Small Wars Journal

How the US Could Lose the Next War - And How the Migrant Crisis Demonstrates This

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How the US Could Lose the Next War - And How the Migrant Crisis Demonstrates This

Dash Radosti

The episode on the southern border highlights the vulnerability of US policy to public relation disasters that involve children. In future conflicts, it is likely that our adversaries will combine the use of human shields (especially children) with a strong disinformation campaign to galvanize US public opinion against intervention. US military and political leaders need to take active steps to both fight disinformation, as well as to educate the public about the use of human shields before a public relations tragedy occurs.

First, let me disclaim that I’m not trying to take sides in the contentious debate about migrants and asylum seekers on the US southern border. That is a complicated issue beyond the scope of this article. Rather, I would like to shed light on the underlying lessons our adversaries have learned from this saga, while keeping my normative beliefs in check.  

The single image of a small three-year-old girl crying hysterically pulled on America’s heart strings. President Trump, who specifically ran on a campaign of cracking down on illegal immigration (and surrounded by supportive cabinet members like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen) seemed caught off-guard by the backlash, despite his characteristic bravado. Social media erupted with anger and people poured into the streets. The news cycle gave this issue a huge amount of coverage, continually showing the picture of this distraught little girl, and others like her.  Protesters heckled and harassed key administration leaders wherever they went.

Interestingly, it didn’t matter that the picture only told a partial story. For example, this girl was only separated from her mother for several minutes while she was searched. Far from being asylum seeker originally portrayed, the girl’s mother was an admitted economic migrant, who arguably kidnapped her daughter, left two other children behind in her native Honduras, and was previously deported from the US. As ICE Director Thomas Homan suggests, it is very possible the little girl was one of many children “being used as a pawn”.

While TIME magazine, the publisher of the photo, issued a partial retraction, the damage was done. President Trump rescinded the order to separate families, essentially gutting his zero-tolerance policy on immigration in a matter of days.

Doubtless, our near peer threats—Russia, China, Iran (and their proxies), and North Korea (yes, they are still a threat) are taking note. Overmatched, their entire military strategy involves looking for US weaknesses and exploiting them for asymmetric advantage. America’s liberal democratic traditions and aversion to civilian causalities will doubtlessly be something they try to exploit. 

It is entirely possible that our adversaries will try to bait the US into striking a target surrounded by children. Once the US strikes, they will have cameras ready to document the inevitable pain and sorrow caused by civilian casualties. With social media, the clips will be shared around the globe in hours. It is entirely conceivable that pictures of children suffering, coupled with an adversary’s misleading message could rapidly gain traction and cause a massive drop in public support. This is especially true if the public does not perceive our adversary to be an existential threat to the United States. 

The scenario above involves two distinct practices. The first is the use of human shields. The second is information warfare. Unfortunately, our potential adversaries have shown the capability and intention to use both.  

In the 2006 war with Lebanon, Hezbollah (an Iranian proxy) made extensive use of human shields. They even went as far to transporting weapons and fighters via ambulance. When Israel struck back at these targets, it received international criticism and bad press.  As many know, ISIS has made widespread use of human shields. However, even Russia has been accused of this practice, as well.

It is now common knowledge that Russia has an advanced disinformation apparatus. It has repeatedly used this to influence public opinion in both the US and our allies. These acts include commenting on news articles, sharing memes and videos, and creating online communities to sow division. In fact, the largest Black Lives Matter page was a scam, with some other pages linked directly to the Russian Government. All this fueled racial tension, and in some cases, civil unrest.

 The powerful mix of human shields and disinformation could have devastating impacts. Even incidental events that have caused child causalities have rapidly shifted US policy. For example, the 1991 bombing of the Amiriyah Shelter, which killed hundreds of children during the Gulf War (the US claims it was being used as an Iraqi command post) distanced the US from its Arab partners, drew international condemnation, and ultimately contributed to the US decision to end the war and reduced the bombing of the Iraqi homeland.

Similarly, the 1972 Pulitzer prize winning picture of nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc screaming in agony after her clothes were burned off by Napalm further cemented public opposition to the war. Six months later, the US signed the Paris Peace Accords, and did nothing when North Vietnam immediately proceeded to violate the treaty. Public backlash against another bombing campaign in Vietnam was too great, and the public now had an image to associate with the air war over Vietnam.

The above events involved little official disinformation. In fact, they were widely spread by western journalists. It is easy to foresee, in the era of social media, how these messages could be amplified with covert state backing, similar to what Russian is already doing.

The key to countering this is an aggressive, proactive public affairs campaign. In times of conflict, both political and military leaders need to educate the public about the use of human shields, as well as disinformation. Israel has aggressively called out Hamas for using children as human shields, to great effect. In fact, it recently got the UN to condemn Hamas for using human shields.

Fortunately, the US public is often able to see through incomplete or inaccurate stories. Even in the migrant case, a far more complicated situation that doesn’t directly involve conflict, most Americans believe it is parents and traffickers, not the government, that are to blame for family separation. A strong, proactive, narrative that competes with the enemy’s disinformation campaign will be essential to preventing the media from giving life to claims that undermine America’s moral authority, and ultimately, our ability to fight and win, if necessary.

The views, beliefs, and analysis in this paper belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, outlook, and assessment of the US Army, the Department of Defense, or any other governmental entity. All information in this post was gathered from publicly available documents, reports, pictures, videos, and information and are cited accordingly.

About the Author(s)

LT Dash Radosti is an Intelligence Officer in the US Army National Guard. He also attends St. John’s University School of Law in New York.


Some responses to Lt. Radosti:


Firstly, this type of psychological warfare has only been effective against the United States government when there is a lack of political will to prosecute the war or policies in question.  Despite a series of reversals, a public that recoiled at the photos and reports of the horrors of war that flowed northward, and an unfavorable casualty ratio, the United States fought the Confederacy to unconditional surrender.  Vietnam was the first major conflict that the United States entered, in which it never was fully committed to winning; this was not true of Korea or the World Wars.  The intervention in Vietnam was arguably a return to the types of adventures that it had undertaken in Mexico and the Caribbean, although the primacy of minimizing costs (as opposed to mission success) resulted in probably higher costs by 1975 than a full-scale commitment would have. 


Secondly, weakness in psychological warfare capabilities is a feature of open and free societies.  This was evident during World War II and the Cold War, and democratically-elected governments must trust their electorates unless they want to erode democracy and liberty. 


Third, although I agree that the American government should revert to a more “aggressive” public relations campaign, the fact is that Israel’s campaigns have on balance been proven ineffective. 


Fourth, returning to peacetime psychology, Americans tend to believe in “American exceptionalism” and are also subject to the Underdog Effect, which may well be a combination of schadenfreude and a desire for justice.  Again, an alternative would be that Americans become cynical nationalists such as many Russians and Chinese.