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Rhetoric and argumentation don’t usually seem like tools of war.  Typically, we think of them as ways of preventing war; of wars as something that happens when rhetoric and

German stamp showing the pen and sword together, via Wikimedia Commons

argumentation (under form of diplomacy) fail.  A recent article changes this picture entirely. “Information Operations”, or “IO”: military operations with the general goal of influencing or compromising the decision making of adversaries or of protecting one’s own decision making from such interference, are now an openly acknowledged part of what the US military (and one would assume, that of many other nations) does. The article, “Military Social Influence in the Global Information Environment: A Civilian Primer” by Sara King, appears in the August 2010 issue of the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy and gives a strikingly detailed overview of IO. King supports her overview with ample evidence from actual uses of IO in current, and in some cases even ongoing conflicts. The article can be read online here in its entirety (at the time of this writing). Psychologist Vaughan Bell also has an interesting write up about the article on the blog Mind Hacks.

As King notes, it isn’t necessarily news that the military does this. What is news is the degree to which they do it comprehensively, and the degree to which the management of public opinion both abroad and at home is the focus of ongoing military concern.

This, I think, is something which scholars of argument and rhetoric should take very seriously. It raises a number of hard questions. Many will no doubt be horrified by the military’s use of techniques of persuasion across the smallest and largest of scales, but if the desired result is less use of lethal force, then how strenuous should those objections be made?  Similarly, while one might not object to IO aimed at making it harder for terrorists to recruit new members to their causes, it does to some degree compromise the autonomous decision making processes of the individuals involved–and isn’t this the very basis on which we would object to being subject to similar manipulations?  Does the fact that we are “at war” make it alright to do this? If so, why? To what degree?  And what does knowing that these kinds of operations are going on all the time do to our trustworthiness in traditional media outlets and the institution of journalism overall?  These and other questions, I think, are well worth our time. No matter how we answer them, the fact remains that some of the techniques we teach are now, for better or for worse, openly acknowledged weapons of war. It’s worth considering whether or not the ethical approach we take to teaching them needs reevaluation in that light.

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