Giving Voice to the Strategic Corporal

This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
By biological design and natural development, humans are inclined to engage with and listen to personalities and characters that look or act, or express views, similar to their own. Contrary to popular belief, research suggests opposites do not attract, and we are all inclined to be attracted to, and engaged by, people who look and sound like us—the concept of actual and perceived similarity. Look at those closest to you: those you live with, those you love, your family and friends, the people you socialize with, and the commentators and entertainment you enjoy. These personalities and characters think like you, they enjoy what you do, you can “relate” to them, as they often have a similar set of social foundations to you. They are not you, but there is sufficient commonality that you feel comfortable with them. Advertisers recognize this, and present product marketing and endorsements through relatable characters with whom viewers or readers share a social, cultural or psychological link. Getting the right face or image while presenting information is important. 

However, the credibility of the presenter, or representative, must also be established. People look for factual human credibility. They will not blindly accept information presented to them by representatives who they feel lack credibility, or who they judge as unrepresentative or unreliable. A trustworthy speaker is one whom people perceive to be honest, sincere and suitably representative, whereas an untrustworthy speaker is one about whom people feel skepticism and suspicion. They lack authoritative credibility and trust. Establishing credibility as a representative is essential if the message being presented is to be believed or even acknowledged. 

The U.S. military Joint Doctrine Note (JDN 2-13) states “Everything the joint force does sends a message. Joint force operations, lethal and non-lethal activities, strategies, policies, and plans all communicate our national intent. Our actions send clear messages to many different groups.” The U.S. Military competes to get its message out across the Information Environment for influence and engagement with a wide array of other actors: media, journalists, academics and adversaries. In pushing its information and message out, military actors (or organizations or services) must recognize there is a huge public audience which, while aware of the military, knows and cares little for the day-to-day business it conducts. That public audience may become stimulated during times of military crisis or conflict, but it is not interested or excited by routine military business. However, the all-consuming, overwhelming nature of today’s Information Environment means this audience is likely to be subjected to military-related information even if they do not actively seek it. Russian cyber involvement in the 2016 United States presidential elections demonstrated that—despite no deliberate or intentional participation on the part of the citizens—they were subjected to some degree of adversarial influence. Like pollution in the air we breathe, it is almost impossible to avoid the complex array of messages and influences populating the Information Environment. The U.S. military knows this and has done much to improve and develop its messaging efforts over the last 20 years. 

So, what now? The U.S. military needs to communicate—it has an important message to get out in order to compete against dynamical adversaries. But to be effective, militaries need speakers and representatives to be people who the public can relate to, and believe in. 

So, why does the U.S. military continue to rely on high-ranking General Officers and Senior Enlisted personnel as its primary spokespersons? Where are the junior voices and representatives, who are more relatable, more connected, and more credible to a vast majority of the general public? This short paper makes the case to release the communicative powers of both junior officers and enlisted in the competition for communications effect. 

Who will speak for us?

When U.S. Marine Corps General Charles Krulak first introduced the “strategic corporal” in his article “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War” in the Marine Corps Gazette (January 1999), he focused on the extraordinary requirements and burden facing a young leader in the complex environment of modern, multi-domain warfare. General Krulak made the point that a well-trained, intelligent, professional, and effective individual can achieve extraordinary results with a genuine strategic impact. These hypothetical junior leaders may find themselves operating and commanding as the most immediate and obvious representative of U.S. foreign policy. Their actions have very real tactical implications but may also have wider operational and strategic consequences. 

In the years since General Krulak brought the demands and realities of the strategic corporal to our attention, many such leaders—officers and enlisted—have found themselves isolated, empowered, and acting without immediate oversight and direction from above. At the same time, they were dependent on those under their command, relying on their own training, intellect, and judgment through the crisis and conflicts of the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  

The U.S. Army Field Manual 6-22, Leader Development, defines leadership as "the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization." Reflections on the military campaigns of the last 20 years are generally positive in terms of the observations they make about the qualities and performance of junior commanders under often extraordinarily complex and demanding circumstances. Criticisms—and there are many—have largely been laid at the operational and strategic level where policy and programs have not aligned with the complex realities of the operating environment. That is not to say that everything at the tactical level has gone well: there have been numerous individual and collective failures in words and deeds. But these have been the minority and do not reflect the extraordinary actions of the many. Where mistakes have been made, judgments been wrong, or behavior of a lower standard than expected, there has been a negative operational or strategic impact. This has led some senior military leaders to adopt a risk-averse mindset. But overall there have been more positives than negatives and the value and capacity of these junior commanders have been proven in countless examples over many years. The occasional failure or error of behavior does not reflect the contribution of the many and does not invalidate the claim that this level of trust and empowerment is reasonable and worthwhile.     

The Communications Environment

The last 20 years have seen a level of global military activity and technology expansion not seen since the end of World War II, changing the level of public access and exposure within the Information Environment. Information, messaging, and news about the military is now readily available to huge numbers through modern mobile communications and smartphones.

The Information Environment, which is defined as “the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information,” is vast.  The pervasiveness of smartphone ownership (about 45 percent of the world’s population has access) illustrates the expansion of the information environment. In terms of ability to access news and information at speed, and in an un-diluted and graphic fashion, the implications are obvious. The reverse is also true. Every smartphone owner now possesses the ability to add to the mass of information, images, and stories washing around in the Information Environment.   

The great debate is whether this free-range, un-mediated news coverage is more or less accurate and what the consequences are in terms of understanding and interpretation. What is clear is that there is no such thing as a “private event” or “off the record” moment. If something of interest is happening, there is a very good chance it is being filmed and will be released into the Information Environment within seconds—like it, or not. So, the actions of our Strategic Corporal are likely to be of global record within seconds of them happening. There is no hiding, or “plausible deniability” anymore.

Right People, Right Place, Saying the Right Things . . .

The requirement is clear: we must get the right representative to act as the focal point for our military messaging effort. However, in the last 20 years, western militaries have increasingly focused on senior representatives or public affairs professionals to be the military spokespersons. This approach is safe. It ensures military commentary remains within guidelines and sticks to pre-determined talking points and themes. This reduces the risks of contrary or counterproductive messaging. It gives gravitas, and authority, and sits comfortably with our political leaders. 

But does it engage? Does it help the majority of the non-military population understand and appreciate the message being sent?  Are these the right representatives? 0.04 percent of the U.S. military achieve general or flag officer rank, and yet these ranks account for a vast majority of all official messaging output. But it is also telling how much of what is actually published on behalf of the U.S. military remains bland and faceless: an anonymous tweet on Twitter, or a nondescript Facebook post drafted by a nameless headquarter staff. These social media postings are typically offered with no formal human representation, created as a series of scripted messages issued to meet the demand for official comment or to respond to a media query. 

The voice or comment is often not that of a serving military representative. Why is this? Firstly, the burden of work for senior U.S. commanders is vast and their time to deal with the media limited, especially at short notice and in a timely fashion. Secondly, this is an area ridden with professional and personal risk—one word out of place, one misdirected answer, one off-the-cuff comment, and a previously impeccable service career can come crashing down. So, senior personnel often do not seek such opportunities. 

So how do our adversaries do it?

The Russian approach can be characterized as a decentralized model, operating across multiple platforms and in different genres to broad direction from the top, but with limited specific regulatory control, and a tolerance of risk and error. A recent RAND study suggested that there is a pro-Russian activist community on Twitter of approximately 41,000 users who actively consume and disseminate pro-Russia, Ukraine related, propaganda. Many of these individuals have their own sizeable following who then further disseminate the message. The level of coordination from the Putin hierarchy is unclear, but it can be assumed there is some degree of formal tasking and some direction on themes. Active participation from centralized state-backed news agencies, state-funded Internet bot farms, overseas communications advocates, and individual influencers all work collectively in a decentralized, highly reactive franchised fashion, to promote the Russian themes and counter the U.S./Western/NATO narrative. When a message or theme appears to be gaining resonance, the community “piles on” to drive that narrative even further.  But more interestingly, there is the acceptance that many of their individual efforts gain little or no traction and fail to attract audience attention. This is accepted as part of the complex web of influence activity. The audience is fickle, and predicting what works, and what doesn’t, is an imprecise business but that’s okay.   

So, the core elements of the Russian communications’ effort are:

Broad direction on key themes
A decentralized approach to activity and content development
Rapid action to seize the moment
Large scale effort across multiple platforms
Regular communications outputs to develop and feed demand
Reinforcement of success and toleration failure. 

Empowering the Strategic Corporal (and Captain and Private First Class).

“If you can’t beat them join them” . . . or at the very least, learn from them, and do as they are doing. The current Western approach to counter Russian malign communications activity can best be characterized by handwringing and frustration. The problem is well recognized but finding a way that effectively tackles Russian activity and that works across the array of interested parties in the diplomatic, inter-agency community, remains complicated. Who owns the problem? Who has what authorities? What are our core messages? Who is going to fund this effort? Where do we operate from and under whose jurisdiction and command? And what happens if we get something wrong? These are all sound questions but while we fail to produce answers and come together in any sort of unified fashion, we will continue to sit passively while the Russian (and other adversaries) orchestras play out with volume and tempo across the Information Environment.
For the U.S. military, answering one of these questions “Who is going to do this and under whose command?” can be answered by looking inwards. With well over two-million service personnel (active-duty and reserve), the U.S. military has a huge pool of potential communicators who could drive the influence and communications agenda if appropriately guided, targeted, and empowered. Understandably, many would not wish to actively pursue a pro-U.S./Western/NATO communications profile. But if a large and organized community of active participants could be identified, and were trusted, to drive the agenda in the same manner as the Russian model, that would be incredibly powerful. The military population remains highly regarded by the general public. They are representatives of the general public. They joined from that public and have family and friends who remain members of the general public. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen are the very faces and voices needed to spread our message, voice our words, and actively communicate our good endeavors while pushing back and calling out the malign activity of our adversaries. 
To do that, they will need some degree of direction and guidance from a central command and control hub, but they must be trusted to amplify and expand on that guidance, reinforcing the broad themes that meet our messaging requirements. JDN 2-13 defines the requirement for the Commander’s Communication Synchronization staff as being “early planning, training and guidance (of communications related staff and activity) that enables decentralized, yet responsive action that reflect the strategic guidance.” It goes on to state “If the joint force is to compete favorably in the competitive information environment, there must be synchronization of all communication efforts.” So, the focal point—the hub—for our communications effort therefore already exists within each U.S. Combatant Command. We just need to arm and empower the Communication Synchronization staff with a community of communicators to enable the amplification and resonance of the messages we wish to project to the widest possible audience.     
And so we find ourselves back with General Krulak’s Strategic Corporal (although we need junior officers and private soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen to be brought into this effort too).  We trusted our junior commanders to undertake some extraordinarily dangerous, challenging, and strategically significant operations over the last 20 years. The vast majority proved worthy of that trust and showed their capacity to rise to the challenge. We must now utilize that same community of individuals to achieve success in the competition, to be heard, and have influence, across the Information Environment. Empowering the numerous Strategic Corporals to have a voice will give us the capacity and volume we need to compete with Russia. 
It is not without risk. But do we have the will and confidence to release the opportunity they offer?
Matt Bazeley is a British Army Officer currently on secondment to HQ U.S. European Command (EUCOM). Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the British Army or HQ U.S. EUCOM. The views above are his alone.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).