Behold the propaganda leaflets that the United States and its coalition partners are producing in the battle against ISIS. They have been circulating since December on social media, aimed to dissuade foreign fighters or just plain Muslims from joining the ranks. The message, and the imagery, are pathetic. But there is also a huge trap in critiquing them.
Obviously U.S. messaging is having little effect on ISIS or its resilience, but like bombing, something is being done. And like bombing, that something can be measured. When it comes to the kinetic (as they call it), the bean counters say that 7,655 ISIS targets have been destroyed since last August by bombs. It is a seemingly not-inconsequential number, and seven thousands of anythings being destroyed or damaged does suggest a certain level of destruction. But there is also broad consensus that none of it is contributing to the eradication of ISIS — which is the declared goal of the campaign.
When it comes to information bombs, assessing impact is even more difficult. The number of leaflet drops and tweets sent can accumulate as if they are targets hit. And public opinion polling can even be added to assess impact and popularity. But even if we ignore the content behind the effort and the message that is being conveyed, one gets a sense more of desperation than targeted effectiveness. Cartoons and words can have a tactical impact, but in the overall scheme of things, it is almost as if ISIS is happy to be marked as killers, rapists and even child-abusers, anything to separate them from Western-imposed sensibilities.
As part of the propaganda battle, military commanders and spokesmen have also switched to referring to ISIS as Daesh instead, seeming to deny the “Islamic State” their preferred title by using the Arabic acronym that ISIS reportedly hates.
“DAESH’s wheel of death has not stopped,” the anti-ISIS propagandists socialed on June 30 (below), meticulously adding that 932 people have been killed since the enemy besieged the city of Mosul. “We are firm in our resolve to defeat Daesh and remain committed to training and advising and assisting our Iraqi partners,” Maj. Gen. Richard Clarke, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division said this week, preparing his headquarters to return to Iraq. It all seems so futile: sort of like the Obama administration’s losing attempt to get people to stop using global war on terror (GWOT) or the military’s hatred of the universally used “drone.” ISIS threatens to cut the tongues out of those who use the word Daesh; in that, it seems to me they win.
The front line fighting command of this official propaganda effort is Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve, one of those military organizations that is sure to change names as soon as inherent is replaced by some other infinite buzzword and resolve is resolved to be ... well, not resolved enough. Combined means multiple-countries and joint means multi-service, but this command that no one has heard of can’t even communicate what countries are members in its coalition, that is, who’s doing the fighting against the phantom ISIS. Where the headquarters of the Task Force is even located isn’t common knowledge, reflecting both the secretive nature and the ephemeral and not quite complete war we are waging.
In thinking about all of this propaganda, I got stuck on the Task Force’s own Middle Eastern looking coat of arms, cross swords, actually scimitars of the type used from the Abbasid era, the second of two great dynasties of the Muslim Empire of the Caliphate. Crossed swords of this type were also one of Saddam Husse
in’s propaganda symbols and Islamic appropriations: He built two sets of giant arches over his military parades grounds, the hands holding the swords cast from his own hands. I know someone somewhere thought that putting crossed Middle Eastern swords would symbolize Arabs fighting alongside the U.S., but in fact the imagery is not just confusing, it is downright stupid. Thus the crest of the international campaign against ISIS is a symbol of the Caliphate, one later taken up by the Sunni regime in Baghdad to symbolize its dominion over lands of diverse people. And now we have it on our military patches and crests?
And look at those propaganda leaflets a little more closely. Yes, there is imagery of the ISIS killing machine and savagery, and even its use of innocent children as suicide bombers. But all of the cartoon ISIS fighters have hooked noses, a cliche that along with thick and heavy eyebrows and beards are not just meant to represent foreigners, but evil ones. Many Arabs, of course, don’t look this way, but on a more primitive level, what’s the point? Who’s the target of this imagery? Is it meant to make fun of Arabs? Or is it just thoughtless?
Most of the propaganda of the Task Force, nonetheless, isn’t about the evils of ISIS but about the strength and solidarity of the coalition, certainly an exercise in self-deception and wishful thinking. Picture after picture on the Task Force Facebook page and Twitter feed is of Iraqi soldiers training and preparing for the fight, certainly a propandistic counter to the reality of a weak state and a toothless Army and a non-insignificant source of arms for the criminal marauders. I don’t know about you, but who’s afraid of the Iraqi army?
And even worse in the anti-ISIS propaganda is the constant imagery and statistics of more airstrikes and bombs coming, which seems to be scaring no one and just stimulating even more to join the fight against the contending empire.
In contrast to the anti-ISIS campaign, the message at home has been relentless and effective: Al Qaeda/the Taliban/ISIS are not fighting by civilized rules, and whatever resources are being applied to the fight are not enough. Despite it being in charge of bombing, fighting and “shaping” the battlefield, the Pentagon also wants you to think that ISIS and its strategies have appeared like some spaceship from another planet. And the government even decries that ISIS is winning the information war, a pretty audacious argument, but one that hopes the American people will ignore that the government has been been spending more than $250 million per year on “information operations (IO) and information-related capabilities (IRCs) for influence efforts at the strategic and operational levels,” according to the Rand Corporation.
One can only conclude that the reason why the message at home works is because the purveyor understands the audience. Thus fear is successfully planted, nurtured and sustained. The assumption left behind is always that the spies and killers need more: boots, bombs, leaflets, money. And it all culminated this week with the perfect 4th of July anthem: ANOTHER ISIS THREAT.
And that’s why the anti-ISIS campaign falters: The cartoon-drawers and the message-producers don’t understand for a second what’s going on in Iraq and Syria. They don’t understand Islam or what drives the armies of Western haters. The information warriors lob words and images over a parapet waiting expectantly for some capitulation or collapse but they are little more than digital versions of World War I trench warriors.
Like everyone else, the military now tweets and socials its PSYOPs, and like everyone else, the social media war mirrors the universal medium: always and only up-to-the-minute, overloud and exaggerated, each zinger meant to outdo the last, little room for thought or reflection, clicks, eyeballs accumulating, an echo chamber of commerce and ego. Of course changing minds is hardly instant, but if indeed we are talking about defending Western society then one might think we could get beyond cartoons.
[All images courtesy of CENTCOM, except for photo of Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords, which is courtesy of the author.]