Saturday, 15 September 2012

A not so subtle reminder ...

My friend and mentor, Phil Taylor, often explained to me why, despite being criticised for being 'inside' the system, of being too close and involved with his research subjects, he developed a close working relationship with the British and US militaries. For him, communications were a way of saving lives. It is always better to persuade and inform than to coerce and kill. Whenever a member of the British or US psyops teams was killed in action in Afghanistan or Iraq, Phil became depressed and withdrawn; he took each death personally.

Phil had been inspired when, during his PhD research, he found a record of an encounter at the end of the First World War between Lord Northcliffe, Director of Enemy Propaganda at Crewe House, and a General who asked Northcliffe what he had done during the war. Northcliffe replied, 'propaganda, that sort of thing.' The General growled, 'Filthy business,' to which Northcliffe replied, 'While you were piling up the casualty lists we were trying to cut them down. If I can persuade one German to throw down his rifle, I have deprived Germany of a soldier, without also having to kill the man.'

This had a profound impact on Phil and became the philosophical framework for his intellectual pursuits. All members of the military who paid tribute to him after he passed away remarked on his commitment to 'propaganda for peace.' His good friend, Professor Stephen Badsey, recalled how, on a visit to the Tyne Cot World War One Cemetery, Phil was angered by the sight of rows of white headstones: 'This just shows how important psyops are for us now,' he said.

I was reminded of Phil last week as I attended a wonderful conference organised by my colleagues in Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) London on the theme Globalisation and Security Across the Taiwan Strait. One panel was devoted to military matters and, following a theoretical paper about the possibility of conflict and an interesting discussion by American colleagues on cyberwarfare, an academic working in an American military academy took to the podium. His paper was little more than a salute to military hardware, and his powerpoint presentation showed a succession of photographs of the planes, trucks and missiles that Taiwan's military might use to defend itself in the event of an attack from the PRC. I became increasingly disturbed and ran through a gamut of emotions - distressed, nauseous, angry, repulsed - as we were told 'some arms races are affordable' and 'mines are beautiful.' Some of my fellow participants looked decidely uncomfortable. I decided to challenge the paper presenter about his comments.

I thanked the panel for reminding me how important it is to continue working on communications, soft power and public diplomacy so we can try to avoid having to use such hardware. I told the presenter that military hardware is not 'beautiful'; the pictures he had shown were of ugly, brutal machines designed to destroy, maim and kill humans. Children in parts of Africa, Central America and South East Asia who stand on landmines left over from conflicts in the last three decades see no beauty in the devices that wound or kill them. His failure to mention casualties at all in his presentation was a serious omission. Moreover, no arms race is affordable; every $1 million spent on such military hardware is $1 million that could have been spent on a hospital, a school, or improving the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. Which is more effective, someone asked, an F15 or an F16? Which should Taiwan prioritise? When you are the target of its missiles, is there really any difference?

This conference was a stark reminder to me that despite the often abstract and critical discussions we have about soft power, public diplomacy, and international communications in general, they can and do have an impact: such proccesses can play a central role to play in policy-making; in persuading governments that there really is an alternative to hard power; and that the academic labels we attach to such communicative activities is less important than their application and the recognition that it is always preferable to persuade than to coerce. I left the conference realising that it is more important than ever that we continue Phil's work and for the same reasons. Not such a 'Filthy business' after all ...




  1. i am touched. A good one Gary, and inspiring too.

  2. Thanks Farid. I was very angry at the conference, but in a strange way, also inspired.

  3. Thanks, Gary, for this piece. I am trying to continue that spirit of intellectual pursuit--propaganda for peace--that I learned from Phil.

  4. Inspiring as it is. Communication has always been the best key to build long lasting relationships. Although this write-up has made me really emotional and inspired, this one also made me as tough as this man. Keep it up!