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Posted by: on Oct 28, 2009 | One Comment

Bullets & Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter

By Dierdre Collings and Rafael Rohozinski

“If I can discredit my adversary,” says one nameless participant quoted in this analytical synthesis, “then I don’t have to kill him” (p.17). And that, in a nutshell, is what this workshop report is about: the fact that new media have changed warfare, dramatically increasing the importance of argument, engagement, and (although the report doesn’t use the term) rhetoric.

The report is “an analytical synthesis and workshop report” summarizing the findings of a workshop on “New Media and the Warfighter” that was held at the US Army War College. Participants were Army officers, many of whom had combat experience in Iraq. The specific cases they discussed were drawn from the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, a fascinating case in the use of new media and its power to counter conventional forces, but officers also drew on (unclassified) examples from their Iraq experience.

A few words about the cases. The authors characterize the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict as

an important milestone for warfare in the information age. The non-state actor Hezbollah proved capable of thwarting Israel’s primary war aims and forcing a battlefield stalemate. While Hezbollah stood little chance of prevailing militarily against the Israeli Defense Forces, its strategic victory was achieved by way of an information-led warfighting strategy that leveraged new media to influence the political will of key global audiences (including the Israeli public). (p.1)

Like the Zapatista netwar in the 1990s, the Israeli-Hezbollah war involved a smaller, weaker combatant that successfully forced a stalemate due to its superior use of the information space to establish and develop a narrative, one that networked the interests of many actors. But this netwar happened at a breakneck pace. The authors caution that

The current and future geo-strategic environment requires preparation for a battlespace in which symbolic informational wins may precipitate strategic effects equivalent to, or greater than, lethal operations. It demands a paradigm shift away from an emphasis on information control and towards information engagement. (p.1)

Certainly that shift was on display during this conflict. On one hand, Hezbollah was outnumbered, but on the other hand, it was far more agile in the media space. Hezbollah realized that “the center of gravity was public opinion – often of multiple audiences” and therefore they had to maintain a “distributed presence” as well as credibility (p.2). So they did several things to establish superiority in the media space, including hammering away at a coherent narrative, broadcasting information (including troop movements and images) instantly, beating the Israeli army to the punch in battlefield reports, making information available across various languages and media, and developing crude but effective propaganda that supported its storyline. The IDF also suspects that Hezbollah gained access to the mobile phone system, allowing them to tap troops’ conversations and even track their movements – although that allegation is still unproven. (Israeli troops, used to taking action in areas supplied by Israeli telecoms and used to constant contact with their loved ones, sometimes ignored orders to turn in their mobile phones when they entered the battlespace.)

The authors allege that Hezbollah effectively established “information engagement”: communicating effectively and making their messages “sticky,” while arguing with and countering their adversary’s messages (pp.2-3). They warn that
Irregular and hybrid adversaries — aided and abetted by new media — have demonstrated the capability for rapid and effective maneuver in strategic information engagements. Adversarial agility is underpinned by three factors: a coherent strategy, synchronized methods, and decentralized organization, all of which leverage new media to their advantage. (p.3)

In particular, such adversaries have mastered – and the US Armed Forces need to master – six competencies, “underpinned by six core competencies” (pp.3-4):
  • Speed. While the Israelis were hampered by going through layers of bureaucracy to get their messages approved, Hezbollah fighters were empowered to push out messages in real time.
  • Authorities (need to be powered down): “Insurgent forces get their stories out fast because they all know the story-line, and are non-hierarchical when it comes to message approvals.” By “fast,” they mean in a matter of minutes, not hours or days (see p.22).
  • Message: Must be “specific, consistent, persistent, reflexive.” To push (message) power to the edge, all fighters have to know the basic storyline and know how to supply messages that contribute to it. (This one makes me think of Rich Freed’s discussion of themes in his book Writing Winning Business Proposals.) Indeed, in many such attacks, the message is the point; killing is secondary (p.28).
  • Media: Forces must engage in the “conversation” across traditional and new media: anywhere that your multiple target audiences may get the message. (This means an expanding universe of media and genres – including first-person shooters, in Hezbollah’s case [p.46].)
  • Messengers: Beyond the ground-level fighters, the authors stress “third-party validators” who don’t always push exactly the same message but who do have the established ethos to validate elements of the force’s storyline. In the Israeli-Hezbollah war, Lebanese bloggers served in this capacity (p.38).
  • Synchronicity. “Synchronicity enables organizational speed and agility by empowering actors at all levels to act appropriately. Synchronicity is achieved when different actors and actions, messages and messengers all reflect a shared narrative and strategy. This does not mean a coordinated and controlled response. Rather, it means that a clear strategic message sets the left and right parameters within which all agencies and levels ‘nest’” (p.4).

Such forces have established – and the US Armed Forces are trying to establish – continual self-documentation, such as filming all operations, declassifying them via guidelines rather than explicit approval, and rapidly posting the information to counter negative messages (p.4). In one example, a Lt. Colonel who had served in Iraq swore that he would “never again participate in an operation without at least helmet cams if combat camera personnel were unavailable” (p.23).


Countering is a big theme, because in most cases, the traditional method of “lethally targeting the delivery system” is no longer effective; rather than centralized broadcasting tools, adversaries are using the decentralized Internet. “The future is not to remove the message, but to respond to the message” (p.4). In other words, the future of warfare looks – in part – more like a flame war than Iwo Jima.

The future of espionage looks different too:

Experts noted that social networking sites can be a “disaster for national security:” “Give me the name of somebody in your unit, and in five minutes I can map the entire unit. I can draw a lot of valuable intelligence from these sites, that would otherwise take me hours or days of interrogation.” (p.55)


So self-monitoring and “rules of engagement” for social media become tremendously important. I’ve mostly focused on the executive summary here, but the entire 99-page report is riveting. It certainly points to the future of warfare and the challenges our third-generation army faces in a world of fourth-generation warfare. But it also suggests lessons across a wide range of organizations and activities. Fascinating reading; I highly recommend it.

1 Comment

  1. David Ronfeldt
    November 29, 2009

    clay — lots of interesting, excellent points here. oddly, this is first i've seen this post; my reader never picked it up. good thing you refererred to it in your latest post. — david

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