Thursday, April 27, 2006

Hometown Psyops

The town I grew up in is soon going to be invaded by the Canadian Armed Forces on a psychological warfare operation or "psyop". This makes me sad.

The way I see it, this is one small part of the overall campaign by big corporate Canada, the military and its associated industries, and the religious conservatives and other forces of the political right in Canada to enhance and perhaps go beyond neoliberalism domestically and abroad, to integrate Canada ever more tightly with the United States economically and militarily, and to transform the "Canadian way" from quiet complicity in war and empire to open cheerleading.

My friends at Homes Not Bombs, in a media release for an event last year, quoted extensively from a United States Air Force document. While this document is from a different branch of a different service, it serves to define what "psyop" means and shows how military institutions in Western countries (and probably elsewhere) approach their interaction with non-hostile civilian populations. I think it's probably naive to think that this document has no insight to offer with respect to the institutional mindset of the Canadian Armed Forces in this instance.

This document says that psyops "support US [or in this case Canadian] national and military objectives through planned operations to convey information to target audiences. PSYOP provide a low-cost, high-impact method to deter adversaries and obtain the support of friendly or neutral target audiences."

Apparently, the military should "use transmission medium or media which are reliable and readily accessible by target audiences. US [or Canadian] forces must ensure message media are tailored for the local populace. Media can range from leaflets, to posters, to radio, television, and digital broadcasts [or, one presumes, local weekly newspapers]. Planners should ensure transmission media can reach and be understood by the target audience."

A category of psyop called "Military Operations Other Than War," such as will grace my hometown, are useful because they "support the elements of US national policy objectives, national security strategy, and national military strategy; gain and sustain foreign popular belief in, and support for, US and multinational goals and objectives; increase foreign popular support for US and multinational military operations; diminish the legitimacy of the adversary political system."

The document advises that "Commanders should consider community relations activities as a fundamental part of building public support for military operations. Public affairs operations bring together [armed forces] people and the civilian community... Effective community relations create mutual acceptance, respect, appreciation and cooperation between the [armed forces] and civilian community." It continues, "Public affairs operations support a strong national defense, in effect preparing the nation for war, by building public trust and understanding for the military's contribution to national security and its budgetary requirements. These operations make taxpayers aware of the value of spending defense dollars on readiness, advanced weapons, training, personnel, and the associated costs of maintaining a premier aerospace [or other] force."

The town I grew up in is a sleepy little burg in southern Ontario. The town itself had maybe 1200 people when I was growing up, and the entire township now has a population of about 9000. There was a small grocery store, two small-town hotels, one other restaurant (sometimes), a non-chain convenience store, one bank, two or three gas stations, a small K-to-8 public school, an aesthetically bizarre mixed-purpose shop that a high school teacher I had who grew up in much more urban circumstances (Hong Kong) labelled 'the ugly pants store', a dozen churches, and one pond (upon which, every winter after it froze, was placed an old car so that the town could have a pool to guess when it would crash through the ice in the spring).

According to the area's weekly newspaper, in mid-May, "close to 700 reservists will descend on" this township and the one immediately to the south of it -- which, coincidentally, is where my partner grew up.

The article continues:

From May 12 to May 14, military vehicles, including vans and jeeps will be on the ground along with blue and green vehicles carrying 'enemy forces.'

Any weapons and blank ammunition exercises will be conducted outside of town but troops will be on the streets of [this town] interacting with the community.

The arenas is [sic] [several area towns] will act as base operations for the troops as they conduct their exercises.

Later, the article says (under the continuation headline "Interaction part of exercise"):

While here soldiers will set up road blocks and patrol through each community, interacting with residents to gather information.

'We encourage the local population to come up and talk to the soldiers,' Capt. Bregman said.

Each arena will house public displays to keep the community informed of the operation.

Outside of town, troops will set up road blocks and assume sentry duties at locations such as the [insert local landmark here].

Weather and aircraft availability permitting, the reservists hope to perform a helicopter landing at [one town's] arena again in May.

We are then informed that this is in preparation for some of the reservists heading off to Afghanistan in the fall, and the article closes with two paragraphs of deceptively bland summary information about Canada's role in the Western occupation of Central Asia.

This operation is characterized in the article as "training."

I think it should be obvious from an informed reading of this news article what is really going on. While training may be part of the purpose of the operation, winning the hearts and minds (i.e. brainwashing with their own tax dollars) of ordinary Canadians for the agenda currently being pursued by the Canadian military and its institutional allies is a big part of this and other missions like it around the country.

And what exactly is the Canadian military doing in Afghanistan right now?

As Justin Podur and Sonali Kolhatkar have noted, certain Canadian generals' recent "comments can be understood as media operations intended to legitimize a more aggressive military role for Canada in the world." As the current dude in charge of our military, General Rick Hillier, bluntly put it, "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people."

The role of the US-led multinational occupation force in Afghanistan "is not peacekeeping, but rather the illusion of peacekeeping so as to make the installation of a US-friendly regime palatable to Afghanis," according to Kolhatkar and Podur. They go on to describe in detail the constructive things that other nations could be doing to support the reconstruction of Afghanistan after deacades of strife, but which the United States, Canada, and the rest of the West are not doing in any meaningful way.

They conclude:

Because the real reasons for intervention are not genuine help and solidarity, Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan has little relationship to what the people of that country actually need. Instead, under the guise of helping Afghanistan, Canada is actually providing a kind face to US contravention of the laws of war... Where the US military leads in the “war on terror,” Canada follows. The Canadian engagement in Afghanistan enables Canada to be a useful tool of American imperialism, a junior member of the “winning team.” The price of accommodation with empire is high for all involved. Those whose sovereignty is violated get the worst of it, facing hunger, disease, bombs, torture, and death. But for the accomplices, there is a steady diet of fear and racism, as well as the erosion of democracy, ethics, and even basic logic. That Canada is experiencing such erosion is evidenced by Major General Leslie being able to hold up a claim that killing young men overseas is worth dying for.

As this article notes, the Canadian military is not operatng (domestically) in a vacuum. There are a number of other powerful institutions in Canadian society that seem to be pursuing a similar agenda.

In other words, this psyop against my hometown is not just about drumming up popular support for Canadian complicity in U.S. imperial ambition in Afghanistan (while ignoring the very real needs of the Afghani people). It is about transforming the domestic political scene too. Soldiers on our streets are an embodied reinforcement of the media hysteria about "terrorism" and the supposed "clash of civilizations" and all of the other hype of fear and war and racism that permeates the media these days -- they are a physical and psychological assertion that all of that stuff applies to us too, and not just to the U.S. The agenda of changing the nature of Canada's support for U.S. war and empire -- the basic reality of that support has never wavered -- is tied to an agenda of neoliberalism, decreased social spending, and other right-wing goals.

This is particularly sad when I think about what the forces of the right want that agenda to mean for my hometown, its environs, and other parts of the country like it. This is an area that could never be considered left or even particularly open to the left, but there is diversity of opinion in the area, and historcally both Liberals and Conservatives (who, as I've written before, were both small-l liberals until relatively recently in Canadian history) have gotten elected at the provincial and federal levels. My partner's grandfather was the mayor of a nearby town for many years, and he was a member of the NDP.

In the federal election this past January, a Liberal -- a former local politician and reputedly a closeted gay man -- lost to a scary fundamentalist Christian conservative Conservative (who also happens to be the father of someone I played basketball with in high school). What the right in Canada wants to do is turn where I grew up into a carbon copy of analagous areas of the United States, where opinion might be similarly diverse but various factors mean that no-one who is not on the far right and preferably religious has much chance of getting elected. Anyone who reads the blog regularly knows I am no fan of Liberals or liberals, but it is still heart-wrenching to think that where I grew up might turn into a consistent base for oh-so-much-more-reactionary forces, and stay that way for a generation or more.

It also saddens me to think, with my activist hat on, about responding to this militaristic incursion if I were still living there. Something as simple as handing out leaflets against Canadian militarism on an urban street corner can be scary enough. Talking about peace and anti-imperialism tends to bring out the angry nutters, at least often enough that I would never want to do it alone. But think about doing that in a small town. If you were to live in my hometown and one day you decide to stand in front of the grocery store and hand out leaflets against the presence of the military, you become known for the next thirty years as 'that weirdo who hates Canada' by all the people in all the social networks you count on in your community.

And I also think about the starting point. To a certain extent, I think those of us active in urban areas tend to understand the consciousness of the people in our communities a bit simplistically when it comes to issues of peace and anti-imperialism. I think, for example, that though there are advantages to wearing our militancy on our sleeves at certain times and places, we might manage to be more effective overall if we allowed our understanding of "diversity of tactics" to extend towards what seems to be moderate as well as in more overtly militant directions. But even with that said, from my experience of that area growing up, it's still a different ball game. People there are most definitely not stupid, but the ways in which information flows in our society mean that you are quite likely to be talking to people who have never in their lives, or even in the lives of their ancestors, come into contact with ideas or stories or people that credibly present opinions to the left of social democracy. In East Hamilton, for example, you have a history of leftist agitation going back at least to the days of the Knights of Labor in the late 19th century, so you may not be met with support, but often enough where you are coming from is not completely alien. But where I grew up, and in much of rural and small-town Ontario, there is no history of that kind of idea, that kind of attitude, being present in the environment as a serious alternative. So you are starting from a lack of opportunity to access information outside of dominant channels (other than right-wing Christian sources), and often from a pretty big gap in terms of worldview.

This isn't to say that responding to the imperial and neoliberal agenda behind the presence of the military in my hometown would be impossible. But I really don't know how I would do it if I still lived there, and I doubt too many people, if any, will be doing it at all. And this means that lots of people whose actual values are not consistent with the full scope of the right-wing agenda being pushed by the presence of these troops will have their consciousness nudged towards greater acceptance of it.


Annamarie said...

Thanks for your compelling, highly-informative and disturbing post. I can understand why this 'psyop' in the small part of Canada where you grew up saddens you. It saddens and troubles me too even though I don't have the memories of my youth there.

This neoliberal path our country is traversing will lead us further away from the ideals that defined us as a peaceful sovereign nation and brings us ever closer to American ideology and foreign-domestic policy. To see it come about so soon -- and overtly -- fills me with foreboding and a deep sense of loss. This is not the country I grew up in. More and more I am feeling like an alien interloper. It is not what I had hoped we'd leave for for our future generations.

BTW, I am a supporter/activist for Homes Not Bombs. We are fighting an uphill battle which probably cannot be won. The hawks far outnumber the doves, not just here but world-wide. This fills me with utter hopelessness and despair.

Scott, I am a regular reader of your site. It is one of the best around. Thanks again.

Take care.


Scott said...

Hi Annamarie!

Thank-you so much for your kind words. It's always nice to know that these ideas that we throw out into the ether on our blogs reach eyes and brains on the other end, and that there are people out there who appreciate them!

Glad to hear you're active with Homes Not Bombs...other than making it to one vigil back in the fall out front of Joe Volpe's office (because I happened to be in Toronto then anyway) I haven't been particularly active with the group in a few years. However, I still keep in touch with folks in Toronto and Hamilton who have been involved, and am glad that that work continues.

And, because we lefties can't help but nitpick with each other as enthusiastically as we engage in struggle with the right -- ;) -- I would quibble with some of how you characterize where Canada has come from, but I certainly agree about the problems about where we are going. And I can understand the impulse towards despair, but there are also lots of reasons to be hopeful, lots of signs that the impulse to resist injustice stubbornly persists despite the best efforts by we privileged few in North America to pretend there are no problems and no need for change.

Thanks again for reading, and for commentng!


DesertPeace said...

Thanks for the reciprocal link Scott... much appreciated. I might not comment on all of your threads, but I do read them. Great job!

Scott said...

Hi desertpeace...glad to hear you're reading and liking!

And, yeah, I'm often the same way...I only occasionally comment on other peoples' sites, even when I love/hate what they've written...

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