Guest Post: Sometimes it is Not Okay to be a Silent Professional

From the students at the School for Advanced Military Studies, Ft. Leavenworth, KS

As part of our studies we are looking at Strategic Communications (STRATCOM) within the Army. In considering STRATCOM, we are similarly considering the perceived culture of reticenece within the Army and its effects on operational effectiveness. We are fundamentally interested in what others have to say about this culture.

Soldiers have often prided themselves in being known as “quiet professionals.” The Army is steeped in traditions and values that encourage reticence among its service members. One of the Army’s seven core values, selfless service, is ingrained in soldiers and officers throughout their careers. Humility and a desire to serve on a team without expectation of individual accolades have often been the hallmark of a good soldier. However, in an era marked by unprecedented access to information, being a quiet professional can be detrimental to Army operations. The Army’s collective silence is deafening in situations such as the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal where a proactive response is demanded by a world audience with unprecedented global access to information. The societal and global conditions under which the military thrived as silent professionals no longer exist. It is evident that the Army has not responded to these changing conditions. The Army must change its culture from one of reticence to one of active and sustained engagement. Then and only then will the Army begin to see operations positively impacted by the power of strategic communication.

For over 200 years only two organizations, governmental organizations (including the armed forces) and professional media organizations, leveraged the capability to monopolize and effectively employ communications technology during wartime.[1] During this period, Army communications were centrally created and distributed while individual and organizational risk exposure was minimized. The rise of the internet and small, economical mobile communications devices has changed all of that. Public citizens and enemy irregular forces can employ the power of modern communications technology to communicate nearly instantaneously all around the globe, swaying both U.S. domestic and international public opinion and breaking the monopoly formerly held by governments and major media outlets. These trends have significantly shaped the modern battlefield.

Colonel (Retired) John J. McCuen describes the modern battlefield as a hybrid form of war that entails both conventional and asymmetric threats. His thoughts on hybrid war give great insight into the complexity of modern combat; “The critical point is that to win hybrid wars, we have to succeed on three decisive battlegrounds: the conventional battleground; the conflict zone’s indigenous population battle­ground; and the home front and international community battleground.”[2] The Army has reacted to these trends by decentralizing command and control down to the lowest echelons of leadership in nearly every aspect of its operations except for strategic communication. Centralized staff structures and stove-piped entities such as Public Affairs and Information Operations carry the burden for the entire force while latent communications potential throughout the rest of the Army remains untapped.

Given the current operational environment faced by Army professionals, the tradition of the silent professional and the underlying culture of reticence are no longer sufficient. Leaders and soldiers at every echelon and rank must be trained and encouraged to engage the public and the media not only when opportunities and situations arise, but as a routine part of their continuous military mission. LTG William Caldwell, the former commander of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center (CAC), sought to foster a “culture of engagement” within the Army that would tear down communication barriers and build sustainable relationships with the American public while keeping them informed and connected with the Armed Forces.[3] The Army must transition to a culture of engagement to fundamentally increase the Army’s effectiveness. In a 2009 Military Review article entitled, “Fostering a Culture of Engagement,” LTG Caldwell offered that the Army must communicate in ways that are proactive, innovative, adaptive, leadership driven, and sustainable.[4] This is a far cry from the culture of reticence prevalent across the military and fostered by senior leaders who are “digital immigrants,” uncomfortable with today’s tech-savvy and information rich world. Fortunately these “digital immigrants” are being rapidly succeeded by a generation of “digital natives” well versed in the ways of today’s technologically advanced and globally connected society. They are a force that if mentored and wielded correctly can leverage the power of strategic communication as effectively as any weapon system in the Army’s arsenal.

The Army’s culture of reticence indeed inhibits its effectiveness in today’s operational environment. The world has changed too much in recent decades for the Army to continue to rest on its silent professionalism. While many argue that the Army has not responded to this new world, it is not too late for the Army to move towards a culture of engagement. But in so doing, the Army must change its fundamental culture. The move towards engagement requires analysis and discussion of the potential challenges that may arise from this action. Does moving the Army towards engagement have inherent dangers? Are there some aspects of reticence that are, in fact, beneficial to the Army? The era of persistent conflict demands reconciliation of the tension between the emerging need for engagement and the historical preference for reticence.

[1] Thomas Rid and Marc Hecker, War 2.0 : Irregular Warfare in the Information Age, (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2009), 35.

[2] John J. McCuen, “Hybrid Wars,” Military Review, (March-April 2008): 107.

[3] William B. Caldwell IV, Shawn Stroud and Anton Menning, “Fostering a Culture of Engagement,” Military Review, (September-October 2009): 10.

[4] Ibid, 13.

One thought on “Guest Post: Sometimes it is Not Okay to be a Silent Professional

  1. The US Air Force is as institutionally reticent (perhaps more so) as the US Army to engage in what has become a formidable information environment. A robust education and training program are essential to preparing our future leaders to effectively engage in this environment and I believe (from personal experience) the Army’s School of Advanced Military studies is leading the way.

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