In a hyper-connected world, the battlefield has transcended the physical realm of combat, venturing into the human mind. Mental warfare has emerged as a weapon that plays a key role in shaping narratives on the battleground of public opinion.
The battlefield of the mind is fought across diverse platforms, from social media and news outlets to educational institutions and community centers. The goal, essentially, is to win the hearts and minds of the general public.
The War You Don’t See (2010) is an eye-opening documentary that examines the media’s role in shaping public perception of war. John Pilger, the film’s director, explores the history of independent reporting, from the horrors of World War I to the devastation of Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, and the ongoing war in Palestine.
The film highlights the media’s tendency to fall into the trap of propaganda, portraying wars in a manner that aligns with the interests of those in power. It challenges viewers to question the narratives they are presented with and to seek out alternative sources of information in order to form a more informed understanding of global conflicts.
As Pilger asserts in the film, “Propaganda relies on us, the media, to direct its deceptions not at a distant land but at you, the audience. In this era of endless imperial wars, the lives of countless individuals depend on the truth, or their blood will be on our hands.”
History of War Propaganda: the Post-Truth Era
In his thought-provoking book, The Birth of Psychological War: Propaganda, Espionage, and Military Violence from WWII to the Vietnam War (2023), historian Jeffrey Whyte delves into the history, politics, and geographical dimensions of psychological warfare employed by states throughout the 20th century.
Whyte explores the concept of the “post-truth era” and its implications for psychological warfare. Whyte argues that the rise of social media and other forms of digital communication has created an environment in which information can be easily manipulated and spread, making it more difficult to distinguish between truth and falsehood.
This, he suggests, has created an opportunity for psychological warfare practitioners to exploit the public’s vulnerability to misinformation.
War propaganda has existed since ancient times, yet it has become more sophisticated in modern times. During the nascent years of the Cold War, a covert operation codenamed ‘Project Troy‘ was quietly taking shape. This initiative, orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), marked a new frontier in American warfare – a psychological crusade aimed at influencing global perceptions and swaying public opinion.
At the heart of Project Troy lay a team of social scientists and behavioral experts, handpicked by the CIA to harness the power of psychology and social engineering. These individuals, collectively known as the ‘Social Science Research Project Committee,’ were tasked with meticulously studying human behavior, analyzing propaganda techniques, and developing strategies to manipulate public opinion.
The Vietnam War was also an example of how psychological warfare was used in the post-truth era. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution provided the legal justification for a significant escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. It marked a turning point in the war, authorizing the bombing of North Vietnam, despite the fact that the incident was clouded by questions over its validity.
The War You Don’t See: Why It is Still Relevant
The War You Don’t See (2010) begins by showing an American Apache helicopter firing on a crowded street in Baghdad, Iraq. The video showed the helicopter’s crew repeatedly opening fire on the unarmed civilians, including two Reuters journalists, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen. The journalists were killed instantly, along with several other Iraqis.
The video sparked international outrage and led to calls for an investigation into the incident. The US military initially claimed that the helicopter had been attacked by insurgents and that the crew had acted in self-defense. However, the video footage clearly showed that the helicopter had fired on the unarmed civilians without provocation.
The incident raised serious questions about the rules of engagement for US troops in Iraq and the use of deadly force against civilians.
In an era of fake news and social media today, it is more important than ever to be critical of the information we consume. In the documentary film, Pilger is informed by former CBS news anchor Dan Rather that “tough, digging, aggressive questions” may have stopped the Iraq War.
Central to Pilger’s argument in the documentary is the concept of “embedded journalism,” a practice that emerged during the Iraq War, whereby journalists were embedded with military units and their access to information was highly controlled. Pilger contends that this embedded model of journalism has resulted in a sanitized and one-sided view of war, one that often overlooks the plight of civilians.
The issue of civilian casualties, for example, in Palestine is often overshadowed by the political narrative that focuses merely on a nation’s national security. However, as Pilger emphasizes in his film, the human cost of war cannot be ignored, regardless of the context.
The War You Don’t See (2010) serves as a stark reminder that war should not be turned into a public perception game or a political spectacle; it is a human tragedy that claims the lives of innocent people.
The film’s message of exposing the hidden realities of war remains as relevant and urgent today as it was over a decade ago.