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As the old adage goes, The pen is mightier than the sword. “Selling War: A Critical Look at the Military PR’s Machine,” a new book by Steven J. Alvarez, is if nothing else a somber reminder that in modern conflict, the pen must be wielded with the sword.
As an Army reservist and public affairs officer, Alvarez deployed to Iraq in mid-2004 to serve as the chief public affairs officer for Multinational Security Transition Command–Iraq. In this capacity, he served as then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus’ personal public affairs officer and had an up close and personal view of the many communications mistakes and few successes made by the U.S. military and Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government of Iraq established by the United States, early in the Iraq war.
Alvarez’ account is unflinching in its criticism of the red tape, mixed messages, and infighting that seemed prevalent within the military’s public affair community at the time. He argues that the failure to develop effective messaging and to put trained people on the ground early on during the war had a lasting effect on how the military occupation was later perceived. He convincingly maintains that the failure to effectively communicate, both with the Iraqi people and the Arab-world at large, had a direct impact on the subsequent rise of the insurgency that compromised Iraq’s internal security in later years and remains, in part, a problem to this day.
His harshest criticism is perhaps reserved for the Iraqi authorities. Alvarez provides numerous examples of how nepotism, corruption, and a reluctance to assume responsibility led to a complete failure of the nascent Iraqi government to seize control of the ongoing narrative. These lapses prevented the Iraqi government from telling its side of the events as they were unfolding and left the messaging to U.S. forces, which were often discounted or disbelieved by their Iraqi and Arab audiences.
While admittedly the book covers a limited window of the Iraq War, according to Alvarez, it was a period of time in which a faulty approach to media communications and messaging was developed, and this approach would influence the media outreach by U.S. forces for the ensuing years of the conflict.
His account is broad in scope, and Alvarez addresses many of the challenges he faced as a public affairs officer. Alvarez lays out in detail the military’s conflicted approach to new technology such as the “blog,” the challenges of convincing Iraqi authorities to put an “Iraqi Face” on media outreach, and negotiating the complex relationships that existed amongst both the U.S. forces and the Iraqi authorities.
He also offers an interesting insight on Petraeus early in the Iraq War and years before he became the commanding general of Multi-National Force–Iraq. Alvarez is steadfast in his praise for Petraeus. He recounts how his strategy of turning Petraeus into the public face of the Iraq War by copying the media presence of “Stormin Norman” Schwarzkopf Jr., the media-savvy commander for the first Gulf War, almost backfired when Petraeus’ then-boss, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte, both felt slighted by the amount of press Petraeus was receiving.
Alvarez captures the chaos, bureaucracy, and confusion of those responsible for communicating on behalf of the military, as the nation was unwillingly dragged into an extended insurgency campaign for which it was little prepared. “Selling War” is a cautionary lesson for those who fail to grasp the vital importance of messaging in the competing narratives of modern conflict.
“Selling War: A Critical Look at the Military PR’s Machine” by Steven J. Alvarez is available for purchase beginning March 1.
Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) will announce legislation Wednesday aiming to "fix" a new Trump administration citizenship policy that affects some children of U.S. service members stationed abroad.
The inside story of how The Village People shot the Navy's most controversial recruiting video onboard an active warship
The video opens innocently enough. A bell sounds as we gaze onto a U.S. Navy frigate, safely docked at port at Naval Base San Diego. A cadre of sailors, dressed in "crackerjack" style enlisted dress uniforms and hauling duffel bags over their shoulders, stride up a gangplank aboard the vessel. The officer on deck greets them with a blast of a boatswain's call. It could be the opening scene of a recruitment video for the greatest naval force on the planet.
Then the rhythmic clapping begins.
This is no recruitment video. It's 'In The Navy,' the legendary 1979 hit from disco queens The Village People, shot aboard the very real Knox-class USS Reasoner (FF-1063) frigate. And one of those five Navy sailors who strode up that gangplank during filming was Ronald Beck, at the time a legal yeoman and witness to one of the strangest collisions between the U.S. military and pop culture of the 20th century.
"They picked the ship and they picked us, I don't know why," Beck, who left the Navy in 1982, told Task & Purpose in a phone interview from his Texas home in October. "I was just lucky to be one of 'em picked."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday casually brushed aside the disturbing news that, holy shit, MORE THAN 100 ISIS FIGHTERS HAVE ESCAPED FROM JAIL.
In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Esper essentially turned this fact into a positive, no doubt impressing public relations and political talking heads everywhere with some truly masterful spin.
"Of the 11,000 or so detainees that were imprisoned in northeast Syria, we've only had reports that a little more than a hundred have escaped," Esper said, adding that the Syrian Democratic Forces were continuing to guard prisons, and the Pentagon had not "seen this big prison break that we all expected."
Well, I feel better. How about you?
On Wednesday, the top U.S. envoy in charge of the global coalition to defeat ISIS said much the same, while adding another cherry on top: The United States has no idea where those 100+ fighters went.
A senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday the White House's understanding is that the SDF continues to keep the "vast majority" of ISIS fighters under "lock and key."
"It's obviously a fluid situation on the ground that we're monitoring closely," the official said, adding that released fighters will be "hunted down and recaptured." The official said it was Turkey's responsibility to do so.
President Trump expressed optimism on Wednesday about what was happening on the ground in northeast Syria, when he announced that a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds was expected to be made permanent.
"Turkey, Syria, and all forms of the Kurds have been fighting for centuries," Trump said. "We have done them a great service and we've done a great job for all of them — and now we're getting out."
The president boasted that the U.S.-brokered ceasefire had saved the lives of tens of thousands of Kurds "without spilling one drop of American blood."
Kade Kurita, the 20-year-old West Point cadet who had been missing since Friday evening, was found dead on Tuesday night, the U.S. Military Academy announced early Wednesday morning.
"We are grieving this loss and our thoughts and prayers go out to Cadet Kurita's family and friends," Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, superintendent of West Point, said in the release.
The U.S. Army's Next Generation Squad Weapon effort looked a lot more possible this week as the three competing weapons firms displayed their prototype 6.8mm rifles and automatic rifles at the 2019 Association of the United States Army's annual meeting.
Just two months ago, the Army selected General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems inc., Textron Systems and Sig Sauer Inc. for the final phase of the NGSW effort — one of the service's top modernization priorities to replace the 5.56mm M4A1 carbine and the M249 squad automatic weapon in infantry and other close-combat units.
Army officials, as well as the companies in competition, have been guarded about specific details, but the end result will equip combat squads with weapons that fire a specially designed 6.8mm projectile, capable of penetrating enemy body armor at ranges well beyond the current M855A1 5.56mm round.
There have previously been glimpses of weapons from two firms, but this year's AUSA was the first time all three competitors displayed their prototype weapons, which are distinctly different from one another.