If maintaining Canada’s Afghan occupation requires a “perception war” on Canadian soil, then are Canadians now the enemy? Anthony Fenton investigates.
Few Canadians know that the transformation of Canada’s military and foreign policy establishment towards more aggressive opperations has been afoot since the end of the Cold War. But in the face of Canada’s escalating engagement in a dirty counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, are Canadians finally beginning to wake up to this fact? The military and economic establishments certainly fear as much, which is why we’ve witnessed such a media barrage of patriotism and militarism in the past year. Canada’s heavily concentrated media industry and its incomplete and uncritically supportive coverage of Canada’s Afghan adventure have been crucial to the establishment’s effort to push public opinion into line with Canada’s new foreign policy alignment.
It should surprise no one that Canadian media have become less democratic and more reflective of elite interests over the past few decades, for this is precisely what the Davey Report of 1970, the Kent Commission of 1981, and the 2006 Senate Report on the Canadian News Media warned would happen. Neo-imperialist countries like Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia have also increasingly recruited the public relations industry to help them craft their propaganda strategies. And Canada’s nascent military-industrial complex has grown even stronger and more influential in the post-9/11 world. Media concentration has left government and military interests well positioned to wage a war for the “hearts and minds” of the Canadian public.
As Canada deepens its commitment to a counterinsurgency campaign in southern Afghanistan, the public is witnessing the consequences of concentrated media power. Canadian foreign policy in Afghanistan is generally supported by the media: the debate is restricted and rarely strays beyond questions of what mix of “security” and “development” is the best recipe for victory.
This article will look at some general aspects of the transformation of Canadian foreign policy, while highlighting the centrality of the battle for Canadian hearts and minds in this transformation. The counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan represents the culmination of Canada’s new foreign policy, but it is worth bearing in mind that Afghanistan, in the words of Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, offers only a “glimpse of the future” of Canadian military operations. Given free reign, this aggressive new foreign policy will be readily applied elsewhere — unless Canadians can effectively challenge the blatant propaganda and blind patriotism being deployed to justify it.
Public support is crucial to this shift. Canadian planners are aware of the challenges faced as they attempt to maintain the legitimacy necessary at home to support their expensive foreign adventures. According to the Canadian Forces draft counterinsurgency manual, released in early 2007, “one constant regarding insurgency and [counterinsurgency] is the battle to win and hold popular support, in the theatre of operations and at home. . . . [T]he populace of those nations contributing to the [counterinsurgency] must continue to support the mission that may well continue for years on end.”
To better position the government to wage this “battle,” the Martin Liberals developed a new foreign policy roadmap, which has since been continued by the Conservatives, to bring the collective forces of the “whole of [the Canadian] government” to bear on managing public perceptions of Canada’s foreign adventurism as part of its counterinsurgency strategy.
This aggressive new foreign policy will be readily applied elsewhere, unless Canadians can effectively challenge the blatant propaganda and blind patriotism being deployed to justify it.
The Fourth Block and the Fifth Estate
Numerous policy documents indicate that the Canadian military began its transformation in the mid to late 1990s. However, it wasn’t until the official release of the Martin government’s International Policy Statement (IPS) in April 2005 that the desired shift moved from the obscurity of policy papers, parliamentary committee meetings, and military journals to the public domain. Martin’s IPS named the new policy approach the “3D” approach to foreign affairs: diplomacy, development, and defence.
According to the IPS, globalization is identified as the key driver of the world’s recent “period of change and uncertainty.” This “new reality” is typified by “fragile, failed and failing states” (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti among the most prominent, where Canada is concerned), and “global terrorism.” Of course, the desirability of continuing to pursue the policies that lead to “failed states” and “global terrorism” is not discussed.
The IPS describes today’s operational environment in terms of a three-block war scenario:
“Increasingly, there is overlap in the tasks our personnel are asked to carry out at any one time. Our military could be engaged in combat against well-armed militia in one city block, stabilization operations in the next block, and humanitarian relief and reconstruction two blocks over.”
Although the IPS does not credit it, the three-block war is a U.S. concept. U.S. Marines commander Charles C. Krulak first articulated the idea during an October 1997 speech to the National Press Club, where he described three-block war as “the landscape in which the 21st century battle will be fought.” It didn’t take long for Canada to begin incorporating three-block war principles into its training methods and doctrines. An article in the Spring 2006 issue of the Canadian Army Journal said the ability to operate simultaneously in all parts of three-block war must be the Army’s guiding vision. In 2004 and early 2005, small-market newspapers began to report on what were then some of the largest military training exercises to take place in Canada since World War II. The reason for such large and expensive exercises? “The intent . . . is to train soldiers to operate in a three-block war environment,” reported the Kamloops Daily News on March 14, 2005.
The three-block war finally entered the lexicon of the national media with the release of the IPS, which was soon followed by then-Defence Minister Bill Graham and newly anointed Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier’s body-bag tour, which warned of impending Canadian casualties in the face of a stepped-up insurgency in southern Afghanistan. Said Hillier, “There needs to be an awareness across Canada that we’re in a dangerous business.”
In other words, the public had better start getting comfortable with the sight of flag-draped coffins — the result of the military’s new counterinsurgency activities in southern Afghanistan.
“The idea of the three-block war now encapsulates that which we have done in Afghanistan, and what we will do elsewhere,” Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie told a January 2006 conference titled “Beyond the Three-Block War,” organized by the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies. The CISS subsequently published a short book by the same name based on the proceedings. The publication reveals much about the hearts-and-minds campaign being waged against the Canadian public. Beyond the Three-Block War reproduces an essay written by students at Royal Military College who attempt to broaden the concept of the three-block war by introducing a fourth block, which “involves the government’s communications strategy on the home front.” Among other things, it “entails proactively conveying Canada’s international intentions to the Canadian citizen.” The activities carried out by the government and the military-industrial complex are intended to foster “a strong national consensus behind [Canada's] foreign policy.” Elsewhere, Canadian military strategists have defined this fourth block as the perception war for Canadian hearts and minds.
Canadian editorial support for the Afghan adventure has been near unanimous, even though public opinion is deeply divided.
Waging the Perception War
Militarization of a country’s foreign policy accompanied by attempts to control public perception is nothing new. In the 1980s the Reagan administration’s approach to its own war on terror also introduced “new” counterinsurgency doctrines. In that case, because of popular distaste over the term counterinsurgency due to the Vietnam syndrome, the approach was called low-intensity conflict and was practiced in proxy wars in Afghanistan, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other countries.
The parallels don’t end there. Analysts Michael T. Klare and Peter Kornbluh noted at the time that, “To sustain these campaigns abroad . . . U.S. policy-makers perceive an urgent need to wage a war at home — to fight for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the American people.” To wage this “war,” U.S. planners felt that they needed, in Klare and Kornbluh’s words, “a carefully created, sophisticated and ongoing public diplomacy.”
Since Canadian Forces shifted their operations to southern Afghanistan in mid 2005, the media’s use of the phrase hearts and minds has become a euphemism to describe Canada’s counterinsurgency goals in that volatile region. But critical coverage occasionally surfaces. For instance, Toronto Star columnist James Travers observed on February 8, 2007, how “conflict is now about winning hearts and minds. . . . Along with peering through the cultural haze at an elusive enemy, democratic armies must constantly look over their shoulder at domestic public opinion. The unsurprising result is political marketing that tests the limits of truth in advertising. Rather than hurt voter heads with complexity, leaders retreat to emotion and even deception.”
Embedded historian Sean Maloney described this seamless shift from “the elusive enemy” to “domestic public opinion,” in the context of U.S. involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, as “information operations to influence the Afghan peoples; and information warfare…to maintain America’s will to fight.”
The Royal Military College’s Robert Adinall further highlights the importance of public perception and the media in counterinsurgency warfare. In a paper presented at the Ottawa-based Conference of Defence Association’s eighth annual symposium, Adinall suggests that “the ubiquity of interactive media makes it part of the strategic environment. . . [Interactive media] is the technological and cultural transformation that makes the 21st century an era of true Perception War.”
Canadian Forces Second Lieutenant Jessica M. Davis also sees the media as central to the perception war. Writing in August 2005 in the Canadian Military Journal, she states: “Indeed, influencing public opinion, both at home and abroad, is one of the most important aspects of modern warfare. . . . The media reaches not only the homes of citizens, but also their minds.” In short, “The media is difficult to control, but it can be key in winning (or losing) an information war.”
Again, such concepts are hardly new. In the 1960s, British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson wrote in his classic study, Defeating Communist Insurgency, “The chief role of the foreign press [in a counterinsurgency campaign] will be to condition its own people.”
In the U.S. Army counterinsurgency manual of 2006 — one of the models for the Canadian version currently under development — the question of the perception war is dealt with bluntly: “The media directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents, their operations, and the opposing insurgency. This situation creates a war of perception between insurgents and counterinsurgents conducted continuously using the news media.” If it is true that in war, truth is the first casualty, then one can imagine the collateral damage a protracted perception war will leave in its wake.
The Perception War’s Enemy?
Today’s wartime media dynamics hearken back to Canadian media coverage during World War I. In his seminal Propaganda and Censorship during Canada’s Great War, historian Jeffrey Keshen paints a bleak picture of the prevailing state of journalism at the outbreak of war. Keshen argues that “Canada’s home front became disconnected from reality” due to “press corps patriotism,” a “spirit of voluntarism,” and continual jingoistic appeals by the media. “Besides carrying official front-line dispatches, it was through their editorial pages and stories by in-house reporters and columnists that the Canadian press emerged as [a] propaganda source.”
Sound familiar? Think of the yellow Support our Troops ribbons and the introduction of Red Fridays (the ritual wearing of red clothes on Fridays to support our troops — which in practice is code for support our aggressive foreign policy). Think of Rick Mercer and other Canadian entertainers who have been deployed to Afghanistan to bolster morale; Peter Mansbridge broadcasting live from Kandahar for a week straight last December; Christie Blatchford’s embedded puff journalism from Kandahar; and Afghanada, CBC radio’s “fictional drama that probes the war in Afghanistan through Canadian Soldiers’ eyes.”
Canadian editorial support for the Afghan adventure has been near unanimous, even though public opinion is deeply divided according to opinion polls. Even though at least half of the Canadian public opposes (what they know of) Canada’s role in Afghanistan, such parity is not found in media coverage.
Although we are led to believe that the numerous so-called experts called upon to contextualize Canadian foreign policy matters in the media are neutral, many of them have direct links to either the Department of National Defence, the arms lobby, or both. Dozens of academic experts drawn from DND-funded “Centres of Excellence” across Canada are frequently called upon to offer what historian of propaganda Jacques Ellul has termed rational propaganda to Canadians. A comprehensive database search reveals that out of thousands of articles citing such experts, in only a single case was the source’s DND-affiliation mentioned, despite the obvious bias such an affiliation carries. If one were to insert a funded by the Department of National Defence disclaimer beside every one of these “expert opinions,” a clearer picture of the minority interests being represented in the media might begin to emerge.
Canadians should educate themselves on the question of Canada’s continuing military and foreign policy transformation. We are being persuaded (or, as Rick Hillier put it, “recruited”) to support political decisions made in the interest of those who profit financially from war and politically from fear. Canadians must recognize their stake in this perception war; a war in which, significantly, the dissenting public has been cast as the enemy. Those who actively work to end Canada’s imperialist adventures must understand how this perception war is fought if they hope to win it and bring Canada’s destructive militarism to an end.
Anthony Fenton is a freelance researcher/writer based in unceded Coast Salish Territories, B.C.