Union Tribune

April 6, 2003

An art as ancient as war itself gets updated quickly


WASHINGTON When Joshua battled the city of Jericho, his soldiers blared trumpets to make it seem they had a mighty army.

In conquered villages, Alexander the Great left behind giant armor and weapons to intimidate remaining foes.

In ancient Greece, generals spread false rumors that Spartan soldiers were defecting.

It's called propaganda, and using it to win a war is as old as war itself.

In the war on Iraq, propaganda is being used liberally by President Bush and Saddam Hussein to encourage their troops, discourage the enemy, boost patriotism at home and bring the rest of the world around to their way of thinking.

"The war is primarily one of communication . . . and probably more important than the bombs-and-bullets war," said Anthony Pratkanis, author of "Age of Propaganda" and a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. "If you lose the communications war, you've lost the big picture."

Often, propaganda techniques are designed to foster fear and doubt in an enemy.

A primitive example: Tribal warriors use paint to make their faces look fierce before going to battle.

A more modern one: Many believe the United States recently unveiled what it said was the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever it was dubbed the Mother of All Bombs to remind Iraq and the world of this country's strength.

"What worked thousands of years ago 'Don't mess with us because we are a crushing force' still works nowadays," said Scott Gerwehr, who analyzes war strategy for RAND, a nonprofit research institute in California.

Americans and their allies have dropped 80 million leaflets urging Iraqis to support Hussein's ouster. U.S. operatives have sent e-mails and made phone calls to Iraqi commanders.

"I would say (the leaflets and broadcasts) have had an effect" on America's success in the war, said Pentagon spokesman Timothy Blair, who would not discuss U.S. war tactics further.

Since ancient times, leaders have used propaganda to boost their own troops.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf insisted as late as yesterday that Baghdad's airport had been retaken, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

To experts, this is a classic example of using propaganda to try to prevent troops from defecting or surrendering. And it underscores how in a world of instant communication, it is hard to assert things that can be discounted by a single television image.

The Iraqi regime also said British forces used weapons of mass destruction which the allies denied and it liberally aired footage of a Baghdad marketplace bombing that killed dozens of civilians, though U.S. and British officials said they doubted that their forces were responsible and hinted that it might have been the result of an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile falling back to earth.

Fulfilling prophecy
"If we can create the belief that regime change is inevitable, it makes it more likely (Iraqi soldiers) will surrender," Pratkanis said. "Hussein knows this, and he counters that with video of him meeting with advisers, rumors of a farmer shooting down (an allied) jet and pictures of protests worldwide."

The administration and the media fueled speculation about whether Hussein survived the war's opening missile attack, raising doubts about whether subsequent videos were made before the attack, which targeted him specifically.

But an appearance by Hussein walking among Iraqis on television Friday had even administration officials concluding he was probably still alive.

Nearly every day, Bush officials use strong language to portray Hussein as brutal, without conscience and a threat to world security.

Recently, the Pentagon opened a news briefing with a video of a woman badly disfigured by an Iraqi gassing at Halabjah, years before the war.

A few days later, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke told reporters that "the Iraqi people will be free of decades and decades and decades of torture and oppression, the likes of which I think the world has not ever seen before."

In the early days of the war, U.S. officials erroneously announced the discovery of a possible chemical-weapons production site. Despite tenuous evidence, the White House insists that Hussein is linked to Osama bin Laden and his terrorists.

Who's winning?
"Propaganda is not about evidence, but about incomplete information, and about reinforcing what people already believe to be true," said Nancy Snow, a communications professor at California State University Fullerton, and author of "Propaganda Inc."

"A lot of this has to do with the nature of the American psyche: That we are a responsible and good people who, if pushed to go to war, will do it very reluctantly," she said.

Even before the war with Iraq began, some lawmakers, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, criticized the Pentagon's policy of embedding reporters with troops after journalists asked soldiers about their innermost fears.

As for who is winning the propaganda war, that's a matter of dispute.

In America's case, some experts said, winning means not just overthrowing Hussein, but promoting democracy, fostering global good will and preventing future attacks on the United States.

All three could be jeopardized, Pratkanis said, if Hussein convinces enough people that America by ignoring United Nations objections to the war behaved like a thickheaded bully.

Others believe that America, by engaging in less blustering and hewing closer to the truth than Iraq, will retain credibility worldwide.

"When you keep telling people that the war is going well . . . but you walk outside and your neighbors' houses have been flattened, you run the risk of losing all credibility," said Garth Jowett, director of the University of Houston's School of Communication, and co-author of "Propaganda and Persuasion." "And that is what I think has happened with Iraq."