Notes From the Margins…

His Master’s Voice: the Media and the Afghan war

  • February 12, 2012
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Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel L. Davis will not be a very popular man in the Pentagon or the White House right now.  His report on the Afghanistan war Dereliction of Duty II, which has just been leaked by Rolling Stone magazine, is a lucid, compelling and ultimately devastating analysis of the discrepancy between what politicians and generals have been telling the public about the war and what is actually taking place on the ground.

A serving officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, Davis’ scathing critique is based on 9,000 miles travel back and forth across Afghanistan and conversations with some 250 serving officers and soldiers, and the picture that he paints could not be be more different from the upbeat assessments that his superiors have been presenting to the public.

Where the generals and politicians have claimed that the Taliban are being beaten, Davis describes the  huge spike in U.S casualties in the last four years, the rising numbers of Taliban attacks across the country, the complete absence of NATO/government control over all but a few districts, and the ineffectiveness and disarray of the Afghan security forces.

He challenges the claims made by General Petraeus that the 2009 U.S. troop deployments halted the ‘momentum’ of the Taliban, observing that momentum cannot be measured in a guerrilla war and arguing that Obama’s Iraq-style ‘surge’ was equivalent to stirring up a ‘hornet’s nest’.

Davis’ analysis of a military establishment that has  become completely detached from reality through its own lies and propaganda, and which prefers deception to defeat and failure regardless of the cost,  is disturbingly reminiscent of the Vietnam war and the  surreal assurances made by General Westmoreland and Robert McNamarara to the American public about ‘turning the tide’.

Davis is merciless and outspoken in his criticisms of his superiors, writing that

Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the US Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable. This deception has damaged America”s credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan.

He also delivers a damning indictment of the role of the American media in facilitating such deception,  in what describes as ” a cumulative failure of our nation”s major media in every category: network news, cable news, magazines and major newspapers”.

Quoting  from the declaration of the Society of Professional Journalists to the effect that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and democracy.  The duty  of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive  account of events and issues,”  he  argues  that

If today’s journalists believed that and actually acted on it, we would almost certainly have a more honest and accountable group of senior leaders. Based only on observed action, however, too few of today”s journalists live their code.

Ouch.  Davis attributes this  failure partly to the commercial competition amongst U.S media outlets,  which drives journalists  to chase after senior military and civilian leaders in search of from-the-horse’s-mouth quotes and information.  He points out that journalists who are granted such access will generally refrain from making critical or controversial statements in case such access is denied.

But he also delivers some revealing criticisms of  the Pentagon’s policy of ‘strategic communication’ or ‘Information Operations’ (IO),  which one brigadier-general quoted    in the report defines as

competently managing information that affects the population’s attitudes and beliefs is a decisive element of successful counterinsurgency ….  Information operations are activities undertaken by military and nonmilitary organizations to shape the essential narrative of a conflict or situation and thus affect the attitudes and behaviors of the targeted audience.

As Davis observes, these objectives are part of an ongoing attempt to frame media coverage of wars that reflect the Pentagon’s military objectives, which include the planting of ‘experts’ on television shows who echo its narratives.   He suggests that these attempts to micro-manage the flow of information have not helped win the war in Afghanistan, but have merely served to hide the fact that the U.S and NATO are losing it.  The result is that the military, the media  and the American public have become trapped in a mutually-reinforcing web of deception and disinformation, in which

If the American people do not demand their leaders be completely honest with them, we all forfeit the ability to determine our own destiny. If our acquiescence for a war decision is gained by some leader telling us a version of events that will result in our support but that version is not in accordance with what really exists how can we know whether war or supporting a war is really a good idea or not? Are the American people content to allow selected individuals, for reasons important to them, to decide when they are told the truth and when they are given fiction?

These are good questions, and they aren’t only relevant to the United States.  British military commanders and politicians have also disseminated a version of the war that bears no resemblance to the situation that Davis describes, and which the British media have largely proven unwilling to challenge.

I have lost count of the numbers of reporters and journalists who have gone to Afghanistan and come back recycling upbeat and optimistic narratives that were clearly handed down to them from above.

The BBC has been particularly supine.

I remember only a few months ago watching some hapless posh correspondent standing on an Afghan hillside declaring that the Taliban were being “beaten on the battlefield” as though he were describing the natives being routed in some glorious pith-helmeted cavalry charge on the northwest frontier, rather than a guerrilla war in which there are no battlefields, when even then the Taliban were carrying out attacks in the heart of Kabul itself.

As Davis points out  in his report, it’s not as if information about what is taking place in Afghanistan is unavailable or hard to find.  It’s simply that too many people have no interest in finding it or even looking for it.   For this reason, it’s highly likely that his own report will be largely ignored in the mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic.

Long ago, the hapless  General Westmoreland once noted that “Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind”.

Today there is still no censorship, but Westmoreland’s successors needn’t worry too much.

As Davis accurately observed, it isn’t necessary to impose it when so much of the media has so willingly agreed to do what it has been asked to do, but the rest of us should be grateful for his courage and candour.



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1 Comment

  1. Michael Billingham

    17th Apr 2013 - 11:40 am

    Hiya Matt,

    I hope you’re well. I’m a student currently writing an essay about the issues of reporting news from Afghanistan, and my tutor has asked me to obtain original comments for my piece.

    Therefore I was wondering if you would be so kind as to answer a couple of quick questions for me? I’d be very grateful and you’d be helping me out massively!

    Many thanks for taking the time to read my message, I look forward to hearing back from you!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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