Politics & Policy

Spotting Anti-Surge Propaganda

Vets vs. the escalation.

An anti–Iraq war TV ad featuring six Iraq-war veterans is urging viewers to “Join the troops. Stop the escalation.”

Produced by political-action group votevets.org, the ad aired during the Super Bowl this past Sunday, but only in a few markets within a few states, including Maine, Minnesota, and Virginia. It is however making waves in the blogosphere, and it is beginning to appear on national television. 

The ad is heartbreaking, but it is also manipulative,  wholly miscasting the rationale for increasing the number of U.S. ground forces in Iraq.

Let’s first consider the ad’s script, which reads: 

When it comes to Iraq, America is divided. On one hand you’ve got two thirds of the American people, a bipartisan majority in Congress, the Iraq Study Group, and veterans like us — all opposed to the escalation. On the other hand, there’s George Bush, who supports escalation. If you support escalation, you don’t support the troops. 

While recent polling does indicate a national unease with the new offensive, neither the Iraq Study Group (ISG) nor Congress has been fundamentally opposed to such an “escalation,” as the ad so provocatively termed it.

In fact, the ISG report advocated the very surge it is supposed to have opposed. Though it thought an increase of 100,000-200,000 troops in Iraq high, it did, however, “support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective.”  

And so he has.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 23, General David H. Petraeus, the new commander of American forces in — Iraq, said, “The additional forces that have been directed to move to Iraq will be essential.”

A few days later during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, ISG co-chairman James Baker said, “My bottom line on the surge is . . . the president’s plan ought to be given a chance. . . . The general you confirmed the other day, 81 to nothing, this is his idea. He’s the supporter of it. He’s now the commander on the ground in Iraq. Give it a chance.”

And so they have. Though Democrats in the House and Senate have drafted resolutions against the surge, none are binding; they are expressions of political, not legislative will. And in confirming Petraeus, unanimously, Senate Democrats have shown themselves to be more opposed to the president personally than to his agenda.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are united on this issue, but we cannot take seriously any claims that those who voted to approve Petraeus are meaningfully opposed to his military doctrine. They support the surge, if only for now — yet they support it.

The ad also suggests that “all” veterans are opposed to “escalation.” Whether that means all in their anti-Bush group, all veterans who have ever served in Iraq, or all veterans who have ever worn the uniform of the United States is anyone’s guess.

Then there is a direct and emotive appeal, telling “you” that if “you” support “escalation,” you are against the troops.  And, of course, no one — Democrat, Republican, or independent — wants to be labeled as anti-soldier.

Classic propaganda 101 — and only a trifle compared to rest.

Three soldiers tell us who, “on one hand” is against the surge — Congress, the ISG, and the troops. They gesture with their right hands, noticeably and awkwardly, as they do this. Then another veteran appears, and it is he, gesturing with his left, who tells us who supports it. But where his hand should be there is only a stub, a casualty of the war, of President Bush’s war. It is brilliant political theater.

The commercial  closes with a sound bite from the last veteran, a Marine reservist who in 2006 ran unsuccessfully in a Democratic primary for a Congressional seat from Kentucky. The most authoritative looking of the six, he simply says, “Join the troops. Stop the escalation.”

Beyond our tugged heartstrings and even those confused tales of opposition, this is the most important part of the film. That subliminally provocative word “escalation” suggests that increasing numbers of troops in theater is an attempt on the part of the Bush administration to broaden the war in Iraq.

The surge is the very opposite: an attempt to de-escalate the deteriorating situation on the ground. It means to quiet the country, to focus the attack, not broaden the fight, The best way to do that is by realigning and reinforcing troops already engaged in Iraq.

Detractors of the surge make no distinction between escalation and reinforcement, but it is key. Reinforcements relieve weary troops, put fresh eyes, minds, and rifles into the fight, increase security, and often sap the fight out of an enthusiastic enemy. This is the surge’s fundamental mission.

This doctrine of warfare has long held. Frederick the Great wrote in his Instructions for His Generals, “If a little help reaches you in the action itself, it determines the turn of fortune for you. The enemy is discouraged and his excited imagination sees the help as being at least twice as strong as it really is.”

Years later, Napoleon would write, “A seasonable reinforcement renders the success of a battle certain, because the enemy will always imagine it stronger than it really is and lose courage accordingly.”

If the heart of the fight in Iraq is a sectarian struggle — between men who would like to kill for their cause, rather than to die for it, as al Qaeda soldiers are only too willing — then there is great hope for success. Domestic factional fighters will indeed give up the fight if they know they are beaten.

The VoteVets’ spot, like so many other anti-Bush and anti–Iraq War ads and rallies, are aimed at putting a white flag in the hands of an American soldier. But the soldiers I talk with regularly aren’t buying into it. They understand that when things look bleakest you tighten and reinforce your lines at their weakest points: In this case, the most volatile provinces and cities like Baghdad and points throughout Al Anbar.

It is they who wish to buckle down who represent the will and strength of our military, and, one hopes, of our nation as a whole.

 A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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