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Mustering the Troops

Battle of Symbols

Mustering The Troops

I. New War, New Weapons

After the September 11th attacks, President Bush warned the war against terrorism would likely be a long war, waged on many fronts, using many resources.

A number of experts suggested a new Cold War was taking shape, its duration and scope uncertain. Some suggested it would be a new kind of war, that the Powell Doctrine of overpowering and unrelenting force had less viability in a world of scattered "cells" and multi-national "networks" of terrorism. The Powell Doctrine, born out of America’s longstanding frustration of the gradual escalation of the Vietnam War, had been an article of faith for several Democratic and Republican administrations. Yet it might not have continuing viability in the wars of the new millennium.

Michael Gordon noted in his article "A New Kind of War" from The October 7, 2001 New York Times, the war the Pentagon planned had "more to do with special forces than overwhelming force." Defense Secretary Rumsfeld repeatedly stressed the Pentagon was taking a "measured approach." As Gordon observed:

"…the Powell doctrine seems inappropriate for many of the terrorist threats that the United States is likely to confront in future years. These foes may well be tiny terrorist cells interspersed among civilian populations, and episodic bombing runs and commando raids may be the best way of taking the fight to the enemy."

In this new type of war, a number of resource areas outside the military - economics, diplomacy, technology and intelligence, to name a few – might be utilized.

Some experts argued that, in fact, non-military resources might be more effective in the long run than military force. Philip Wilcox, Jr., former Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism in the State Department said "Armed force, while politically popular, is usually an ineffective and often counterproductive weapon against terror." In an article "The Terror" from the October 18, 2001 New York Times Review of Books Wilcox noted:

"…a new national security strategy must also include a broader foreign policy that moves away from unilateralism and towards closer engagement with other governments, and that deals not just with the symptoms but with the roots of terrorism, broadly defined."

To Wilcox, the failure to address the root causes of terrorism was the most important deficiency in American counter-terrorism policy. There was the tendency "to treat terrorism as pure evil in a vacuum."

Chester Haskell, President of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, one of the world’s leading think tanks for international relations, agreed with Wilcox. In a message posted on the Monterey Institute Web site after the events of September 11th he said "It is important for all to understand that making the world a more secure place is not something accomplished solely with military action or improved intelligence capabilities."

While Haskell admited military responses were important, he joined Wilcox in suggesting a large part of the battle needed to focus on the root causes of terrorism. These roots are "extraordinarily complex and require much more comprehensive and tenacious approaches." Haskell elaborated on this noting:

"… getting at the roots of terrorism requires a much wider range of skills utilized in a vastly wider arena. They include proficiency in languages other than English, the ability to communicate across cultures, analytical tools, program management, negotiation skills, conflict resolution, regional or area expertise, and technological proficiency."

Haskell observed skills and resources would come from people in "every manner of organization" including government, private business, non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, international institutions and schools and universities.

II. Battle of Symbols

An ongoing and growing phenomenon of the contemporary world is a global cultural war. This is the invasion of state boundaries by mass media images, popular entertainment, multi-national corporations and world-wide brands.

While powerful in creating an emerging new global culture, the global cultural war has been relatively invisible. It has not been fought with missiles or soldiers. The most essential element of the global cultural war is symbols.

Most nations play some part in the war. Yet America plays the key part. More than any other nation, she has produced the most potent symbols of modern times.

Now, after a formal "long war" against terrorism has been declared, it should not be surprising that symbols might play a decisive part. And particularly American symbols.

Most would agree that the initial terrorist attacks were attacks on leading American symbols. People died and buildings were destroyed not because of who or what they were but rather because of what they symbolized. While the initial attacks were on the symbols of American financial power and military strength, it became apparent that also under attack was the symbol of freedom and its expression in travel and communication (via the anthrax scares).

But in addition to American symbols, the attacks were also on America’s symbol-making power. Just as the opening atrocities of the war were directed at symbols, it is likely that symbols and symbolism will be a pervasive context of the war. In a large sense, symbols are close to what Wilcox and Haskell define as the "root causes of terrorism."

Understanding modern battles and wars (certainly the current war against terrorism) from a symbolic perspective, could lead to more effective strategies and more victories. Refusing to see the symbolic aspects of modern warfare opens the door for more attacks and perhaps ultimate defeat.

III. Hidden Persuaders

America is the world’s greatest productive nation producing far more products than any other nation. Yet the grandest production of modern America is not products but symbols. Of course symbols and products are inexorably tied together in a close symbiotic relationship. America is the world leader in recruiting symbols into the service of fueling the world’s longest and largest project in consumer democracy.

The symbol theories of Freud and Jung were never forgotten or bypassed by America. Rather they were simply applied to the real world. In the end, the real world of the late 20th century came to possess more of a relationship with their old dream world of patients than the dream world of their patients possessed a relationship to the real world of their time.

There is little doubt that symbols have run rampant into contemporary American culture traveling far from their earlier homes within the confines of dreams and Freudian analysis. And there is little doubt that America has offered grand "SUVs" to transport them into the modern world.

They are yanked all over the place and wedged into all areas of culture. They appear in the most unusual places today, places they would never have been seen in before when they inhabited churches and museums as agents of religion and art. Now, they are plastered all over the contextual "wallpaper" of culture, pervasive as a McLuhanesque medium and invisible against the background of culture. Like angry bees at a summer picnic, we can’t escape these modern embodiments set loose from an old Pandora’s Box. They track us down everywhere. We see them as advertisements on gas pumps, as logos stuck to the sides of New York subway trains, as swoosh marks on hundred dollar sneakers, as script on cola cans, as MacDonalds arches in Kabul.

Yet grand symbol production and use does not necessarily mean a grand understanding of symbols. In fact, to a great extent it precludes understanding. Modern consumer symbols such as brands and products work far better as "hidden persuaders" than as visible explainers. Grand production is matched by grand consumption and grand consumption of symbols ultimately translates into grand persuasion by symbols.

For example, professors Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson note in Age of Propaganda that Americans consume 57% of the world’s advertising while representing only 6% of the world’s population. Hidden persuasion certainly is working overtime in America. As Pratkanis and Aronson point out, half of America’s waking hours are spent immersed in mass media.

The results of this great production (overproduction?) of symbols is still emerging in the lifting haze of postmodernism. Will symbols continue to get smaller and smaller to fit on smaller and smaller spaces? Or, will the tiny symbols of postmodernism begin to cluster around the growing gravity of some emerging new grand symbol?

In the final analysis, America might not have a lot of say in the matter. As we argue, there is the possibility that symbols have a life of their own and an internal dynamics that moves and patterns them like magnetized shavings are moved and patterned by the force of magnetism. There is the possibility that symbols radiate their own light rather then reflect the light of their cultural creators.

But beyond America, all cultures of the modern world are prisoners to symbols and images of the world instead of experiences in the world. We know the world through these agent images who go into the world for us much like scouts from expedition parties used to journey into the wilderness.

And since we increasingly know the world through them they become more and more powerful and important in constructing the world. The ability to manipulate them becomes a higher and higher stakes game.

The dominance of this symbolic referred to world of hyper-reality, comes at a time when all of us become more a part of the global culture and a global perspective crucially important. At the same time, symbols rise to power as less and less is experienced first hand, without referential mediaries, of this global world. Symbols fight with reality these days more than ever for their ultimate victory over the memory of nature. America of course is the center of the global battlefield of symbols.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim