Scared Into Submission

In the late 1800s Jeremy Bentham invented a new jail design, which he called the Pan Optiplex, or Pan OpticonD—which means all seeing in Latin. The prison was arranged in a semicircle with cells that faced a guard tower, positioned in such a way that the guards could see the inmates, but the inmates couldn’t tell if they were being watched. The principle was psychological; if the inmates believed they were being watched, they’d behave themselves. Any human being will behave differently if they think they’re being watched, which is why behavioral scientists who want to watch people (or other animals) go out of their way to hide behind two-way mirrors and concealed cameras. Conversely, it’s why the cheapest “security” measure is a realistic looking dummy camera mounted somewhere conspicuous.

In the war we’ve just wrapped up in Iraq we saw the deliberate use of conspicuous observation on the battlefield. Some have speculated that reporters had been embedded with specific units in order to conduct a magic trick on a large scale. The magic, in this case, is indirection—and stage magicians use this by hiring sexy women in revealing costumes to act as their assistants. You look at the girl and the flash-powder explosions and your eyes aren’t looking at the magician palming a card. Penn & Teller perform a trick on stage where an almighty big bang goes off at the back of the auditorium, shocking the entire audience into turning around to look behind them, while something obvious and sneaky happens on the stage. So by embedding reporters in some units, attention is drawn away from others who can conduct business that the Pentagon doesn’t wish to explain.

There’s nothing to suggest this isn’t true, but the Pentagon could have killed three birds with one stone. In addition to the above, embedding reporters applies the pan opticon effect on the soldiers of that unit and makes them behave better than they would’ve. Back home we get 24/7 footage of professional, honorable soldiers, giving the whole US operation a cleaner image than it deserved.

This effort probably wasn’t put on entirely for home consumption, though, because having a positively enhanced image of war and liberation is a powerful diplomatic weapon, too. War has always been about directly achieving political goals, and a useful byproduct of victory has always been the ability to swing a credible threat at the negotiating table afterwards. But now a new variant of war may have been invented: war as a factory for desirable byproducts.

This would be a type of war that’d join the armory of methods we already know: terrorism, guerilla warfare, conventional warfare, deterrence-based warfare (the Cold War and the realm of nuclear weapons), shadow warfare (spies and covert ops), and trade war. This new type of war would be fought with separate units, where the soldiers carry guns as usual but trained to be more like method actors than regular soldiers.

In pan-opticon warfare, the creation of a diplomatically useful image is more important than the battlefield objective. This makes it possible to “lose” but still win, if for example, it creates the impression of your enemy as a man who fights dirty in order to win, and creates an impression of your soldiers as men who fight honorably even when it’s futile. That doesn’t mean you have to lose the battlefield objective, it just means such an event isn’t always a disadvantage (or even unintentional).

The image that’s been manufactured by the war can then serve a political use. If it succeeds in casting your side as honorable and heroic liberators and your enemy as a villain then it can make it politically possible for hesitant allies to stand by your side in public, make it harder for your enemy’s supporters to do the same for him, thwart enemy attempts to demonize you, and even take the wind out of the sails of your internal critics. In Iraq a higher objective than deposing Saddam Hussein was to humiliate the Arab world into change, and with the combination of indirectional reporting, and the behavior of troops aware of cameras, made not only the fall of Baghdad appear relatively painless, but made the Americans look magnanimous.

All this from putting a camera in with the men; cameras seem to make soldiers suck in their tummies more, wear braver and prouder expressions, and above all, stops them from misbehaving on live TV.

And if pointing a camera at our own troops has an effect on the way they behave, it may be worth a shot to see how it affects the enemy as well. Not at the level of generals and presidents, but at the level of grunts who may see a camera and decide, at that moment, not to fight because they feel an unseen audience of billions judging them that instant. Surrenders were already seen as likely in Iraq, but perhaps we might see a specific trend after someone tabulates the figures for units assigned a reporter, and those units without. If we do, then the camera will have gone from a passive gatherer of intelligence to an active element of battlefield psychological operations.

The Pan Optiplex of Jeremy Bentham’s imagination didn’t go away, in fact all modern jails include the element of constant perceived surveillance for the psychological effect it has, more than to catch anyone in the act of misbehaving. And what works there can work everywhere, and it can scale up to any level, because the pan-opticon effect works as long as you think you’re being watched, so it can work even if you aren’t, in fact, under active surveillance. A camera doesn’t actually have to be there so long as you believe there is. So let’s say the ghost of Candid Camera is ressurected in a rash of Reality TV shows that focus on filming people who aren’t aware of it, like “Scare Tactics” on the Sci-Fi channel, and they slowly begin to convince all of us that, at any moment, we may be on camera…


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