During an exposure event to the Marine Corps Planning Process, the notional higher headquarters instructed the student planning team to handle all media requests and media personnel movement in the combat space. At first I thought it was strange, but I soon saw it as an opportunity to support information warfare. Military leaders need to reframe the narrative on media integration as an opportunity rather than a constraint. Operations in the information environment are not limited to the highest levels of authority. Embedding members of the press at the tactical level can be an effective way to counter adversary disinformation campaigns and help shape potential conflicts. Military leaders should incorporate integrated media into garrison training at the tactical level.
Information as power
Passive information warfare is one of many instruments a nation can use to achieve its strategic objectives. Yet the US military struggles to effectively communicate the most basic actions, including tactical military operations, to international audiences. Information and the ability to communicate that information to those outside US borders is critical to rebutting adversary propaganda.
With the establishment of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953, the United States created a global public relations network to explain United States principles and policies to the world and at home. Voice of America presented a balanced view of American actions and ideas in countries that had to rely on state-controlled sources of information.1
During the Cold War, the USIA established several outlets around the world as part of a larger containment strategy. Radio Free Europe, one of these channels broadcasting in Europe, has gained credibility by reporting not only on the problems of the European continent, but also on national problems in the United States. He challenged communist regimes and movements in Eastern Europe and played “an important role in the collapse of communism and the rise of democracies in post-communist Europe”.2 But as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, despite the invention of modern communications, the United States now struggles to develop an information strategy to counter and combat nations that threaten its peers. at their home.3
Globalization and the expansion of social media have intensified the speed at which information is shared. Adversaries exploit this by disseminating information – however true – to discredit Western intentions. These challenges are compounded at home by ratings-driven cable news networks that compete for viewership.
A capacity gap
For the Navy-Marine Corps, one of the difficulties in meeting these challenges is the reluctance to delegate responsibility to the commander at the tactical level. In the Marine Corps, communications strategy and operations are general officer level capabilities. Lower level commands must seek help from a higher command to issue press releases. Media participation in a training exercise or even small-scale unit events comes up against bureaucratic hurdles. In future combat, tactical level units will not be familiar with media integration.
Achieving strategic-grade messaging in the time required by today’s peer-to-peer threat operating environment depends on the ability to close the “flash to bang” gap. The services should reinvigorate relations between members of the press and the tactical level military.
An active media presence
The day after the last US forces left Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, a pro-China newspaper published a scathing editorial in Taiwan. He argued that the United States could not be trusted and that Taiwan’s relationship with the United States was likely to sever at the first sign of conflict. The counter-argument in the international press was lackluster. Combine that with images of the chaos of the evacuation, and the United States has fallen behind in the message battle.
The image that ran through the growing ‘abandonment’ narrative was that of Sergeant Nicole Gee holding a newborn Afghan baby with the caption: ‘I love my job’. Sergeant Gee’s photo was his own, taken in the days before his death in the terrorist attack on the airport. The photo supported the narrative desired by the United States: We will leave no one behind.
Sergeant Gee’s social media post was competitive because it came from the tactical level. She told the story from inside the security perimeter as the media reported the chaos outside the airport.
During the Vietnam War, journalists regularly joined units to record events for the public thousands of miles away. UPI reporter Joe Galloway began his relationship with the 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary, joining patrols among soldiers at Plei Me. After several days hauling an M16 and his own supplies, Galloway sat down to boil water for coffee. During their first interaction, Lt. Col. Hal Moore approached Galloway and said, “We all shave in my outfit, including the reporters.”4 Galloway got the message and used the boiling water to shave. He connected with and became part of the battalion. Galloway remained close to Moore and his men during the Ia Drang Valley Campaign.
The benefits of this media-military interaction went beyond factual and timely reporting. Galloway and Moore’s relationship allowed for an empathetic component to media coverage that captured the soldiers’ struggles.
Information Operations at the Tactical Level
The United States should educate its tactical leaders on media relations because of the spillover between the tactical and strategic levels. This is not an argument for every commander being a public affairs officer; this is a recommendation for small unit leaders to prepare for and embrace media presence in garrison and in combat. Human relationships offer depth and relatability. The goal is to communicate beyond standard public affairs releases. The advantage at the strategic level is to provide credible and critical reporting from a civilian who has witnessed events firsthand.
Integrating a reporter regularly into a squad patrol is almost inconceivable in today’s forces. Most media visits are restricted to the highest levels of command; a squad’s rifleman speaks to a member of the press only after intense preparation and screening. The military is reluctant to improve relations with the media, for reasons such as it’s “too risky”, the classification exceeds the journalist’s credentials and a general concern for negative attention.
How can the Marine Corps change the system to bring integrated media to the tactical level? Start at home with training exercises. Not everything the service does is classified or too risky. military times and stars and stripes do solid reporting, but their audiences are too small and they can’t compete on the international stage. Relationship building to “get the message out” should take place with members of the national press, including the Associated Press and mainstream media.
Company-level field exercises, close air support training, and service-level training exercises are all opportunities for the media to integrate with Marines, understand what they do and build lasting relationships. Building the bond and connecting in garrison is necessary to make the connections that deliver stories like Galloway’s work for UPI. The Department of the Navy doesn’t need propaganda, it needs journalists to live and experience combat training with tactical level units now to prepare for war reporting in the next conflict.
The world is listening
Information operations are not limited to the distribution of leaflets or the suppression of social networks. Free press reporting can also be effective in countering false narratives and supporting future combat. Sergeant Gee’s post captured the humanity and emotion of military operations. His social media account contrasted with the images of chaos and unrest. But the Marine Corps and other services cannot rely on individual members’ social media posts for narrative control. They must be open to the international press and allow passive information operations at the tactical level.
Lt. Col. Moore and his battalion relied on Joe Galloway to communicate their actions to Landing Zone X-ray. Fifty years later, the world is still listening to the messages from the front, but the crucial question for the military is who will lead those messages.