Army and Air Force, working together (in information warfare)

New article up at MWI on the importance of bringing service-specific IO folks together in training and operations.

There are so many reasons to bring together the different IO stakeholders across the services. And while the below is the last reason, I actually think it might deserve top-billing.

If nothing else, even just the unique qualities everyone brings to the fight based on their respective service’s culture enables joint access to potential capabilities and personnel that might otherwise be missed or overlooked.

Breaking Out of Our Silos, Modern War Institute

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Ten Years of Carrying the Gun

Today is the tenth anniversary of Carrying the Gun.

Top Posts:
1. Company-Grade to Field-Grade: Introducing “Making the Switch”
2. TOC Operations: The nasty underbelly of the Infantry
3. Stanley McChrystal on FTGN Podcast

Ok, so it’s almost a little unfair to celebrate a ten year anniversary when the blog was silent for four of them. Still, I did start this thing ten years ago.

A big part of the reason I went silent was a significant job change coupled with a media environment that was growing dangerously toxic. It just wasn’t something I wanted to be a part of at the time. It was a good, and well-needed break. I don’t regret it.

It’s good to be back, but boy rebuilding an audience is a slog!

I’ve enjoyed bringing CTG back to life over the past nine months. I went into the process deliberately. I reached out to peers and mentors who all encouraged me to get back into it. I took the time to redesign the blog (logo, site theme, some rules for myself/self-publishing guidance). I launched a Twitter and Facebook account for the blog, and I created an IG where I could more readily indulge my hobbies, which I know is a major distraction for the primary audience of the blog who are usually more interested in military matters.

And I started a monthly email newsletter.

The newsletter is where I write what old fans of the blog might have come to expect from me – a bit more editorial, a bit more personal.

You should sign up.

As I’ve done on other anniveraries (one, two, three, – looks like I didn’t do a fourth – five), this is where I write a little recap of the year.

I started things slowly by reconstituing old posts, which was a bit labor intensive – there are hundreds of them. Shortly after the relaunch, I published a primer on Unit Training Mangement – a boring topic, to be sure, but probably one of the most important skill-sets in the Army these days. With a new focus on information warfare, I started writing on that and looking around for inspiration. The launch of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (and podcast) provided plenty of material to work with. I especially enjoyed writing about their “Masters of Irregular Warfare” episode. And I learned one of the most important phrases out there: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

I also enjoyed listening to and responding to From the Green Notebook podcasts. As you can see from the top, my review of the Stanley McChrystal episode was one of the top reads. Joe asks good questions, the types of questions I want to know the answers to. I’m less interested in career recaps and highlights and more interested in “how did you feel” and “what did you do – physically – in response to that.” When FTGN launched a podcast review contest, it was a no-brainer to enter, and I enjoyed the challenge of writing a response to three podcast episodes with a tight word count.

Lastly, I’ve enjoyed connecting with scholars of information warfare and FICINT futurists. I wrote an information warfare piece for Proceedings that captures how adversaries might weaponize information and our own chain of command to gain advantage. The opening uses a bit of FICINT to paint a picture of what this might actually look like and make it real. Future war is going to be different from anything we’ve experienced before – we have to be thinking forward – and laterally – if we are going to have any chance at victory.

The post that I wanted to do better than it did: “Toxic Mentorship through Boss and Snake.” The game reference probably scared too many people off. Toxic mentorship is such a real problem and it deserves more attention as we slam our fists on the table extoling the importance of mentorship.


There are two things that I’ve enjoyed most since brining CTG back online: 1) reconnecting with old fans, and 2) reaching new audiences. It is always a thrill to get a message from someone – especially folks I never even knew – who express joy that the site is back.

Most of these blog posts are written and torpedoed into the ether, and it’s never clear who is reading them or if they land. Getting those notes and feedback makes it worthwhile.

Likewise, it’s been fun to watch as the blog attracts new fans – especially as the site shifts towards more content on information warfare, political warfare, and psychological operations. To see folks from those communities find their way here is an indication that I’m shooting in the right direction.

During my hiatus, I continued to collect things that I want to write about, adding them to the already daunting list I’ve kept over the years. I’m in a great position right now to continue writing and exploring, and I intend on doing so.

Thanks for being a part of it. Here’s to to another ten years.

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Smith-Mundt as Counter-Political Warfare

Glad to see Matt Armstrong on a recent Cognitive Crucible podcast – this one on his passion project, the much-misunderstood “Smith-Mundt Act.”

If you’ve been around the “information operations” space, the Smith-Mundt act is usually taught during a class on “authorities.” There will be a slide that usually includes some text lifted from the act and then a “bottom line” that the US government is prohibited from informing/influencing/targeting/propagandizing/etc domestic American audiences.

Next slide, please.

Once that nugget buries itself into someone’s head, it gets carted out usually as a bulwark to doing anything in the info-space.

“Yes, but don’t forget the Smith-Mundt act…”

The history of the actual legislation is much more nuanced. Instead of “prohibiting” domestic dissemination, it was actually intended to “allow” dissemination abroad (by the State Department) as a direct counter to burgeoning Soviet political warfare.

“…we have nevertheless been too preoccupied in the past with feeding the stomachs of people while the Soviets have concentrated on feeding their minds.”

1947 European CODEL (MountainRunner)

If we’re going to conduct political warfare effectively, we have to understand this history. This is wonky territory, but that’s ok, because as Matt states in the episode, this stuff starts with President of the United States. It should be wonky – it’s incredibly important.

Anyway, the episode is worth your time – especially if you are an information warfare practicioner, or more importantly, if you are (or will be) in a position to make command decisions in an operational environment. You, more than anyone else, can make a huge impact if you understand what you can do – which is a lot.

Some interesting tidbits in this episode:

  • Opening: Defining “public diplomacy” and why that even matters
  • ~18:00: Smith-Mundt as a way to counter Russian political warfare
  • ~19:00: “We feed stomachs, the Russians feed minds…”
  • ~19:30: The importance of strategic vision – “We used to have an idea of where we were going…”
  • ~23:00: Our system is obsessed with bueracractic responsibility as opposed to methods, means, and outcomes – and this is bad
  • ~28:00: On the “terminal limits” of PSYOP leadership – if PSYOP officers terminate at the O6 level, can we really make a difference?
  • ~28:30: It is an unfortunate truth that the person who is most likely to influence an operational commander’s decision making is not the PSYOP officer giving advice on the psychological impacts of activities and operations, but the PAO, or worse, the JAG
  • ~37:00: “Stop it policy” – we are too reactive. Instead of seizing or defining the narrative, we are constantly reacting to nonsense in an attempt to “make it stop”
  • ~41:00: We need to get way more comfortable making mistakes – let subordinates fail in the IE – it’s ok – our adversaries are doing it every day
  • ~45:00: What even is “propaganda?”

Also, towards the end Matt references the fascinating topic of a PSYOP officer who wrote a book shortly after WWII arguing that influence operations should be banned via treaty. I’m now officially on the hunt for it.

It’s a great episode. Check it out.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Soldiers escorting trucks carrying concrete “T-Walls” (Source)

Gertude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.

Ouch.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.

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تجربة صغيرة

هذه تجربة صغيرة. انا دائما استكشف طرق جديدة لبلغ جماهير جديدة. و حتى الان، لم اكتب على هذا ‘بلوغب’ باللغة .العربية. احيانا ارد على تغريدات او تعليق في مواقع تواصل الاجتماعية في عربي، و لكن هذه المرة الاولى على البلوغ

.هناك سببان لهذه تجربة صغيرة

١ – تحسن ممارسة الكتابة في اللغة العربية

٢- بلغ جماهير جديدة

و طبعا، هناك بعض الاخطار في هذه تجربة ايضا. اولا، هذه لغة ليست لغتي الام و بسبب ذلك اتوقع ان اجعل كثير من الاخطاء. وثاني، اي شخص لا يستطيع ان يقراء العربي سيشعر بالاحباط ربما. واخيرا، سافتح نفسي لنقد اي وقت اكتب اي شيء، و الان سيكون الجمهور جديد

لذلك ، إذا انت زيارة هنا للمرة الاولى، يمكني ان اقدم نفسي قليلا. بدئت هذا بلوغ في سنة ٢٠١١ حين كنت طالب مجستير في لندن. كنت ادرس تجربة جنود عراقيين خلال عهد صدام و استعملت هذه بلوغ لاكتب بعض اشياء عنها. و الان، احب البحث و الكتابة عن حرب النفسية، حرب السياسية، و ثقافة العسكرية و غيرها. انا ايصا شخص يحب العاب فيديو و احيانا اكتب عن ذلك. عندي حساب تويتر و انستغرام ايضا. الان، استعمل تويتر لاشياء حدية مثل محادثات مهنية و اكتشاف الاخبار، و استعمل انستغرام لهواياتي. الان، انا العب لعبة “ميتل جير سولد ٣” و اشارك صور من اللعبة في انستغرام

!لا اعرف متى ساكتب في اللغة العربية، ممكن كل شهر، ممكن اقل. سنرى النتيجة

!شكرا جزيلا للقراءة

.تستمتعون هذه مقالات؟ تبعوني على تويتر و تسجلون لجريدتي الاكترونية.

Weaponization of benign activities

Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.

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The GWOT Effect

I’ve seen it, and I can explain it, but I never heard it put that way before.

“I saw the best minds of my generation sent off to divide by zero.”

It instantly makes sense.

What he’s talking about is the “GWOT effect.” Incredibly smart and passionate Amerians sent overseas to “win.”

You see it at all levels – from the soldiers on the ground to the Generals in the Pentagon.

If we could just find the right strategy, the right force mix, put the right nouns and verbs in the right order.

If we could have just – one – more – year – we can turn this thing around.

A few years ago, I saw the “GWOT Effect” perfectly captured in the back-and-forth between Brad Pitt and TIlda Swinton’s characters in the 2017 film War Machine. In it, General “McMahon” is briefing a pool of politicians on the strategy to win the war. It’s a brief he is used to giving because he’s done it over and over and over again – to soldiers, to staffs, to politicians, and to the media. He’s good at it. And people believe him. But here, in this one, he is challenged (Note: I couldn’t find the clip, so the dialogue will have to do – source).

German politician:  General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. This is correct sir?

General: Yeah.

German politician: You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once. Your own vice president has advocated a much smaller and simpler counterterrorism approach to incapacitate what is estimated to be a little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan to refocus on what it was that started this war in the first place.

General: Ah.

German politician: Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me there is no monolithic Taliban.  You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village. And that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.

General: Ah. Uh, with all due respect, ma’am. Uh I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life . . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. Hmmm?  Freedom, security, stability, jobs.  Progress is being made. Real Progress. But challenges do remain.

German politician: Yes, I understand all of that, General. And . . .and , please let me say quite sincerely that I do not question the goodness of your intent. I have been listening to you here this morning, and, uh. . . I believe you are a good man. I do. What I question is. . . your belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe. I question your belief in the power of your ideals.

General: Ah, well. . .

German politician: I think what I am trying to say, and I apologize, General, if this is sounding impolite, but I question your sense of self.

General: I appreciate your commentary. I do. But I have a job to do.

German politician: Yes, I understand, And I also have a job to do. And I’m trying to do mine. As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check. You have devoted your entire life, General, to the fighting of war.  And this situation in Afghanistan, for you, it is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life.

General:  Well. . . .

German politician: It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.


Of course we are going to try to win. That is the task. But there does come a point where it all seems to get a bit out of hand.

There’s another scene from War Machine that captures this idea. It’s a scene lifted almost directly out of the Michael Hasting’s article which the movie is based on. General McMahon is traveling Afghanistan, explaining to troops how to win the war.

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Information Warfare Leadership: Less Don Draper, more Colin Powell

I shared this great article from Matt Armstrong yesterday:

Matt, who has been researching and working in this field for decades, focuses his attention not on the tools of “information warfare” but on the policies and goals that drive it. His analysis (and I’m in agreement here) argues that it’s not about “crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium,” but instead about crafting the right policy and setting a course for others to follow.

Much of the discourse on information warfare/political warfare is centered on mediums, means, and platforms. That misses the point. As Matt writes, this stuff changes all the time and there are plenty of experts out there that now how to use it.

When dealing with massive bueracracies, it is critical to staff key positions with effective managers and leaders – not flashy pitch-men or media stars.

The article focuses on the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the fact that since 1999, the position has been vacant for 41% of the time. While I’m not an expert on the workings at State, if it’s similar to the military, we know that there’s a sense of “that’s not my real boss” when a position is held by a temporary (often junior) place-holder.

And that place-holder doesn’t carry the same weight in the rooms where decisions get made.

What should this leader look like? Matt writes:

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage.

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy – MountainRunner.us

I joked on Twitter that this person would be more Colin Powell than Don Draper. Colin Powell, although well-known as a military leader, was actually most effective as a Washington-insider. He spent most of the last decade and a half in and around the White House. He understood how the system worked, and people trusted him. Even as Secretary of State, he admitted in his most recent book that he often felt like he needed to stay in Washintgon (as opposed to constantly traveling) to make sure he could get things done.

My sense is that many folks think we need Don Draper in this position. A flashy ad-man who understands the media and can brief well. Don Draper needs to be way further down on the food chain – making ads.

It’s exciting to be living in a time where information warfare/political warfare is gaining attention, but I can imagine this can be frustrating to those who have been deep in the research and work for decades. Too much attention on the tools – the nouns and verbs – and not enough attention on the staffing and strategy.

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