Public Reaction in Times of War


While the ultimate outcome of the recent brush-up with Iran isn’t yet known, there are a few lessons to take away from it, especially regarding the public reaction to hostility and the threat of war.

It seems important to get some issues on the table now.

The overall situation began much earlier, but matters came to a head when U.S. forces killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a man responsible for at least 600 American deaths and likely many more. Soleimani had been head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, an elite unit that handles Iran’s extraterritorial operations.

The United States had already designated Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization, and on orders from President Donald Trump, U.S. forces took Soleimani out with an airstrike at Baghdad (Iraq) International Airport.

Among the first accounts that I saw was a Jan. 2 tweet from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It included a video clip of people running and celebrating. Pompeo wrote: “Iraqis — Iraqis — dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more.”

On Jan. 7, he tweeted again:

“After years of suffering under Soleimani’s brutality, Syrians are finally free to celebrate his demise thanks to @realDonaldTrump’s decisive action. Syrian streets are ringing with shouts of ‘Soleimani’s gone’ and filled with festive sweets.″

Numerous comments and replies to these tweets purported to be from Iranians, Syrians, and others who had suffered under Soleimani and were celebrating his demise.

According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, “The overwhelming majority of Iranians despised Soleimani, an infamous symbol of the regime’s intimidation and murder, for his crimes against the Iranian people and throughout the region. The Iranian people and Iraqi protesters who have been calling for Soleimani’s expulsion from Iraq for some time welcomed his death as a sign of the waning of the regime’s control over their country.”

Among the recent barbaric acts attributed to him is overseeing the death of about 1,500 Iranians late last year. They were part of a crowd that was protesting the closure of the internet and restrictions on free speech when authorities opened fire; Soleimani is thought to have given the order.

Eventually, however, the narrative regarding the public reaction to Soleimani’s demise changed. Suddenly, news outlets were referring to him as an inspirational leader and a hero. Large groups in the Middle East that seemed to have been celebrating liberation were now protesting the United States’ “assassination” of Soleimani. What happened?

According to Iranian-born author Parnaz Foroutan, this is all a product of Iranian propaganda. She claims that the Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian people are indeed happy to see Soleimani gone, but the regime is forcing out a false propaganda message to make Americans question the decisions made by their government. It wouldn’t be the first time that something like that has happened.

In an NBC News op-ed, Foroutan reminds us that Iran controls its press.

“The news has widely shown crowds weeping and chanting, images carefully curated, the angle of the cameras intending to show the congestion of mourners in the streets of Iran, among them close-ups of weeping children, to suggest unequivocal support for the regime.”

So the “actors” may be coerced, and the stories carefully framed. That’s the perfect recipe for an agenda-driven false story.

This kind of propaganda (or disinformation) is developed in order to persuade the American populace not to support the U.S. military. If people question their leaders in times of war, it weakens the resolve and ultimately the military.

The Soviets knew this during the Vietnam War, and they did all they could to sway American popular opinion. In fact, they were so effective that Americans are still trying to make up for the way so many veterans were greeted upon their return to the United States.

Ion Mihai Pacepa, former head of foreign intelligence in communist Romania, has explained that KGB chief Yuri Andropov thought the war in Vietnam provided a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make Europe fear America’s military power and instill discord between the Old Continent and the United States; therefore, he made the disinformation operation a priority from almost the first days of the Vietnam War.

All hands were on deck, including Pacepa’s Romanian intelligence office. By 1968, anti-Vietnam War protesters in the United States numbered almost 7 million. Many young Americans came to regard their own government, not communism, as the real enemy. It reached the point where bashing the U.S. commander in chief in times of war became as American as apple pie.

Pacepa had a meeting in 1972 with Andropov, who had said the disinformation program “turned America against her own government.” It damaged America’s foreign policy consensus, poisoned her domestic debate, and built a credibility gap between the United States and European public opinion that was wide and deep. It also transformed the world’s leftists into deadly enemies of American “imperialism.”

All the Soviets had to do was to continue planting the seeds of disinformation and water them day after day after day. Eventually, Americans would seize upon the idea and start pursuing it of their own accord. In other words, it was very effective.

This new Iranian disinformation may be having a similar effect. Last week, on his show “Hardball,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews compared Soleimani’s death to that of Princess Diana and Elvis Presley.

He said: “When some people die, you don’t know what the impact’s going to be. When Princess Diana died, for example, there was a huge emotional outpouring, [and, for example,] Elvis Presley in our culture. It turns out that this general we killed was a beloved hero of the Iranian people, to the point where, look at the people, we got pictures of it now, these enormous crowds coming out. There’s no American emotion in this case, but there’s a hell of a lot of emotion on the other side.”

In other words, Matthews is accepting the packaged news from the Iranian press as gospel. That’s exactly what they would want him (and others) to do.

No one wants war, and I certainly hope that tensions continue to ease. Decisions, however, must be based on facts, not on disinformation.

Prior to the order to kill Soleimani, CIA chief Gina Haspel advised the president that the risks associated with taking the general out were less than those associated with leaving him in place. That information, not propaganda from state-controlled Iranian media, is the proper basis for making decisions like that.

Let’s hope it’s the correct decision and that it leads to a safe and peaceful 2020.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.