujah in November of 2004, and all I knew, or thought I knew, about why we were fighting in Fallujah was what my commanding officers told me: that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the alleged leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and his army of terrorists, had taken control of the city and were holding the civilian population hostage. Our mission, they told us, was to kill the terrorists and liberate the civilians of Fallujah.
I believed them until the battle began. Then I saw civilians fleeing into the desert from our “liberation.” I watched and participated as we flattened entire neighborhoods to the ground. Even though my entire country—including our political and military leaders, our journalists, and nearly everyone from my hometown—applauded us for what we did, and called us heroes in the battle against evil, my growing doubts drove me to examine the Iraqi side of the story.
My research opened my eyes to the scale of the lie that was told to us. I understood that I had participated in one of the greatest crimes of the entire war, which itself was also illegal. I also realized that as a participant in an unjust war, I had a responsibility, at the very least, to speak the truth about what we had done. One product of my resolve was the publication, in 2019, of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History, of which I was principal author. In this book, 1) Unlike the many sanitized military histories released by American publishers, we offered an honest account of the sieges of Fallujah, relying mainly on sources that captured the Iraqi experience. 2) We analyzed the role of US information operations in disseminating misinformation about the sieges of Fallujah to the Iraqi and the American people.
Information operations (IO) are a form of propaganda conducted by the US military since the 1991 Gulf War, when new information technologies gave the US military more leverage in their relationship with the media and brought significant change to their thinking about soft power and military-media relations. The news media became identified as a strategic enabler, that is, as a minimally critical platform the military could use for what they call perception management, by influencing the images that domestic audiences see and the stories they hear about US military actions around the world.
These new military propaganda policies have transformed the battlefield into a battlespace that extends the scope of military operations to actors and domains traditionally thought of as civilian. The metaphor of a “battle of ideas” has furnished the US military with the rationale to treat journalists, doctors, clergy, and anyone else in a position to release information about US military actions as combatants to be controlled lest they somehow threaten operational objectives. The US military now regards the colonizing of hearts and minds, whether in war zones or on the home front, as a military objective.
US information operations during its Middle East invasions and occupations has involved coordinating several military capabilities—including electronic warfare, computer network operations, military deception, and psychological operations (or PSYOPs) and Public Affairs. PSYOPs involve activities such as sponsoring news media companies that produce US-friendly news, disseminating misinformation, playing inflammatory messages in Arabic through loudspeakers to provoke enemy reactions, and dropping leafleted messages in civilian neighborhoods. Public affairs has concerned itself primarily with messaging domestic audiences, including appointing specially trained military spokespersons to speak to the media, organizing Press Information Centers for staging news conferences, helping soldiers and military scholars publish memoirs and histories of conflicts, and embedding journalists in military units.
Through its vast resources and connections to mainstream media outlets, US information operations have been able to saturate the American press with favorable images and stories about its actions in the Middle East, while drowning out critical voices and perspectives from occupied countries. The American public has been conned, and ordinary people trying to go about their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere have been framed for US crimes. Moreover, while US information operations undoubtedly facilitated US violence in the Middle East over the last two decades, the news reports, press conferences, and other materials it produced now pose a serious challenge for historians looking to build an ethical and balanced historiography. Furthermore, these deceptive materials pose a continuing threat to the well-being of its victims by obscuring the truth and helping deny them the justice they deserve. Since so many of the available primary source materials on this conflict were produced or influenced by US information operations, and since there are also so many enforced silences, these materials, as historical documents, constitute a form of atemporal violence, or what Matt Armstrong calls “slow violence.”
None of us have been impervious to the influences of information operations. Even the most independent observers have sometimes ingested the myths generated by US information operations. Unfortunately, the new reality of American Empire means that all of civilian life exists within a battlespace where we are bombarded by self-serving, power-serving stories from militarized sources working for the corporate media. Fortunately, we, the activists, have become more capable than ever of using our own information operations to disrupt the battlespace from within, countering propaganda by building a more ethical, more rigorous, and more humane information ecosystem. We should be mindful of our responsibilities in this regard as images and stories pour out of Afghanistan celebrating drone strikes and seeking new wars. Now is the time for antiwar organizers to build solidarity networks with Afghan and other threatened communities and tell their stories, and for researchers and progressives to challenge the way military spokespersons frame events and issues. In regard to corporate media’s accounts of US involvements in Middle East and other wars, the basic message must be: buyers beware.
— Ross Caputi is a US veteran of the occupation of Iraq. He took part in the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004. That experience led him to become an anti-war activist. Today he is on the Board of Directors of ISLAH and he directed and produced the documentary film Fear Not the Path of Truth.