Sunday, September 23, 2007

One end of the continuum: Ruth Benedict's classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was a groundbreaking effort by the USG at attempting to understand the mass psychology of an enemy in wartime.

There must be something in the water lately as I have been getting an upsurge of inquiries and public comments regarding information operations, public diplomacy, "soft power" agents of influence, 5GW and similar matters. There are other blogs I can recommend as being better on this score - Beacon, MountainRunner, Kent's Imperative, Swedish Meatballs Confidential and Whirledview to name but a few. Also, I would suggest that interested readers search the archives of Studies in Intelligence, PARAMETERS, The Strategic Studies Institute, Combined Arms Research Library and the threads at The Small Wars Council. Genuine expertise may be found there and for discussions of theory and emerging trends, I recommend Dreaming 5GW.

That being said, I will offer my two cents anyway.

One point of agreement across the political spectrum and that of informed opinion is that the USG has not done a particularly good job of managing "the war of ideas" in the conflict with Islamist terrorism. Or against state adversaries. Or with persuading neutrals and even our own allies to our point of view. When you are having difficulty drawing even in a global popularity contest with a crowd of bearded fanatics who put beheading videos on the internet, it's time to admit there's a problem.

Our difficulty did not start with the Bush administration, they simply ramped up a negative dynamic that began in the 1990's with the budgetary dismantling of USG public diplomacy, information agencies and CIA clandestine operations, in order to "reinvent government" or to save "Peace Dividend" pennies for pork barrel expenditures. Official America's withdrawal from the information playing field also happened to coincide with the rise of baby boom, New Left, '68 er's as the managing editors, producers and shapers of opinion in European media, as well is in places like South Korea, that had it's own veteran cadres of dissenters against the ROK's old military regimes.

Harboring relatively critical and anti-American views from the outset, this generational class interpreted clumsy, abrasive and at times deliberately antagonistic rhetoric from the second Bush administration through their own negative political lens. It was a particularly unfortunate combination as far as American interests in foreign policy were concerned. Nor has there been much interest or competence applied subsequently by Bush administration officials in order to make their ongoing global communication more effective.

Ironically, strategic communication was once a field in which Americans in the private and public sectors excelled. The First World War brought the management of news and propaganda through the Committee on Public Information under journalist George Creel, who had the help of two brilliant men who became giants in the field of influencing public opinion, Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays. After WWI, Lippmann had a long career as an adviser to presidents and consensus-builder for the Eastern Establishment ( playing the role of America's ur-Pundit) while Bernays virtually created the field of public relations, applying principles of mass and Freudian psychology to commercial advertising.

Psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer's psychological profile of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, written for the OSS during WWII, represented a second major analytical departure for the USG.

Lippmann's focus upon the elite and Bernays manipulation of the crowd represent two poles of communication with and comprehension of, an audience. In their case, the audience was primarily a domestic one while the exigencies of WWII and the Cold War forced American policymakers to look overseas and try to grasp the perspective of foreign worldviews boasting complex and alien ideologies of a militant character. Again, the dichotomy of examining elite leaders and the mass-society were followed in the respective landmark studies by Ruth Benedict and Walter C. Langer.

Benedict, a disciple of Franz Boas, carried out a cultural anthropological analysis of the Meiji-Taisho-Showa era Japanese mind, culminating in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Benedict characterized the Japanese people as "debtors to the ages" and explained the apparently suicidal fanaticism of the Imperial Army soldier as a psychological legacy of the "On-Giri" honor and debt social traditions of Japanese society. This technique of cultural analysis, which is also visible in Raphael's Patai's The Arab Mind, elevates deep-set cultural behavior patterns ( though it can also lead to distorting exaggerations and a misplaced attempt to apply aggregate stereotypes to explain individual behavior).

Langer and his team of psychoanalysts, likewise made their study from a distance and began the field of pychological profiling with their study of Adolf Hitler and other top Nazi leaders. While Benedict's effort was explanatory, Langer's was also intended to be predictive. In both instances, their work was available to high level policy makers for the making of strategy, propaganda and operations that were termed for the first time, "psychological warfare". The integration of social science expertise into official and "black" USG communications and diplomacy would continue to evolve during the Cold War until the Vietnam War brought a serious break between the academic community and the CIA and Pentagon, that continues, for the most part, until this day.

While our political appointees, diplomats, CIA officers, military IO and PSYOPS specialists are getting a beating (often deserved) in the MSM and the blogosphere for the poor state of affairs in which they labor, fairness requires the observation that their task today is immeasurably more complex than that of their forerunners. This is a point that cannot at present time be overstressed. Set aside the deficit of trained linguists in "hard" languages, the paucity of firsthand HUMINT with which to work, the normal interagency obstructionism and bureaucratic warfare and the frustrations of out-of-touch management. Those are tactical and organizational difficulties which could be remediated.

Here are the daunting structural and strategic challenges faced in crafting a unified and persuasive "American message" in the war of ideas:

The cultural multiplicity of the global audience, which is/are:

- Tiered from real-time postmodern transnational elites down to pre-modern tribal villagers still relying upon an oral tradition who receive their information flow hours, days, weeks or later.

- Viewing events from worldviews based upon five or more major civilizational traditions and many times that number of major subnational or subcultural traditions .

- Often times the audience is locked into a feedback loop with relatively sophisticated and influential (or impoverished and alienated) expatriate communities in the West and United States.

A multiplicity of information platforms which are:

- Spreading access to information with increasing rates of economic efficiency in a way that leapfrogs people over Gutenberg and directly into the World Wide Web.

- Are evolving technologically both in terms of processing power and parameters of expression that defy linear trend predictions (there are really more usable app ideas than ever get fully developed for reasons of return on investment and IP issues).

- Are evolving at a speed beyond which bureaucratic acquisition and budgetary schedules can adjust in order to keep USG employees in line with the tech capabilities of the private sector.

A multiplicity of information messages in a net volume that:

- Creates sheer "Attention scarcity" problems in target audiences -usually elite - which have begun to operate psychologically under the dictates of the "attention economy".

- Creates a deafening "White Noise" through which critical messages to the target audience can neither be seen nor heard nor reinforced with reliability or be perceived in the proportion or perspective desired.

- Ratchets up the Darwinian velocity of the marketplace of ideas to snuff out or mutate memes faster than IO planners can adjust while also trying to bring along the portion of the audience still processing at much slower rates of comprehension.

What is to be done? I fear that I have no silver bullet solution. Reader Dominic C. suggested yesterday in the comment section:

"On 4GW front, there is a constant debate about why "public diplomacy" and "information war" / propaganda is poor. Surely the basic reason is that there are very few top quality marketing professionals who understand psychology and the few who exist do not work for the govt/mil. To the extent they are involved in politics, they usually roll in for elections and roll out.

If I were in charge of a 4GW campaign, I wd integrate professionals like Cialdini in my comms structure. There is an abyss between (a) the subjects studied in traditional politics, history, military etc and (b) marketing, psychology, cog sci, evolutionary bio etc.

America plus allies needs a 21st Century version of Moltke's Prussian General Staff that combines these two branches into a training system so that politicians and soldiers have inter-dsciplinary skills"

This seems quite sensible as a first step to gaining a strategic grasp over what is really an "information ecosystem as a battlespace".

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I'm wondering if you have come across an interesting article from Infantry Magazine (?) which considered some necessary...considerations:

"Information warfare: the next dimension.(armed forces' information management)"

[also sold at Amazon; but the link above is free!]

I found it about a week ago and have wanted to blog about it, or at least mention it and summarize it, but I've been quite distracted with the timeline and other things.

I found interesting: "As U. S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald R. Fogleman pointed out in an address called Information Operations: The Fifth Dimension of War.../"


"We must also recognize and mitigate the unintended second and third-order effects of all our kinetic and non-kinetic actions directed against the enemies of democracy inside and outside of Afghanistan and Iraq."

"information fratricide" -- a term used twice.

And of course:

"In addition to synchronizing our internal PSYOPS, PAO, and Intelligence efforts in our own formations, we must coordinate and synchronize the efforts of everyone in our AO. This includes our sister services, governmental and nongovernmental agencies, international agencies, and host nation forces."

Very 5GW -- or 5GW-leaning. Published originally 9-1-2004.
Mark, just understanding some of the things you list about other cultures is the first step toward progress.

Unfortunately, the US has always had a problem with this, and it's seemed to get worse with time. It has to do with our easily protected geography and weak and mostly friendly neighbors.

I don't see that much in our current politics points to improvements, either.

(btw, my Google identifier seems to have disappeared.)

Well, that was a mouthful, Mark! Wonderful to see Ruth Benedict's book gracing the top of your blog post.


It seems to me that there are two different kinds of stuff we can learn from books. We could call them rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious, factual and mythic even -- but the thing is, some people have more of a propensity for one and some for the other. And Ruth Benedict's contribution (Langer's perhaps too -- it's been so long) informs us primarily about the irrational / mythic end of things.

Cultural anthropology, depth psychology and comparative religion seem to be the three disciplines which have the most to teach us about the irrational / mythic, and this is powerful stuff when the enemy we're dealing with is culturally, psychologically and religiously "other" than ourselves.

Benedict (and Patai, whom you also mention) have insights of a sort that you just don't get without suspending the "usual western paradigm" and tapping into an instinctive / archetypal realm that Carl Jung was familiar with. Victor Turner deals with the same intensity of conviction and praxis in his notions of liminality and communitas, as does Mary Douglas on ritual purity. And the people who attended the Eranos conferences (Henry Corbin and Louis Massignon on Islam, Gershon Scholem and Martin Buber on Judaism, Richard Willhelm on the Chinese, Gilles Quispel on Gnosis, Mircea Eliade and Rudolph Otto on religion in general, Heinrich Zimmer on India, Hugo Rahner on Christianity, Erwin Schrodinger on physics, and Jung himself) were the cross-disciplinary cream of the crop, all focused on this same realm, all cross-fertilizing like mad.

A small handful of our analysts are aware of this irrational / mythic aspect of things. Michael Vlahos comments on the story-telling ethos of "Hikayat" in his Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam, and his attention is drawn to the significance of OBL discussing dreams that "prefigure" 9-11 in the celebrated early video. Perhaps one of the strongest confirmations of the importance of this kind of "depth understanding" -- and how easily we are blindsided by our lack of attention to it -- can be found in the Prophet's simple declaration (Bukhari, book 87: Interpretation of Dreams, #167):

The worst lie is that a person claims to have seen a dream which he has not seen.

When we are as familiar with the dream's logic, and thus with the very different time sense (and thus also sense of history, and of narrative, and of victory), in which OBL lives, we will have a style of understanding him that "objective observation" will be hard put to match. And we will have decision-making that is, or at least has the possibility of being, informed by the Ruth Benedicts of our own day.
Charles: Your post reminds me of a Ralph Peters essay in the Armed Forces Journal --

"Merely recognizing the problem isn’t enough. Overwhelmingly, analysts active in the intelligence community or in Washington think tanks (to say nothing of those bizarre mental prisons, university campuses) face a terrible challenge in adjusting to the intellectual demands posed by Islamist terrorism. Approaching the problem with a maximum of integrity would mean discarding virtually every theory they have been taught. Understanding the rhapsodic violence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or even the seductive rhetoric of Osama bin Laden requires us to jettison the crippling heritage of the Enlightenment and much of the rationalist tradition.

--although it appears to have been deleted from the Journal. (I get a 404: not found error. I wrote about it, and other things, long ago in a post called "Oh the Epiphany and the Confusion!"

There's a bit of the mythopoeia you target!

Additionally, the fact that poetry is still vibrant in Arabic Islamist cultures, unlike in the Anglosphere -- even published regularly in newspapers -- should not be dismissed! ;) )
Hi everyone - wonderful comments!


Thank you for the artcle links. I had seen neither of them.

The Anglosphere used to regularly publish poetry in major newspapers - Kipling for example - circa a century ago. Not certain when that tapered off ? 1920's perhaps ? My kingdom for a lit major!

And you are right about poetry in the Arab-islamic world. Both classical Persian and Arabic forms are revered, as is the ability to speak elegantly in colloquial dialect.

Hi Cheryl,

A degree of cultural parochialism is probably inevitable in continent-sized states. However, it's the job of education to try to broaden horizons of our students and in that we are doing a poor job. Foreign languages should be part of primary education forward. World history needs to be trebled in the curriculum.

Hi Charles,

Thank you very much! Also thank you for introducing me to several thinkers of whom I was unfamiliar.

You're right about the power of the mythic - it can be a motivator of epochal shifts or tremendous calamities. When Scheuer first began writing books, his original warning was of the authenticity and "realness" of the religious worldview of Bin Laden's inner circle was something Western analysts found very difficult to grasp, intellectually. The sense of time, causation and interpretation of events are significantly different.

Thanks. The nod to Ralph Peters with the quote you gave is invaluable to me. His article is still up here:


I don't think it is reprinted in War Blood and Faith, however.


One category we haven't mentioned yet, which lies at the heart of my thinking and of the paper I'm working on, is apocalyptic / messianic fervor. There's a phase shift between "continuing" religion (the Augustinian position) and apocalyptic "soon coming" expectation, it's the point at which religion comes to the boil, so to speak.

David Cook's two books on Muslim Apocalyptic are important, and I was happy to see Simon and Benjamin making reference to his work in The Age of Sacred Terror. I'm also in communication with Timothy Furnish, whose book is a history of Mahdist movements: Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden.

There's a lot of excellent work on apocalyptic / messianic violence.
Cheryl's comment above reminds me of a joke:

"The U.N., intent on doing good in the world, distributed a survey to the various nations of the world asking a simple question: 'Please give us your honest opinions about possible solutions to food shortages in the rest of the world.' Unfortunately, the survey was a total failure.

"In many parts of Africa, they did know what the U.N. meant by 'food'. In western Europe, the did not understand the word 'shortage', while central Europe, they had no idea what 'opinion' meant. East Asians were similarly befuddled by the word 'honest', and those in the Mid-East did not understand 'solution'. In South America, they did not understand 'please', and in the U.S., we had absolutely no idea what they meant by 'rest of the world'."


Fascinating! Love to read your paper when you finish. Or even in rough form.

The apocalyptic/Millenarian strain is *very* dangerous - whether we mean Branch Davidians or Mahdists like the group that seized the Grand Mosque in 1979.

The psychological insularity is both self-referential as well as reinforcing - typically, the leader reaches a point of transformative authority, where contradiction with the scriptural point of origin is accepted in toto by members of the sect.

And then everyone usually dies.
Mark: Thoughtful post and thanks for recommending WV as a useful information source on public diplomacy. A couple of comments: 1) I would add Jesse Helms' chairmanship of Senate Foreign Relations to your list of those who "did US public diplomacy in" during the 1990s. His isolationist mind-set led him to think that USIA was no longer needed after the Cold War. From my perspective the Clinton administration didn't care, our flabby director wanted to be an Under Secretary of State not an Agency director and Helms had his own foreign policy agenda that did not include public diplomacy. I really think that if Lugar had been committee chair, USIA and a functioning integrated civilian based public diplomacy effort might well still be around.

What I still fail to understand is why after 9/11, or at least in his second term after the poll numbers had plummeted, the Bush II administration did not call for a restitution of USIA. They could have blamed the pd debacle on the Democrats for destroying an integrated operation. Instead, W and company have allowed the State Department to continue to mismanage public diplomacy in zillions of ways from planning, programs and funding to overall direction, training and staffing.

I know, however, from personal experience that US Foreign Service Officers - at least those who study languages at NFATC - get a large dose of country specific cultural anthropology before departing for assignments abroad. It is integrated into NFATCs intensive language classes beginning with all native speaker instructors. I found this information crucial to working successfully in foreign countries. Some other diplomatic corps have similar training including the Russians. Where I think the US foreign service breaks down is in the assignments, promotion and career development process that too often fails to make as good use of this expertise - particularly among hard language officers - as it could and should.
Hi Patricia,

I'd have to agree that Helms helped do public diplomacy in - that was a bipartisan accomplishment. Helms pushed his own, very, very conservative and often idiosyncratic agenda in FP - he knew how to do it as FRC Chairman and a senior senator and it was important enough for him to usually pass on chairing the Ag committee to do it.

My read on the Bush crowd is that they came in to office in very Nixonian fashion, a few brilliant ppl at the top ensconced in a *very* hierarchical management culture with much less talented subordinates who helped reinforce insularity and siege mentality outlook. (One of my relations worked for Rumsfeld for a number of years -he's more than bright but you have to have a tough skin and all your ducks in a row every time if you are going to prevail upon him to listen and consider changing his views. Most ppl can't hack that, sycophancy is easier).

Nixon, however, was insecure or cagey enough to second guess every move and reach out and touch base with a wide range of ppl, even if he disliked them. you don't have that sense with Bush II

The administration doesn't listen to Bush family insiders like Scowcroft or Baker or GOP leaders. They aren't going to listen to some bureaucrat from State extolling the virtues of public diplomacy
You make some great points and I love this line, "When you are having difficulty drawing even in a global popularity contest with a crowd of bearded fanatics who put beheading videos on the internet, it's time to admit there's a problem." But I think it is worthwhile to flip your arguement. What does it say about those that make up the audience for the "global popularity contest" when competing against "bearded fanatics..." is not a slam dunk?

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