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Ideas as Weapons: Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare

Ideas as Weapons: Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare edited by G. J. David Jr. and T. R. McKeldin III, with Foreword by Col H. R. McMaster. Potomac Books, 2009, 458 pp.

Reviewing a compilation work is sometimes difficult because of the varied subject matters contained therein but more often because of the differing writing styles of the contributors. This new work from the distinguished and reliable publishing group at Potomac Books is an exception, in that both the variety of the subject matter and the writing quality are well blended and consistent. The result is an outstanding work that will go a long way in providing a badly needed reference text for military professionals dealing with the complexities of information operations (IO). The editors have produced a volume that concisely presents a surprisingly broad spectrum of concepts and suggestions, offered in small, easily digestible chapters, readily approachable by any harried military decision maker. Some of the chapters are particularly informative and entertaining, such as those presented by a few of the retired Marine officer contributors.

One can only respond with an enthusiastic “Oorah!” at the level of candor that is present throughout these chapters. Not to forget the Army contributors, there are times where a slightly more subdued frankness is also manifested, evoking the need for an equally fervent “Hooah!” The collection of distinguished authors, which includes Gen David Petraeus, Lt Col John Nagl and Col Curtis Boyd, among many others, are collectively candid in their assessment of the current frictions facing IO. Because of this candor, the book possibly will not be a favorite of the Pentagon IO wonks. Many of the contributors call for rapid change and new ways of facing evolving problems. If for no other reason, this makes the book a prime candidate for placing at the top of the list of things to read.

Multiple authors argue the case that the definition of IO offered in Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations [i.e. “. . . integrated employment of the core capabilities of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations (PSYOPS), military deception (MILDEC) and Operations Security (OPSEC). . . .], is hopelessly flawed and in many cases destructive. A particularly strong and satisfying collection of opinions occurs in “Part III: Operational.” The volume is in fact divided into four sections, including “Part I: Geopolitical”; “Part II: Strategic”; “Part III: Operational”; “Part IV: Tactical.” Each section frames the problem at each level of command. Sadly, the Air Force, although not quite absent in the overall presentation, comes very closely to being just that— absent. This does not appear to be an oversight, but instead it seems more a reflection of where the real IO players now reside. This should serve as a polite reminder for Air Force leaders, who continue to struggle to define the service’s mission within this highly complicated domain. For the short, medium, and long term, the Air Force badly needs to become a major player in the IO effort. It deserves to be there and to bring special strengths and abilities to the domain.

Common throughout many of the contributions is the characterization of the effect of magnified complexity borne of the information tsunami and fostered by 24 hour news cycles, the Internet, and the wireless and cellular networks that collectively provide increasingly available access. It is clear that the information domain will comprise a significant portion of any future conflicts, wherever they may occur. Lest we forget that IO is applicable to all commands, “Part III: Operational” provides useful examples of IO successes and strategies in area of responsibility (AOR) outside of CENTCOM, including Colombia, Thailand, and the Philippines. These examples are particularly interesting in that they contrast somewhat with the IO currently taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there is a take-home lesson here, it would be although general principles often persist across AORs, local solutions will always be needed. History repeatedly proves solutions are most often found in the culture itself, rather than being projected from the outside, where we always remained handicapped by our own limited understanding of the intricacies of culture and heritage.

It would be difficult or impossible to say which chapters rate as the best, although certainly near the top of the list would be Col Keith Oliver’s chapter (chap. 25), “Are We Outsmarting Ourselves?” Oliver nails IO for what it is, a “. . . new and sexy, but it’s no stand-alone magic bullet, any more than air power before it” (p. 236). For those responsible for IO, read this chapter closely, although fair warning, it is likely to sting. It hits hard with laser-like accuracy and not with just a little bit of barbed humor. The author is clearly a Marine and retired to boot. Several passages evoked laughter in response to personally familiar references from the first Gulf War, such as “. . . throwing rank at the problem” (p. 236), “hotel warriors” (p. 237), and a “richly appointed green room that would’ve have made David Letterman blush” (p. 237). Funny stuff.

Another keeper was chapter 28, written by Lt Gen Metz and crew, “Massing Effects in the Information Domain: A Case Study in Aggressive Information Operations.” The group adroitly observes, “. . . complicating our efforts in the information domain is the fact that we are facing an adaptive, relentless and technology savvy foe who recognizes that the global information network is his most effective tool for attacking what he perceives to be our center of gravity: public opinion, both domestic and international. And the truth of the matter is that our enemy is better at integrating information-based operations, primarily through mass media into his operations than we are” (p. 266). No words could ring truer. We are losing the IO battle and will continue to do so unless rapid and radical changes are made. Lose the IO battle, and these authors would say the war is also lost. Believe it.

Last, but not least is chapter 43 by Lt Col David Kilcullen, “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency.” Kilcullen served in the Australian Army for 21 years before becoming an advisor on irregular warfare to several allied nations and commanders, including, General Petraeus. A reprint from the 2006 edition of Military Review, the chapter succinctly spells out the requirements for counterinsurgency at the level where mistakes, including IO ones, cost lives and cause fragile cooperation with wavering potential adversaries/allies. All else is largely theory, but it is here at this level where IO decisions really do matter and can through carelessness, ignorance, or inattention cause reality to bite hard. It is also here where the impact of the individual can magnify the strategic effect, turning foe into friend or vice versa in the blink of an eye or in the aftermath of an idle remark or gesture. This is a chapter that should be reread many times before entering combat for the first time.

Overall, the book is outstanding. It deserves attention at every level of the military and of policy making, particularly as it provides insight into the needs of IO in general and, more specifically, in the types of wars that involve insurgency and ideology. If there is one criticism, it is the chapters should be made to stand alone as individual works. The notes are varied in quality and sporadic, some outstanding, others totally missing, and some are quite insightful. All of the chapters would be improved if the notes were provided at their ends, rather than at the end of the book, as currently presented. Salient points could easily be lost by those readers not conscientious enough to check with each completed chapter.

As mentioned, some of the articles were older reprints, while not necessarily an unwise approach by the editors would have been made even better if updated materials had been included. One can only imagine the additional insight that might have been presented, for example, in the chapter written by General Petraeus (chap. 9, “Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldering in Iraq) had he revised it from the original version published in 2006 or at least added some kind of addendum. Given his responsibilities, this is certainly understandable, but updating the older inclusions should certainly remain a goal for future editions of the volume.

Much can be learned from this book and its distinguished group of contributors. Much more insight and innovation will be needed in the future if the United States is to ever hope to win the IO battle, much less the insurgency battles being faced and frequently lost every day around the world. The two are inextricably linked. IO, like insurgency, is here to stay, but for us to become and remain effective, we will have to define better what it must be. Only then can we effectively move forward. The editors and the contributors are to be commended for their insight into IO. They have shown us a path. Now decision makers must implement. Bottom line—read the book.

Robert A. Norton, PhD

Professor, Auburn University


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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