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CTG #8: Trial Balloons

Photo credit: U.S. Army (link)
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the US Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.

All the information warfare you could ever want

Last year, as I was getting ready to jump back into public writing, I spoke with a handful of military mentors who have been writing in the profession for years. I was seeking advice and wanted to know the temperature of the water. The environment had changed, and I recently switched career fields - so I didn't have a good grasp on where the tolerance was for professional writing.

On the one hand, there has been an explosion of outlets showcasing military writing - sites like The Strategy Bridge, From the Green Notebook, the Modern War Institute. Daily, these sites (and more) are driving conversations about the military profession. This was (and is) good!

On the other hand, the social media environment where these conversations take place has become incredibly toxic. As I tip-toed my way back into the arena, I'd share my concerns with peers and mentors that it might be a fool's errand. One of our own trips over themselves or engages in rage-fueled digital combat on pretty much a daily basis - and for no good reason, really. It is self-immolation of the worst kind.

By the way, these two things - professional writing and the back-and-forth on social media - are related, but different. The notion was captured best in last years "A Tale of Two Influencers."

Still, I wasn't quite sure where we were, thus the advice-seeking.

In one of these mentorship conversations last fall, one mentor advised me to write something in my profession as a "trial balloon" and see where it lands. "Trust your instincts, they're good," he offered.

It was sound advice. And while I'm slowly curating a growing audience around information warfare, I had not written anything outside of the blog.

Well my first trial balloon landed last month as the winning essay in the inaugural Information Warfare contest in the US Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine.

The goal here was to see what kind of response it would get organically - without me waving it around. I followed its traction across social media, watched as it got picked up by other sites, and was pleased to see it being received warmly - by just the types of folks I hoped would appreciate it. 

It was a lot of fun to research and write - especially as an Army guy writing for a (mostly) Naval audience - and I'll have more to say about it in the future. There is a lot more there and there's also a lot that didn't make it into the article, but worth discussing.

While I'm currently not "in the fight," it's my belief that if we are serious about the military profession, then it is our duty to grow and improve - especially when we have the time and space to do so while broadening. Writing is one of the best ways to accomplish this. Good writing requires research, deliberate thought, patience, and a bit of daring. 

If you read the article, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
 



Things that have my attention

Don't Rage Tweet - It was so difficult to hold my tongue on this one because what Joe and Dan are writing about is adjacent to what I warned about in the USNI article. While service members are encouraged to engage in social media to help "tell the story," the warning and pitfalls to date have mostly revolved around OPSEC concerns. I wrote about how our adversaries can weaponize this environment and use it to their advantage. What Joe and Dan are writing about is how we eat our own or trip over ourselves needlessly. My favorite part of the article:

"Instead of sharing your outrage in the virtual world, there are a number of things you can do that are way more productive than an angry tweet. You could show others at work through your example. You could take the time to research the topic, reflect on what you’ve learned or experienced, and write a blog post or an op-ed."

Weaponizing Fandom: The Saga of Tom Olsen - I loved following this experiment. A fan of the 'Metal Gear' series created a Twitter account of a fictional "worker" at a known location in the game about a month prior to a well-known major event that happens in Metal Gear canon. Slow, methodical, deliberate tweets depicting pretty nondescript scenes. It made the internet nuts. Fans wanted to believe that this was a guerilla marketing initiative to help launch a remake of a Metal Gear game. Reddit dissected the tweets, examining the photos looking for meaning. Gaming news sites wrote articles about a possible remake, voice actors associated with the game were asked on podcasts about it. The beauty of the whole thing was one of the key messages of Metal Gear Solid 2 was the use of misinformation to manipulate people. Much of that was lost on the audience, but it is a mini case-study on the weaponization of fandom and the exploitation of hopes and dreams. In this case, just for fun. 

A Tiny Girl with Paratroopers Wings - "The Greatest War Photographer You Never Heard Of." She jumped into Vietnam. Her photographs are incredible. And her personal story and journey is inspiring. So odd I had never heard of this before.

Jump Commands in Farsi - Another kind of bonkers story. A DOD film depicting the training of a US Special Forces officer at Fort Bragg - tactics, explosives, language - and then his eventual deployment to Iran where he helps train men in the Shah's special forces. Some great stuff in the video - to include watching our hero in a robe smoke a cigarette while practicing Farsi with the aid of his record player.

Our adversaries are paying attention - The Irregular Warfare Initiative continues to gain steam, publishing terrific articles and speaking with great guests on the important topics concerning irregular warfare. I've got a huge backlog of podcasts right now and I still haven't listened to one of their most recent podcasts (the best?) with LTG (R) Michael Nagata and Dr. Anthony Cordesman on declining American influence. Fortunately, their articles are a lot easier to keep up with. I especially enjoyed this one by SF officer LTC Mike Nelson on the "tale of two surges." In it, he discusses why COIN kind of worked in Iraq but didn't in Afghanistan. His article reminded me of something I wrote back in 2015 as the Army was trying to figure out what it was becoming - The Fire of COIN is Gone.
 



Carrying the Gun

The GWOT Effect - Lots of Afghanistan veterans are thinking about what the withdrawal means (to them). I remember we experienced this with Iraq veterans in both 2011 and then again in 2013/2014 as ISIS was surging. 

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

Ouch.

The Weaponization of Benign Information - I started a series on CTG looking through MCDP 1-4 (Competing). It's a great little pamphlet with lots of places to explore. The weaponization of benign activity - and more importantly, information - will be the slow-burn tactic in Great Power Competition. It is precisely how the dial is going to be moved. Leaders across the spectrum will need to get comfortable with being poked and prodded constantly - and not overreact. Look for more on 'competing' over the summer.
 



You only have time for one, maybe two hobbies

I finally finished Metal Gear Solid 3. It only took me 6 months. I only get to play for a few hours on slow Sunday mornings. It was a slog, but a great story. 

Not exactly sure what is going to be next - but it won't be another Metal Gear.

Some things to look forward to:

I'm currently finishing up this great Cognitive Crucible episode with Matt Armstrong on the Smith-Mundt Act - probably one of the most misunderstood "things" we have to deal with in the information space. I'll have a post about it shortly. 

Also, the ten year anniversary of CTG is coming up on July 9th. As always, I'll have a recap post on the blog.

10 years man!

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Thanks!

-Don

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