There is one book that should be recommended to newly appointed public affairs officers; “The Utility of Force” by Rupert Smith. Smith’s erudite vision of ‘war amongst the peoples’ is a vital backdrop to modern military public affairs. However, whilst Smith’s book does elude to the media and the ‘theatre’ of war, it does not examine the phenomena in detail, being outside the scope of his excellent book.
Now that gap has been filled and one more book can be added to the list of recommendations: Rid and Hecker’s “War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age”.
The authors’ grasp of the nexus of modern warfare and information is well presented, making a clear and easily understood delineation between what they call War 1.0, the industrial use of force throughout the 20th century, and War 2.0, 21st century irregular war and counterinsurgency, fought ‘amongst the peoples’, peoples who now have an extraordinary access to information. Such a deep analysis is timely, given the intense debate within the US and NATO over future strategy, especially in Afghanistan. Rid and Hecker’s work on what is a seismic shift in the conduct of modern war, should rightly inform that debate, one which is moving ahead swiftly, riding a wave of civilian surge and non-kinetic approaches to counterinsurgency and post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.
The case studies, using the US, UK and Israeli militaries and also Hezbollah, the Taliban and Al-Qaida, provide ample evidence of the complexity of information in irregular warfare, and the oft-misunderstood deeper consequences of it. As they point out, in less than a decade three wars involving sophisticated militaries and insurgents have raged amid the vortex of perhaps the most fundamental information revolution in history. They explore the effects of such on organization, politics, strategy, implementation and objectives.
From a military viewpoint, the book is replete with examples where the provision of information, via media or otherwise, to the local population is in fact of higher operational priority than such provision to a home audience. Public affairs now directly influence military outcomes, a point Smith would concede. Many military personnel realize that information can’t be controlled, that speed of response is crucial, that release authority should be as low as possible. In short, seeing the public as the new centre of gravity, many do ‘get it’. However, it is argued that conceptual, cultural, organizational and political resistance prevent the more effective use of information in a media (both traditional and new)-saturated age. Whilst extolling the many virtues of new technologies, equally Rid and Hecker point out the dangers, especially in the US, of over-reliance on new media as a solution and warn of it being over-rated or, at the very least, used without the full understanding of its nature, especially regarding a media-savvy enemy. Further, they warn of information and communication being overly concerned with the domestic audience and often being largely politically, as opposed to militarily, driven, especially in the case of the UK. However, whilst Rid and Hecker’s analysis is sound, their concerns over the capabilities of military public affairs officers, many of whom do ‘get it’, are sometimes a little harsh.
On the opposing side, their examination makes it clear that Hezbollah has made information a centerpiece of its operations, from simple techniques, such as branded material, to the more sophisticated, via mainstream television and internet activities. Similarly, they contend that the Taliban have also undergone a transformation, from being media–shy to avidly exploiting it, along with hi-tech activities available in a burgeoning new media, especially SMS, market.
For Al-Qaida, the authors argue that the consequences of the information age have gone deeper. The strategic transformation of Al-Qaida from a hierarchical organization to a cellular one, relies heavily, and utilizes efficiently, web technology – allowing the ‘community’ to focus on ideas, common purpose, participation and ‘fuzzy membership’, epitomized by ‘electronic jihad’, as opposed to strict edicts and protocols transmitted via easily compromised methods.
However, whilst the nature of new media may suit insurgents, Rid and Hecker make the cogent argument that the challenges of the contemporary information environment have posed problems for the insurgent and terrorist. Strategic inertia, loss of control, heightened political risk and management of globalised themes all have their impact on the effectiveness of the message.
Whilst Rid and Hecker’s recommendations are unfortunately not explored in great detail, they are insightful, for military public affairs officers, strategists, senior officers and policy-makers. Their recommendations are thread with considered approaches to modern technology and core practices recognized by any public relations practitioner but they are also reminiscent of a well known military doctrine, that of Mission Command. They promote decentralisation, freedom, speed of action, delegation, initiative and the acceptance of a degree of risk – all virtues of Mission Command but rarely used in the practice of military information and communication. One only needs to have read their compelling case studies to agree that such virtues are vital in the information age.
Timely, evidence-driven, clear and concise, “War 2.0” challenges the ideas and protocols of the 20th century, dragging us into the modern reality inhabited by ‘digital natives’, and is recommended reading for all, young and old, involved in or studying the conduct of irregular warfare. And along with their doctrinal notes from staff college, public affairs officer should now add one more book to their compulsory reading list.