Beat them to the punch

jonah jameson throwing something in spidermand

Fascinating episode of the Pineland Underground featuring former Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (SEAC) John Wayne Troxell.

Lots of interesting takes from the former SEAC on messaging, the role of social media in the modern military (both good and bad), and choosing whether to be an enabler or an agitator in retirement.

What I found particularly interesting was his vignette early in the episode about the E-Tool incident.

Somehow, I missed all that at the time.

While that story is interesting as it stands, I found the behind-the-scenes discussion about it especially compelling.

While visiting troops and making comments suggesting the E-Tool could be used as a non-standard weapon in the fight against ISIS (it absolutely can), a reporter who heard the remarks and took offense told him that he was going to make them public.

So I called up my trusty Public Affairs guy… and I said this reporter is going to go public with this and he said “Well let’s beat him to the punch.”

SEAC(R) John Wayne Troxell, Pineland Underground Podcast ~6:45

So, a picture of the CSM holding an E-Tool with a defeat ISIS message was put together and shared on social media. And of course, like all effective messaging, it garnered strong opinions, some in support, some against.

It’s another example of the importance of getting to the story first. Framing matters. And being shy in the information space can easily put you on the defensive.

What makes these types of efforts successful? A supportive chain of command that is willing to accept failure. And if there are failures, learn from them and move on. Leaders get timid in the information space when they believe that one errant move can implode a mission, a team, or a career.

We’re willing to send them up that hill or around that corner or into that breach, fully knowing the potential outcomes. We can’t continuously lament that we’re “getting our asses kicked” in the information environment while simultaneously eating ourselves alive whenever something we put out there actually does well.


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Polite propaganda

rush radio journal image

My podcast diet continues to grow.

I recently finished the first three episodes of the RUSI Journal Radio – each focusing on different aspects of information warfare.

The Royal United Services Institute is a UK-based think tank. It turns out they have a bunch of different podcasts.

Here are the first three:

Episode 1: The Realities of Information Warfare

Episode 2: Emotion as a Policy Tool

Episode 3: 21st Century Propaganda

I especially enjoyed the discussion in episode 2 regarding measures of effectiveness (and the fact that they are often meaningless).

While discussing atmospherics, the host asks “how do you measure it?”

It’s hard. It’s not something easy, especially in a discipline or in an environment such as policy-making where we like things to be quantified. We want metrics to be able to show that something has impact.

But having worked in politics and policy for a few years, I’ve come across people, often politicians, strategic communicators, very good strategists, who have this innate and intuitive sense of ‘this is the mood right now, this is the moment, something has changed.’

Claire Yorke, Emotion as a Policy Tool, ~5:00

The conversation moves onto the qualitative aspects of analysis – which is something that doesn’t lend well to putting numbers on a chart. We trust this analysis because it comes from someone who has put in the work and has studied the subject matter over time.

We shouldn’t need to be wowed by the methedolgy.

We can measure things this way, and yes, it is subjective. But that’s ok.

So to measure it is subjective and we have to be comfortable with the ambiguity and the subjectivity of it.

This podcast also has the calmest, unimposing intro music of any I’ve heard. A welcome break from the hum of impending doom that begins most American security-themed podcasts.


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Unblurring the truth

big boss looking into a mirror he just smashed

Nice series from the Pineland Underground on misinformation/disinformation – with an aim at building resiliency and preventing being duped.

These episodes are short, each hovering around 10 minutes.

They also link to a great repository of additional information if you want to go deeper.

A very good – and necessary – initiative.


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How low can you go?

plane dropping a like bomb

I was pleased to see this short article on the need to empower “low-level commanders” to counter information operations.

It leads off which that oft-repeated mantra “we’re getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

“I think we’re getting, and I’m on the record, I think we’re getting our rear end handed to us in the information space because we’re so risk-averse in the environment that we operate in today,” Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck said yesterday, during a presentation with the Air Force Association.

I actually don’t think that is true (that we’re getting our asses kicked). I think it’s much more complicated than that. Which information environment? Billboards in X Middle Eastern country? Facebook in India? The nightly news in the US? The front page of the New York Times?

When you are the United States, there is going to be bad press. That can make it “feel” like we’re losing.

But when you look at things from the other perspective, we’re actually a behemoth.

Beyond that, the article discusses the need to push the authority to “do things” in the information environment lower.

“I think we need to be a little more aggressive,” he said. “I think, right now, we should change the paradigm [for] the way we do information operations.”

100% agree. Push it down lower. Give left and right limits. Accept risk

“That is a very slow process, and in the environment we’re operating in right now … in about 12 hours to 24 hours in the information space, you’re irrelevant. It has moved on,” he said. “I believe we need to flip that paradigm and push down, use mission command — the lanes in the road, the rules of the road — and allow commanders of the lower level to be able to execute within the mission environment that we’re operating in to be more effective in real time.”

Yes. I really do think that senior leaders get it. They know that things need to change.

How low should we go?

I think we should go pretty darn low.

Validate teams who are trained and educated, give them left and right limits, and let them go.

When they mess up, back them up.

Until we start embracing failure in the IE (instead of waiting for the perfect alignment of words and images), we will continue to “feel” like we are getting our asses kicked.


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It’s action, not information, that matters in IW

Train explosion from Lawrence of Arabia film
No, we're not "getting our asses kicked" in the information environment.

I’ve got so much more to say about this, but for now, this will have to do.

No, we don’t “suck” at information warfare.

Just because someone else out there – some adversary – can slap some memes together doesn’t mean that we’re “getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

If you hang around the IW circus long enough, you come to realize that what actually matters are the actions and events that take place in the real world – not the flashy media that comes along with it – or behind it.

Oh, it can certainly move the needle – and it can serve as an accelerant.

Too much of a focus on pure information operations means you’re just spouting propaganda – in the worst sense of the term. That is, words and images without real meaning.

Like I said, I’ve got more to say about this and it’s on the list of things to do. I’ll get there.

In the interim, I’d urge you to push back when someone states categorically “we suck at IW.”

It’s very easy to say that we’re not good at something and be praised for it, and then go on about how we have to “do better.”

Do better how? Give me an example.

They usually don’t know what they’re talking about.


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Watching it happen

chinook in kabul

I’ve written about this before.

And it’s happening again.

We’re living in a very strange time, where events are beamed to our televisions, computers, and phones as they happen.

Real people are out there – in the arena – doing incredible things and experiencing real trauma.

And we watch – in real-time – and critique, scowl, and gossip.

The flash-to-bang is getting shorter and shorter. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were the opening acts.

January 6th and the fall of Kabul are the most recent manifestations of this phenomenon.

Things used to happen and then you’d read about it, dispassionately, in a newspaper the morning after. If you were lucky, there was a picture that accompanied the article.

Today it’s all reaction and little reflection.

Emotion and absence of mind.


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We only know because there is video

jennifer anniston on the morning show

Have you noticed that when you watch the news these days (if you watch the news at all) the most inane things will be presented as important enough to deliver to an audience of millions of people? Cars falling off bridges, close encounters with dangerous animals, fights at restaurants in cities far away, and on and on.

Why?

Because there is video.

This isn’t new. As humans, we have a bias towards imagery, especially video. We want to see it.

But with the proliferation of smartphones – just about everyone has a recording device in their pocket – the opportunity to capture excting events has ballooned.

Video is engaging. Video is emotional.

Often, while watching the news, I’ll get sucked into whatever is being shown to me and have to remind myself that this is only news because someone captured it on their smartphone. The national news would not waste the precious seconds reporting to me the facts of a bear attack in Wisconsin without video of the encounter – no one cares.

It’s just something to think about if you find yourself getting charged up about something you see on television (or online). Would you actually care if someone told you about the event or you read about it in the newspaper? Or do you only care because you were able to see it?

And does that distinction matter?

I think it does.


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Media war in Iraq

From Al-Monitor:

In a span of less than three months, five “new pro-Iran militias” have announced their plans to escalate attacks on US forces in Iraq. Some of them have claimed responsibility for major anti-American attacks. But evidence indicates this is a propaganda campaign conducted by existing militias rather than an actual escalation. The main desire common among these groups is avenging the death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMU) military leader who was assassinated by the United States alongside Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, in January.

Pro-Iran militias in Iraq wage ‘fake news’ campaign against US – Al Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East

So much noise in the Iraqi media environment. If you take the time to dig through it, there is a lot to learn.


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Stop saying “boots on the ground”

I hate the term “boots on the ground.” I’m not sure when or where it originated, but it’s been used with more frequency lately in discussions about potential deployments to Iraq to battle “Daesh.”

What bothers me about the term is the almost playful way it is tossed around. We don’t discuss with any seriousness the mobilization of hundreds or thousands of troops or the costs involved – both before, during, and after the conflict. All of that is reduced to the childlike physical imagery of “boots on the ground.”

Instead of that throw-away term, it would be better and more useful to talk about how we plan on committing ground forces in a straightforward matter without metaphor or simple imagery. What is usually meant when someone says “no boots on the ground” or that “we need boots on the ground” is the commitment of ground maneuver forces, whether they be infantry, armor, or special forces.

I recognize that “boots on the ground” as a term is easily digestible for a media-saturated public and it gives anchors and editors a great lede or headline. “Boots on the ground” is media-ready in the ilk of “wardrobe malfunction” and “thinspiration.” The commitment of ground forces – or any forces, for that matter – is one deserving a deeper discussion.

Further, there are serious ethical questions worth exploring on why it is palatable to take military action so long as there are no “boots on the ground.” Technology has developed to the point where we can pursue fairly robust military action without significant – if any – “boots on the ground.”

Lastly, whenever I hear the term, I think of this:


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