Friday, November 6th 2015
To think offense – and for concepts “outside the box” – call a Marine.
“In an information wilderness in which massive battles of ideas are raging and ideas are used as weapons, a defensive strategy is only part of the solution. The services must go on the offense in more than just covert and clandestine intelligence and cyber actions. They need the capability to launch or strongly support ideas as well, and should do so through the most effective medium they have: the individual soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine.”
This radical call for decentralization and empowerment was made by Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel G. John David, a student at the Inter-American Defense College, in an article, “Taking the Offensive,” in the October, 2015, issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He described the current Joint Information Environment (JIE) as a well-protected, defensive “stockade.” Borrowing from the concept of the “strategic corporal” as a key to the success of American arms, he argued that an offensive posture must rely on individuals rather than tight message control.
I’ve bulleted a few of Lieutenant Colonel David’s many fresh observations. (The italicized subheads are mine.) The opening of the article reframed the contest of ideas over the internet compared to the information strategies of the Cold War. Lieutenant Colonel David then looked at conceptual dilemmas for free societies. The final section of the article called for multiplying “social-media internet drivers” by empowering individuals. If your time is short, the last paragraph sums up his main point.
- The information age has not augured the great era of interpersonal understanding that some thought it would, as illustrated in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s concept of the “end of history.”
- Instead, it portended the surfacing and proliferation of new or previously latent conflicts. In the relative cacophony, virtually any set of ideas can find supporters.
- Broad, loosely defined groups can more easily achieve a general direction, especially if they align with historically deep and powerful convictions such as religion, political ideologies, or ethnicities.
- Some of these groups have taken exception to the contemporary world order and raised their issues in the public domain of the information environment to air their grievances and establish “information poles” around which to congeal a human group. Many such poles eschew traditional agglomerations—nation-states, institutions, etc.—in favor of a new form of group defined by its information connection.
A look back at the ideological dimension of the Cold War
- Among the premises of the Cold War was that the “free world” was free also in the exchange of information and public debate. Ultimately, although a variety of government-sponsored information campaigns existed, U.S. strategy amounted to allowing the sheer weight of Western culture and volume of consequent information to drive the basic narrative against the totalitarian-controlled adversaries of communist governments that could not compete with the messages of the West.
- U.S. government initiatives functioned best when broadly supporting the basic values outlined in the Constitution instead of attempting to restrict adversarial notions.
- The Soviet reality was the reverse: Defending against adversarial notions by restricting them was essential to maintaining the control of the state.
- Modern adversaries continue to include closed, controlling nation-states afraid of public debate, such as North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Emerging peer-competitors such as China and nation-state adversaries organized on alternate lines, like the politico-religious autocracy of Iran, also fit this description.
- Yet the scope of modern adversaries also includes extremists who are willing to use violence to achieve their aims and are linked to larger movements and groups by their ideas through modern networks. These latter transnational groups, unlike the closed nation-state, operate almost entirely in the freely available, commercial information space . . .
- Such groups are not defending large, closed, state-sponsored information domains. They instead broadcast actions to as wide an audience as possible as a demonstration of power and impunity. These open ideas are the principal weapons of adversaries seeking to influence representative governments and groups.
- Similarly, the ideas serve a host of supporting purposes: the recruitment, sustainment, support, and propagation of ideology.
Dilemmas for the “Western-style republic”
- Terrorism is a tactic adapted to the open Western-style republic. Because it requires an open flow of information, Western-style republics need to be able to respond offensively—even preemptively—with their own convincing ideas, but face three major problems in doing so.
- First is the limit of public debate that the battle entails. If free and open public debate is a value and a goal, the discussion is always about inclusion rather than exclusion.
- Second, due to the tension in the modern republic between representation and leadership, service and power, and liberty and equality, governments are constrained in their ability to assert messages: detailed, positive, international rallying cries around which to mount an information offensive. … If the government is open to a large range of values, however, it is difficult for it to declare what are “good” values in the details.
- Should a republic go on the information offensive, however, it has to construct its own alternate vision in some detail to show that “truth, justice, and the American way,” for example, are positive. Doing so beyond the basic themes risks accusations of propaganda and/or thought control.
- Third is the weakness of consensus themes. In the absence of a clear-cut case of national survival, a republic would need to mount an offensive information campaign by using a consensus platform encompassing as many as possible of the values of the broadest electorate to remain nationalistic. . . . Diluted messages of this sort are unlikely to motivate anyone, much less combat powerful, virulent visions of distinction, exclusion, or totalitarianism.
- None of this makes the Western-style republic helpless, despite the false starts of recent years such as the Pentagon’s information-operations programs or the executive strategic-messaging attempts, which were all ridiculed in the media and academia. . . . . This is so hard that the U.S. government has been unable to find the right minds and methods to do so despite having what is probably the world’s broadest and deepest pool of innate talent.
Information drivers and individual initiative:
- Among the surprising facets of the information age are the many individuals who achieve prominence and popularity through their novel information access. “Information drivers” appear from any background or class; these individuals show an affinity for a given kind of medium and act on it. We know that social media, blogs, texts, tweets, posts, and pictures drive international events/opinions and fascinate publics worldwide, seemingly in an instant.
- That would suggest that the greatest pool of potential information drivers in the new battles of ideas are the many individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and defense civilians who comprise the defense establishment. These are known patriots, despite a wide variety of personal convictions.
- The defense community in general and the military in particular, however, are notorious for limiting access to information for a variety of reasons, including operational security, counterintelligence, inadvertent disclosure, and the shocking betrayals of the past. However, those betrayals, given the numbers involved, are relatively few.
- As the Cold War demonstrated, such a closure strategy cedes the initiative to the adversary.
- Aside from inadvertent disclosure, defense personnel must be treated responsibly enough to share ideas; they are, after all, trusted enough to carry a weapon in an international theater in front of the world’s media. Somewhere in this huge pool of defense-associated individuals is the next set of social-media information drivers.
- Trusting the individual service member and defense employee to be an agent of ideological change requires the defense establishment to honor the responsibility it has long claimed lies at the heart of its core values: that service members and defense employees are representatives of the United States. Adversaries certainly take them that way.
- The trust required to treat them accordingly, however, is a far higher standard than is the current practice of reviewing all information before it leaves departmental channels. Any such process, as closed systems have previously shown in China and elsewhere, will never keep pace with the current world.
- Defense has practiced in the past successful paradigms, such as public-affairs guidance, to let service members know the general lines of operation along which to react to questions and translation cards in theater to let patrols know how to communicate. These are guidelines to follow. The ends are clear (information dominance), and the means are known (producing and promulgating popular and effective messages); the ways are through loosely guiding the individual voices of defense patriots.
- The JIE would protect its base from intrusions and provide connectivity but allow individuals to attack in a distributed fashion. This is not current practice; the typical response across the DOD is to close the connection to the outside world, especially the Internet, whenever danger seems imminent.
- In comparison to the broader information world, today’s closed JIE realm is defensive, like the tightly shut realm of the Cold War Soviet Union; this is untenable and an unnatural position for Americans.
- . . . today’s information environment favors individual contributions, which are seen as valid and unique; while a press release can easily be painted as “spin,” an individual blogger can garner support through the assumption of authenticity awarded by his or her personal perspective.
- The individuals—active, reserve, and civilian—who comprise the defense institution are the nation’s most loyal; they must be allowed to attack on the information battlefield. At some point, they must go on the offense if the stockade is to remain secure.
- In the past, the information fight was won simply by the free exchange of the public at large, but that is no longer enough; we must take initiative. The government has ample representatives who can test offensive tactics to get their ideas onto the information battlefield.
- The details of the American way are in the end less important than the American way itself writ large, its trust for its representatives, its power in the thoughts of its individuals, and its exceptionalism as the right way. The JIE is the base camp, stockade, and trench system; the individual service member and defense employee are the warriors. It’s time to go over the top of the trench and into the attack.