The counter influence operations safety brief

I was listening to a recent podcast of The Cognitive Crucible featuring Dr. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute where they were discussing the challenge of foreign influence operations in the smartphone era. Specifically, they were discussing the fact that our service members are active target audiences of foreign adversaries, and this manifests mostly online.

To date, there have not been a lot of great suggestions on how to combat this. The most common recommendation is some version of digital literacy traning with modules that would discuss things like foreign influence operations, source checking, and bias. This sounds good – and honestly, it might be one of the only things we can do – but if the only thing we do is add another annual yearly training, my gut tells me this will fail.

Off the cuff, one of the participants in the podcast brought up the standard formation speech, and how odd it must be for a commander to have to address his or her formation and warn about foreign influence operations that are targeting them through their smartphones. Put that way, it sounds kind of conspiratorial, but we know it’s real.

Which got me wondering: are commanders out there discussing this with their formations?

Certaintly these things are known and discussed in the special operations community, but what about the rest of the military?

I’ve never been a big fan of the weekend safety brief – as both the guy in the back standing ‘at ease’ and the guy up front doing the best he can. They can sometimes seem disingenuous, often just a list of the things that need to be discussed to ensure everyone was warned.

On the other hand, the formation speech is a powerful platform for a commander to make a claim and empahsize what is important. If done well, this can have a tremendous impact. I can think back on formation speeches from twenty years ago that have stuck with me. One of my Battalion Commander’s ended every speech with “Take care of your three feet of space,” a maxim that kind of wraps up everything in eight words. Frequency, by the way, is an important tool in getting your point across. Say it, say it again, and keep saying it – the more mediums, the better.

Discussing a list of all the ways a soldier can hurt themselves or get in trouble will likely be ignored.

But what if instead of that list, a commander just spoke about foreign influence operations for a few minutes? Would that have an effect?

I don’t think it would change much, but I’ve also been repeatedly surprised by the things that I assume everyone in a formation knows, only to later learn they only just learned it after myself or someone else informed them in some innocuous way.

And at the very least, it would be informative. The military faces a litany of challenges every day, both internal and external. Foreign influence operations are one of them. We don’t have all of the solutions (and likely won’t ever have all the solutions), but just like everything in the militay, commanders play a key role. The way that a commander communicates about this specific challenge could have an impact.

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The Best Years of Our Lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

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Starting social media over feels like New Game+ mode

Had this thought the other day as I continue to slog through rebuilding. When I pulled the plug in 2016, I was in a pretty good place. My Twitter/Facebook accounts had thousands of followers and just about every blog post got attention. Daily traffic to CTG was high. It was something I had built over five years.

And then zap – it’s all gone.

Well the blog is still here and has plenty of followers. And each day I am moving forward towards a goal of rebuilding.

The whole thing feels very similar to what happens when you beat a video game, and then are offered the opportunity to replay the game in “New Game+” mode. New Game+ is where you get to play the whole thing over from the beginnning, but you retain whatever skills, equipement, and experience you earned in the first playthrough. The experience is also easier because you know the rules of the game and have gotten pretty good. I know how to write, I know the world map, and I know which oracles to visit. It’s definitely starting over with an advantage. The goal of New Game+ mode is to explore the things you missed while getting another opportunity to enjoy the game.

But boy, it’s still a slog.

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…and PSYOP in one more place

Before I pressed “publish” on yesterday’s roundup of PSYOP across recent podcasts, I paused, thinking I had heard PSYOP discussed on at least one more podcast, but I couldn’t remember.

Then, today, I remembered it was this one – straight from the Mother Ship. Really great episode that discusses narrative.

I had even made a note to write about that one. There’s a discussion on the type of skills needed to conduct influence operations (cultural competence, language proficiency, media fluency, etc.).

With slight tweaks, it’s the same argument that flag officers and senior defense civilians pounded their fists about in the mid-2000’s when we were fighting COIN.

“We need people who speak the language, soldier-scholars, a modern day Lawrence of Arabia..”.

I forget who said it (Andrew Exum?) but there is a quote somewhere out there about how if we need PhDs to fight our wars we have already lost. Maybe.

Anyway, during the discussion, there’s a question as to whether we have those folks or could get them, train them.

The reality is, building those skill sets takes a long time. Years. And specialized study. These are skills that cannot be fully trained during a standard military course.

However, they can be achieved over time. Those people exist. There are lots of folks who have put in the work. Part of the problem is by the time these skill sets are actualized, the folks who can use them are usually billeted in positions where they are no longer that useful.

Still, I think there is a way for individuals to “worm” their way to the job where they might be most effective, but it really should be the other way around. Identify talent, and put that person where he or she is needed and where their talents can be fully exploited.

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PSYOP, PSYOP, everywhere

Just a quick post to point out that I’ve seen PSYOP leaders making the rounds this past week on at least two separate podcasts.

First, from the Cognitive Crucible / PSYWAR Podcast:

This is a very special dual release episode of the Cognitive Crucible. Our friends over at the PSYWAR podcast are also releasing this via their channel. During this episode, IPA founding member, Austin Branch, is joined by COL Jeremy Mushtare, who commands the US Army’s 8th Psychological Operations Group. Jeremy discusses PSYOP manpower matters and then Austin contrasts roles and responsibilities between PSYOP soldiers and FA30s who tend to be more on the staff integration side of information operations. Then, the discussion turns to cognitive security partnerships, competition below the level of armed conflict, and initiatives.

About the PSYWAR Podcast: Cognitive Crucible listeners can follow this link and check out the PSYWAR podcast. The PSYWAR podcast demystifies psychological operations, informs soldiers about how they can join the PSYOP regiment, discusses the future of Information Warfare, and sprinkles in some cool war stories.

And then, quite boldly, COL Jason Smith and COL Jeremy Mushtare (4th and 8th PSYOP Group Commanders) joined US Army WFT Nation radio for a discussion on PSYOP. I haven’t listened to this one yet, but looking forward to it.

It is refreshing to see this increased appetite for getting out there and telling the story. There’s a lot of good work being done and there’s no reason to be shy.

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