Friday, July 9, 2010

Special Alert: Language Update from Pentagon

At the beginning of July, the Associated Press reported that the Army planned to drop the Vietnam Era moniker “psychological operations,” citing that it can seem ominous.

Drilled into soldiers of the Vietnam Era and after, the goal of such techniques have been to win “hearts and minds” of peoples, foreign and domestic.

The Defense Department’s new, more neutral term, is “Military Information Support Operations,” or MISO. The name-change parallels the early 2009 move away from the Bush Administration terms, “The Global War on Terror” and “Long War” to the term “Overseas Contingency Operation.” For now, the term “War on Terror” remains the dominant one.

U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman, Ken McGraw, said the new designation, adopted in June, is a more accurate reflection of the unit’s job of producing leaflets, radio broadcasts, and loudspeaker messages to influence enemy soldiers and civilians.

Psychological warfare operations have been a keystone feature of US foreign policy techniques in especially the latter half of the twentieth century, and on into the current one. In the early years after the Second World War, for example, the new Central Intelligence Agency, taking the place of the Office of Strategic Services, found itself unprepared to counter a monolithic propaganda blitz, and organization effort, based out of the Soviet Union. Western Culture was portrayed by Soviet propagandists as decadent and degenerate. Soviet culture, so went the official myth, was the culture of the future.

The western intelligence community, with US organizations like the CIA-bankrolled Congress for Cultural Freedom at the pyramid’s top, countered the Soviets by portraying Soviet society as America’s antithesis: instead of a society based in freedom and democracy, like American society, communist culture was totalitarian , dictated, gray and unfree.

These psychological operations were dubbed “covert action” by early intelligence community operatives in the post-war era, and included everything from books and symphonies to Hollywood films. There indeed was an atmosphere of imperialism about such efforts, and Hollywood even called its post-war markets, not markets, but “territories.” Discussion by the public of such phenomenon is historically belittled and brushed under the rug, called by the hard-of-thinking mere “conspiracy theory.”

These propaganda-derived, present day public relations techniques were helped along, in the early twentieth century, by the godfather of propaganda, Edward Bernays, who wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.

In a republican society, that is a society based in law designed to protect the Supreme Rights of all, especially the poor against the opulent, “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” is illegal. Obviously, it is also highly amoral.

For more on Bernays and the birth of modern public relations, one need only You Tube the great BBC documentary, “The Century of Self.”

“One of the catalysts for the transition is foreign and domestic sensitivities to the term ‘psychological operations’ that often lead to a misunderstanding of the mission,” McGraw said about the July 2010 name change.

The change of name is to be extended to all military services, though the form in which the change will take across the many army agencies remains unknown. The Army’s only active duty psychological operations unit, based in Fort Bragg, is called the 4th Psychological Operations Group.

The change was directed from the top, by Pentagon policy makers working for Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The old term is considered to be an atavistic artifact of the Cold War Era, and one that implies subterfuge and misinformation. Presumably, the new term is designed to avoid the implications associated with the old.

Language is passed down the culture creation chain to smaller information distributors, thereby causing a change in word choice among participants in the information and language exchange. An analogy might be the process whereby public drinking water arrives at consumers through the private sector. In the private sector, business of all sizes tend to use public water for their products, since the water is cheaper to use. Through the distribution of private products constituted with public water, many of the chemicals, such as lithium and sodium fluoride, reach the public. Therefore, it’s an inevitability that, a US citizen for example, will drink fluoridated water in his lifetime.

In a process of mass Synesthesia (synesthetes experience a muddling of the senses), the algorithm of the symbols, words and laws of cultures produce a certain way of knowing and understanding in that culture’s participants.

Another analogy of how language spreads comes from economics, specifically the concept of trickle-down theory, oft associated with Reaganomics. The term trickle-down was coined by humorist Will Rogers, who said during the Great Depression that “money was all appropriated from the top in hopes that it would trickle down to the needy.” Proponents of such policies argue that, when the top income earners invest heavily into business infrastructure and equity markets, more goods will be produced and available on the market at lower prices, thereby spurring job growth for middle and lower class individuals. This logic sees economic wealth flowing from top to bottom. What astute observers point out, is that the trickle-down effect in this construct is very minimal.

The allegiance of many individuals in the Reagan administration to trickle-down premises might have been due to the fact that the concept is a truism. Clearly the largest investments by the apex income earners make markets. That is, after all, what Goldman Sachs claims to be its main service to the global economy, and, after a zero trading loss during the first quarter of 2010, there’s no denying that that firm is a top income earner. Just like how in trickle-down theory only bread crumbs fall from the table of the uberclass, the true meanings behind changes away from terms like ‘psy-ops’ go unannounced to the lower and middle class “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders.” As I mentioned beforehand, the change of moniker is one towards a more neutral choice of words.

One of the premiere enunciators of Reaganomics under Reagan was former assistant secretary the Treasury, Paul Craig Roberts, who today is a force in the public US policy discussion. A staunch opponent of primary trends in US public and corporate culture, Roberts recently said of US propaganda techniques:

An article in the journal, Sociological Inquiry, casts light on the effectiveness of propaganda. Researchers examined why big lies succeed where little lies fail. Governments can get away with mass deceptions, but politicians cannot get away with sexual affairs.

The researchers explain why so many Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, years after it has become obvious that Iraq had nothing to do with the event. Americans developed elaborate rationalizations based on Bush administration propaganda that alleged Iraqi involvement and became deeply attached to their beliefs. Their emotional involvement became wrapped up in their personal identity and sense of morality. They looked for information that supported their beliefs and avoided information that challenged them, regardless of the facts of the matter.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler explained the believability of the Big Lie as compared to the small lie: “In the simplicity of their minds, people more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have such impudence. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and continue to think that there may be some other explanation.”

What the sociologists and Hitler are telling us is that by the time facts become clear, people are emotionally wedded to the beliefs planted by the propaganda and find it a wrenching experience to free themselves. It is more comfortable, instead, to denounce the truth-tellers than the liars whom the truth-tellers expose.

All-in-all, the big lie is composed of innumerable and oft contrived little lies, such as the switch away from the vaguely violent “psy-op” to the more neutral “Military Information Support Operation.” I suspect that, just as the “Global War on Terror” has yet to be superseded by “Overseas Contigency Operation,” “psy-op” will remain the popular catchphrase.

Alfred H Paddock Jr., a retired colonel and former Director for Psychological Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1986 to 1988, dislikes the new name both because it is vague and misleading, uncatchy and unmarketable.

"Somehow it gives a nefarious connotation, but I think that this baggage can be overcome," said Paddock of the old term. In Vietnam an Laos, Paddock served three combat tours with Special Forces.

"Military Information Support Operations, or MISO, is not something that rolls off the tip of your tongue," Paddock said. "It makes it even more difficult for psychological operations personnel to explain what they do. That they still have the capability to employ programs and themes designed to influence the behavior of foreign target audiences."

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