May 1, 2007  

War of ideas: Review


The playground chant of "sticks and stones" is turned on its head in J. Michael Waller’s intriguing book "Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War," in which he argues that words, images and messages can, in fact, hurt a lot. And in the terrorism war, these are sorely underused strategic weapons that could be every bit as powerful as the conventional sticks and stones of war we prefer to hurl.

Waller’s concise book, published by the Institute of World Politics, where he is a professor of international communications, is at heart a cry for someone, somewhere to step up and lead the fight in the war of ideas. Whether this is a State or Defense Department role, the author remains circumspect.

Waller makes the case that the Islamist terrorist is successfully and without compunction using ferociously anti-American propaganda. Why then are Americans so slow and uneasy to fight like with like? Our idea of the ideas war is that we’ll win hearts and minds simply by communicating all the good things about us. Not enough, says Waller. American messages of democracy and friendship get tuned out in the urban street hellhole; we must also start dishing the dirt on our enemies.

The book is packed with action points that could be implemented rapidly and at little cost. We could, for instance, stop feeding the terrorist’s self-esteem and confirming his status as a martyr by using the term he selected for himself: jihad. The term "hirabah" has been defined as "killing by stealth and targeting a defenseless victim in a way intended to cause terror in society." This is an Islamic definition of terrorism the West could exploit.

Another strategic weapon could be public ridicule, which is more feared than death; it’s destruction without martyrdom. Waller’s justification for why ridicule works feels right. "It sticks. The target can’t refute it. It gets better with each re-telling." This stuff is so blindingly obvious and seemingly both clever and simple that it begs the question, "Why aren’t we already doing this?"

Is it too late to make any difference? Perhaps. But if this guide offers ways that could discredit, divide and ultimately squelch the enemy into a blob of irrelevance, then the debate shouldn’t be whether it’s too late; the question is how soon can we start?

An electronic version of the book is available through June.