Okay, I’ll yank the band-aid…

My email inbox is afire, message boards are muttering, posts are being made based on this here blog and comments on Steeljaw’s post. The bottom line is that a flag officer’s comments are getting some play around the blogosphere. Kudos to the man for engaging; stand by for return fire, I guess. New media is sometimes more like the JOPA sitting around with a beer than Dust Covered Minutiae Quarterly, but you can’t miss those golden nuggets you pick up with the JOPA. If we on active duty don’t get engaged effectively with new media, and I don’t mean by “information prevention” methods, then we cede any relevant arguments to whoever actually shows up and is effective. Worse, we could shut down the “forceful backup” we should be getting and wind up with silly decisions that cost a lot or drive the sailors crazy. We could also find ourselves in the same situation that a former Air Force Chief of Staff did in realizing the need to engage with media too late to learn and make public communication mistakes at a junior level (from an article in the Autumn 1998 Airpower Journal) :

Of all the freedom-of-speech cases involving high-ranking military leaders, that of General [Michael] Dugan is, to me at least, one of the most troublesome. On taking up the reins as chief of staff of the Air Force in the summer of 1990, General Dugan announced publicly that he wanted senior Air Force officers to be more open with reporters: “I think that the leaders . . . need to be upfront, they need to take the gaff that goes with it.”

This policy of openness would prove his undoing. In September 1990 during a tour of US forces deployed in the Gulf preparatory to Operation Desert Storm, General Dugan took the risky step of making himself and five senior generals of the Air Staff available for press interviews focused on US strategy, with particular emphasis on the prominent role to be played by airpower. The resulting story made front-page news in the Washington Post on Sunday, 16 September 1990, with the headline reading “U.S. to Rely on Air Strikes If War Erupts.”

In his autobiography My American Journey, Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed up what he regarded as the objectionable positions expressed by General Dugan during the interviews: “Among the things Dugan was quoted as saying in the Post article were that ‘airpower is the only answer that’s available to our country’; that the Israelis had advised him ‘the best way to hurt Saddam’ was to target his family, his personal guard, and his mistress; that Dugan did not ‘expect to be concerned’ with political constraints in selecting bombing targets; that Iraq’s air force had ‘very limited military capability’; and that its army was ‘incompetent.’ ”

The next day, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney peremptorily relieved Dugan, charging the general with “lack of judgment” in disclosing “operational details” and in addressing “decisions that may or may not be made by the president in the future.”

The need to engage with media is more important in a war where the enemy looks at the information effect before he executes. From the .pdf file in this link:

We typically design physical operations first, then craft supporting information operations to explain our actions. This is the reverse of al-Qaida’s approach. For all our professionalism, compared to the enemy’s, our public information is an afterthought. In military terms, for al-Qaida the ‘main effort’ is information; for us, information is a ‘supporting effort.
David Kilcullen,
Countering the Terrorist Mentality,
New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflict

However, an officer interacts at career peril even in public affairs issues, making it terribly difficult to warm to thinking about media. (An example discussion of this, from a 2004 post).

Here’s a small roundup of response to the admiral’s comments.

  • Small Wars Journal is happy about the shout out. They deserve it; they’ve done good work. Don’t get cocky, y’all.
  • Galrahn responds more directly, with a assertion of credibility and standing, and an implied challenge for the blogosphere to be taken seriously by Big Navy.

    But here is an unavoidable truth. No one from the Navy has ever contacted me to suggest information I am presenting is inaccurate, but both the industry and members of Congress have. If the Navy is frustrated about the accuracy of information on blogs, then quit conceding the conversation to others; engage it. It isn’t like the authors on the blog are hard to reach, the email address is posted on the top of the blog.

  • Lex responds with a different challenge: for Big Navy to catch up with new media.

    But there are senior officers out there who would dearly like to constrain the limits of what’s considered acceptable debate. Used to be folks could vent on the pages of the Naval Institute Proceedings, and we could have a real professional discourse. Then a couple of heretics got burned, and everyone else got a whiff.

    There aren’t any easy choices when you get to the three-star and above ranks: There are never enough resources to go around, someone has to decide, and everybody else is charged with making it happen. Otherwise it becomes the State Department, and we’ve already got one of those.

    Still, there’s something to be said for transparency in the airing of alternate viewpoints. Flag officers, brilliant though they often are, tend to live in a bubble, surrounded by those who have a vested interest in ensuring them that everything’s fine, no reason to worry. Step away from the window.

  • Maggie hopes she isn’t the target of the broadside.
  • Jules Crittenden takes the comments “mainstream” (blogosphere-wise, anyway) and gets an Instalanche for his trouble.
  • CDR Salamander also rounds up and mentions CAPT Toti’s cautionary article about publishing and avoiding being the one used to pour encourager les autres.
  • Update: Spencer Ackerman weighs in as well, emphasizing the value of the conversational nature of blogging as journalism vice straight reporting.

Posted by Chap in Cyber, Navy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • FOD Detector

    VADM Harvey gets it.

    Sadly, USNI doesn’t. This is why their plan to ’embrace the blogosphere’ is doomed to failure. Instead of becoming a professional forum, it has elected to largely leverage off a group whose primary focus is neither professional nor necessarily in the best interests of the Navy but political. It’s Little Green Footballs with more acronyms.

  • Spade

    FOD Detector: “Instead of becoming a professional forum, it has elected to largely leverage off a group whose primary focus is neither professional nor necessarily in the best interests of the Navy but political.”

    FOD Detector is, as we all know, the most apolitical person ever to post here.

  • Bill

    Ignoring for a sec that I see ‘politics’ in some form or other at virtually every level of naval matters, active duty, civilian and elected/appointed officials, and so is always inextricably entwined, I certainly do not share FOD Detectors negative view of the various established and known bloggers (or more corectly, his view of what they write) who contribute to this, what I’ve come to call a ‘blog for bloggers’. I see far too much that is simply good information tempered by or augmented with free opinion and comment. I see nothing wrong with that…nothing at all.

  • FOD Detector seems determined not to notice that the vast majority of people who either post here or comment here had a deep, abiding admiration for the US Navy, and are concerned with the relevance and well being of it, both as an institution and as a tool to be used in the defense of our nation.

    The authors here do not seek to further their careers by posting here, but rather seek to improve the Navy. Whether they are on the right path or not is certainly up for debate. Which, it seems to me, is the whole point of this blog, and the USNI as a whole. And yet FOD Detector seems eager to shout down any such debate. Ironic.

  • curiouscurious

    Wouldn’t you think that you have to lead, follow, or get out of the way in managing information? I would think that a post from the top is much more valuable and authoritative than say issues not committed upon.

  • Byron

    “that a post from the top is much more valuable and authoritative” You’re kidding, right? The whole point of this is to posit a concept, an idea, a belief, whatever, and then encourage debate and see what people have to say about it.

    If I’d wanted dictats, I’d have moved to some garden spot like Red China, where I can listen to “authoritive” statements to my hearts content.

    FOD: you’re one of two people here that try to drag the conversation towards arguing about politics. To what point? Never mind, that was a rhetorical question.

  • “Instead of becoming a professional forum, it has elected to largely leverage off a group whose primary focus is neither professional nor necessarily in the best interests of the Navy but political.”

    Vote for Pedro!

    Regardless, I think the feedback is useful.

  • Byron

    In case anyone missed it, VADM Harvey IS looking in. This is his last comment, after I attempted to make the point that there is a gem every now and then:

    “VADN J. C. Harvey, Jr USN OPNAV DNS Says:
    Byron, I agree – it would do no harm to listen now and then. That’s what I’m doing. And I’m looking forward to finding the gems. All the best, JCHjr”

    And the fact that he chimed in over at Boston Maggies place sort of proves it.

    Cut the flags a bit of slack. It’s going to take a bit more time to get their heads wrapped around the idea that this kind of discourse can be valuable. And you were dead on target about the killing of open discussion in “Proceedings”…that’s why it’s a helluva great thing that USNI is doing here: getting back to basics.

    Having said that, we really need to ditch the political BS. I’m sorry you didn’t like the last administration. I understand you think they’re the anti-Christ. But all of that does not have a place here. Wardroom rules, I think you Naval types call it.

  • First, I appreciate VADM Harvey’s move to engage in the blogosphere. Simply his willingness to engage in direct communication with a concerned group of folks was commendable. As a senior officer, his insight, experience, breadth of experience and responsibility made me sit up and read (I’m sure others felt the same way, even if they have contrary views to what he posted). I thought it was a good move, and a move towards leadership. Flag officers should express judgment – the issue with Gen Dugan was ultimately a lack of operational judgment – and I see no error on VADM Harvey’s part. He did what senior officers should do, and do more of: communicate, educate, and motivate.

    Second, there are a few posts that I’ve read where I agree with FOD Detector. That said, the nice thing about a blog such as this — you can normally express your view, democratically, openly, tribally, and peel back the layers of politically-motivated posts. I see more honesty than I’d normally expect from naval personnel of any grade from bloggers and writers on this site. While I agree that I’ve seen some things that strike me as deliberate, calculated, and political (and, honestly, I’ve seen the same sorts of things with USNI), the nice thing is that we can respond, rebut, redirect, and promote our own ideas. For FOD – what types of subjects do you think we should be discussing in this forum? thanks

  • Chap

    Flash, you’re right about GEN Dugan; the point there I was trying to make was that if us officer types start a skill like interacting with the press after you make four stars, then we make mistakes with bigger consequences than if we start from early in the career. No intention to slam the DNS on this end.

  • Chap, I tend to agree in some ways — we tend to underprepare officers for dealing with the press. That said, in my mind, I differentiate ‘dealing with the press’ with ‘open discourse for the purposes of critical thinking’ and ‘the new media’. As the ‘net has taken over our lives, the three have become intertwined. That said, dealing with the press in the manner of Gen Dugan requires specific training, preparation, and experience; I question the need for that type of training and preparation given that many naval officers will never face the challenge of dealing directly with the press during their careers.

    I think the heart of the matter is better preparing officers to engage in open, candid communication not to mention critical thought. For the most part, I don’t think the active Navy encourages innovation or ideas, and I certainly have not seen much thought given by leadership to the importance of critical thinking. Maybe I’m wrong (I spend a lot of time in the desert and may have gotten a bit distant from the fleet), but I’ve seen only very few glimpses of senior officers that have the confidence or sense of responsibility to engage in direct dialogue, accept negative feedback, and work through the issues. Senior officers tend to reward loyalty to their ideas and their babies. Conformity, thus, is rewarded and reinforced.

    This is especially concerning in light of the national security challenges that we face at this juncture in time: past models won’t work. We’ll need every brain we can to work on the problems at hand.

    Acceptance of new media will take a bit of time, but acceptance of blogging and what it means and what it offers for the Navy is going to have to coincide with acceptance of open, potentially critical thought, and acceptance of intellectual risk. In the end, I think the way to begin to tackle the problem is to actually encourage civil, critical discussion in order to reveal the benefits of open discussion and bottom-up innovation: ideas that solve real problems or identify problems that require solutions. Who can question the value of being able to tap into a virtual think-tank?

  • “Maggie hopes she isn’t the target of the broadside.”

    No, no, no, I wasn’t worried for a minute! I said it wasn’t me. That would have been ridiculous and lo and behold……..

  • Geez, FOD….Little green footballs? You’re making this left-leaner feel all queasy…

  • “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is NOT being talked about.” – Oscar Wilde

    This discussion is good – and it is needed. Big Navy needs to come to terms with New Media in all its forms for a number of reasons as Chap et al have pointed out. Other Services either already have (some with a major misstep or two along the way – anyone remember the rules re. OPSEC and blogging the Army rolled out in early 2007?) or are in the process thereof (witness Air Force’s latest change of mind).

    For those who look askance at blogs and their possible utility I would like to pose a question or two. Consider the “Conversations with America” that took place in the run up to and post-release of the Maritime Strategy. Much was made of the fora comprised of Joe and Jane average citizen from metropolitan areas, many of which were not considered traditional naval venues. All well and good. Input gathered, and, one presumes, used in the creation and marketing of the MS. And yet…and yet how much discussion was engendered *outside* of the lecture halls? A couple hundred conversations? A few thousand mayhaps? How about 125,000? That is the number of blog posts on the MS that a quick Google search yielded (within which you will find several of the usual suspects…) And like many a wardroom/readyroom discussion, they spanned the spectrum of good to bad, emotional to dispassionate – as well as spilling over in traditionally non-naval oriented fora. All spontaneous and with very few exceptions, without engagement or encouragement by Big Navy. See my comments on the original post for the few, and very positive examples where engagement was carried out. Imagine what might have been gained with a more concerted effort and how that might have assuaged concerns expressed over lack of reverence of facts or too much emotionalism.

    Let the discussion continue –

    – SJS

  • …it would appear that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards “get it” too… (although I find the prospect of 10,000 blogs by the Basij to be something less than enthralling)
    – SJS

  • Hello there.

    I’m from that dreaded Little Green Footballs crowd.

    I’d like to think that the collective LGF “we” with our fairly large in-house military population, (both active and retired – but not me, I’m just a civvie with a lot of books), can share our opinions here.

    I’ve only dropped a couple of comments here and there on this blog because, like my commenting on Information Dissemination, my primary reason for being here is to learn.

    I don’t come here for the politics that FOD keeps attempting to interject. I’ve got LGF and my own little bloglet for that.

    I’d like to keep it that way.


  • Chap

    Funnily enough, I and other bloggers contributing here have been known to write for different publications, and to be also able to follow the tone and intended subject of that publication, closely enough to get occasionally paid for it. How about that.

    I don’t get paid here, though! Not even a free subscription or a monogrammed beer mat…

  • Byron

    How about just the beer? 😉

  • VADM J.C. Harvey, Jr DNS OPNAV

    For Flashman – I continue to be fascinated by the comments I read analagous to yours above that the senior officers in the Navy do not value critical thinking and routinely reward and reinforce conformity.
    Now in any military organization, a certain amount of conformity, in action and thought, is required to maintain the good order and discipline necessary to ensure mission accomplishment under conditions of great stress.
    An example – an alongside refueling in high winds and rough seas is not the time for a Rig Captain to suddenly get a better idea on how to do business and decide to change the tried and true procedures that have enabled his team to successfully seat the probe under very difficult conditions in the past and for which they are very well-trained. Inducing chaos and uncertainty under these conditions is not helpful.
    But I certainly expect, indeed demand, that when the evolution starts going to hell in a handbasket, that same Rig Captain needs to take decisive action, on his own initiative, to ensure tha safety of his crew and the well-being of his ship.
    Critical thinking is what enables the Rig Captain to understand the difference in the two situations I have described.
    And so, critical thinking is one of the essential qualities we need in our leaders at every level in our Navy, afloat and ashore.
    Let’s bring the situation to where I am on the OPNAV staff – part of a large bureaucracy charged with assisting CNO in the execution of his Title X “man, train and equip” responsibilties.
    We deal in large issues, with literally billions of dollars in play and the future structure of our Navy hanging in the balance. Expectations are high and, given what’s at stake, rightfully so.
    Why then would someone in my position look for anything other than people who can think critically and have the courage to espouse their convictions even when those convictions may at times run counter to conventional wisdom?
    My ability to do my job is incredibly dependent on the people I work with and I want the very best I can get. And that includes those who disagree with me when their analysis of an issue leads them to a position different than the one I may hold.
    At that time I apply my judgement to frame my recommendation to CNO and VCNO. Perhaps I accept the alternative view, perhaps I don’t – those are decisions I get paid to make and I will certainly make them. And be accountable for the results.
    But the fact that I may not take the recommendation should not lead to the conclusion that I did not value the critical thinking, and integrity, that led the individual to see the issue differently than I did and have the courage to make that clear to me.
    Now, do I describe a situation that only I see while others see an organization where “group-think” is valued and flabby thinking rewarded? Obviously, I have an opinion; others will have theirs.
    Also, I’m not totally naive – I do indeed value, and reward, loyalty. But I also believe the highest form of loyalty is to keep your boss from making a mistake. And I don’t think I’m alone in that belief.
    I also expect that once we establish a Navy position on an issue that those in the Navy publicly support that position; if someone believes that the position is wrong, I would expect that individual to continue to work inside the lifelines to change it. That attitude is not designed to stifle critical thought, innovation or contrary views, but to recognize that in a military organization sustaining a strong chain-of-command is fundamental to both our overall effectiveness and maintaining the trust and confidence of those we lead. And a strong chain-of-command can, and does, handle vigorous internal debate.
    A properly focused internal debate certainly does not make for a great deal of public “hand-to-hand” in the blogosphere, something many bloggers really don’t seem to be able to accept.
    As others have stated or implied, this medium has some evolving to do, as does the reaction of a military chain-of-command to it. We will evolve together.
    All the best, JCHjr

  • Chap


    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, especially when enduring a tough and thankless job like DNS.

    Army’s done this and we should learn from their experience, good and bad. So has Coast Guard. I’ve been on the web for a while, and the Army leadership had had to go through a process of evolving its understanding and response that Navy hasn’t yet done. You and a few other flags are taking the lead, which is sorely needed. As I see it, USNI should have had a better web presence earlier and been up with a blog years ago–and they lost out to other web-based organizations because of it.

    “Working within the lifelines”: be careful what you ask for. If Big Navy decides to tell enough guys to shut up and color, two things will happen: they’ll lose in the public sphere when they squash a guy unless they’re very careful, and they’ll lose learning from good voices that are out there. One thing that will not happen is stopping the discussion–emails and Sailor Bob and backchannel notes to Navy Times and impertinent letters from retired flags getting into your “made decisions” will still go on; you’ll just lose the ability to see or influence as much of it.

    Navy’s challenge is to get our writers writing. It won’t take too much to have that chilling effect mentioned above. We still culturally remember that the nail that sticks out gets hammered; that’s why ADM Stavridis is pushing to get our field grades talking in public. We also know that in a generic bureaucracy, the normal response to an irritating piece in the media is to squash the writer, remove his standing, and attack him personally. Here’s an example of how badly Navy guys are worried right now: I’m the only active duty Navy guy here who is blogging under his own name (and who isn’t a four star). I’m taking a real career risk to do so, at least as I perceive it.

    The costs of refusing engagement in this space are not zero. I’m firmly of the opinion that the milblogs in 2004-2006 had a strategic effect that helped keep us from losing. In addition, one reason the SWJ guys are mature and good is that they had to engage to get the COIN manual and culture change implemented. Large companies hire twentysomethings, and they deal with this phenomenon too.

    Again, thanks for checking in and engaging on this thread, and I very much appreciate the time you took to do so.

  • Good … good ….

  • virgil xenophon

    As ex-USAF and ret. PhD in Int Rel. specializing in bureaucratic decision-making, I have enough time on my hands to keep up with the state-of-play and toss in my 2-cents occasionally. My only comment to the Admiral would be that this initiative is laudatory indeed, and well past due not only for the Navy but the other branches as well.
    My concern for years has been (and confirmed by military sociologists who study such things such as Moskos at N’western, Van Doorn, et al,) that the old Soviet Union
    actually encouraged it’s Jr. officers to publish in prestige professional journals to a greater extent than we did–to such an extent that in the SU then and the Russia
    of today failure to publish is actually a career ender/limiter whereas the reverse definitely once was, and still is all too often
    today. That the land of the 1st Amendment and freedom of speech would see an Armed Services whose encouragement of professional discourse among not only active duty personnel but ret. and well-wishers as well, trails the Soviets/Russians is not something to contemplate with pleasure.

  • virgil xenophon

    Addendum: I should add that yet another built-in structural problem which constantly needs to be “worked” (and of which Sr. officaldom is well aware) is that of the Command&Staff/War Colleges where often the permanent-party instructors are well aware in presenting their views that in the future they could be working for some of the attendees. I realize increased use of outside instructors has been utilized to ameliorate this situation somewhat, but it too is, imo, while separate,part and parcel of the problem as a whole as well.

  • VADM Harvey,

    It would probably suffice to say that I’m an intelligence officer. I’ve worked tactical to strategic issues and have been in the field in southeast Asia, southwest Asia, and central Asia. I deal in a part of the Navy that continually wrangles with the issue of candor, in that intelligence analysts and intelligence officers can easily be ignored and relegated to irrelevance if their assessments and positions do not appeal to a commander. Very rarely have I had a naval commander that desired candor, and all too frequently I’ve worked for a senior intelligence officer who valued “ensuring we don’t annoy the operators” before he valued the candor. In a perfect world, such things wouldn’t happen – but it does, and it does so routinely.

    Perhaps that lends a little more perspective to my worldview on senior officers and the Navy. Indeed, I’ve seen slightly more candor on strictly operational and manpower issues, which are normally slightly more empirical than delivering assessments regarding insurgent activity, or describing and legally defining specific yet occasionally contentious authorities regarding intelligence collection.

    In the course of my career, I’ve found that maintaining integrity and encouraging junior folks to be competent, candid, and professional in their assessments has been the #1 technical challenge in being an intelligence officer. Integrity is normally the first thing that is compromised as part of the analytical process – which can lead to catastrophic failure. Although the point is almost self-evident, the emphasis on conformity and appealing to ‘the operator’ begins in A school and the officer basic course.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Harry Flashman, you said a mouthful.