At Fort Leavenworth, officers are marching on a new target: the blogosphere
In the mountains of Afghanistan’s Kunar province on June 28, 2005, four Navy SEALs embarked on a mission to capture a high-value target: Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, the head of a group of insurgents called the Mountain Tigers. The mission was called Operation Red Wing.
Two Afghan men and a boy discovered the SEALs and reported the commandos’ position to hostile forces. The four Americans were quickly surrounded by more than 100 guerrillas. The resulting firefight lasted two hours.
One SEAL managed to place a call for help to Bagram Air Base, which summoned a Chinook helicopter carrying 16 soldiers. The Chinook was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in midair and crashed, killing everyone onboard. Only one SEAL survived Operation Red Wing.
U.S. Air Force Maj. James Simonds was stationed in Afghanistan when Operation Red Wing went down. He can’t forget the crushed expressions on his fellow soldiers’ faces the day they held a memorial service for the 19 dead.
“You want to see the biggest group of guys crying their eyes out — it devastated us that that happened,” Simonds says.
But on TV, Simonds says, he didn’t see much besides a body count reported by the press.
“Obviously, there wasn’t a whole lot of information that was going to come out on it,” Simonds says. “But sometimes I wonder if it’s not an injustice to some of the folks, the way it’s presented, you know?”
Simonds reluctantly speaks to a reporter in the cafeteria at Liberty Memorial, Kansas City’s World War I museum. He’s the last in his 16-person class from the Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to sit down for an interview.
“I wasn’t going to come in here,” he admits. “I didn’t think I had anything to say.”
Like every other officer at the CGSC, located on the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Simonds has to ignore the chip on his shoulder concerning the press. That’s because Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, who oversees the CGSC and 17 other schools and training programs, decided last year to make media savvy a requirement for graduation. Each war-college student must complete a course of “strategic communication” in order to graduate. It’s an extracurricular activity — no class covers it exclusively. Officers must participate in an interview with a television, print or radio reporter, publicly address a community group, write an article or opinion piece for publication (it need not actually be published), and blog under his or her real name.
Still, this communications requirement signals a dramatic departure from the old way that the military guided officers regarding media relations. One professor at the war college, a lieutenant, describes the military’s former philosophy on talking to reporters as “shut up and go up.” In other words, direct questions away from yourself and up through your chain of command.
“We discouraged our officers from speaking with the media for years,” says Brig. Gen. Edward Cardon. As deputy commandant of the CGSC, he acts as dean of the war college. “Basically, ‘They’re evil and you’ll say the wrong thing.’ That’s what they were told.”
Simonds’ disdain for the press surfaced anew at a panel discussion held at Fort Leavenworth at the beginning of the fall 2008 term. Representatives of media outlets, including the McClatchy Company, Wired, The Washington Post and the Associated Press, took questions. A common thread: Why do news organizations report on bad news rather than on, say, wells being dug and orphanages being built?
“Someone flat-out said that it’s not glamorous enough,” Simonds says. “And the thing that really got to me, one of the panel members said, ‘It’s too hard. Things blowing up, things like that, that’s the easy way to go.’ My heart sank when I heard that.”
Today’s military is enduring a period of scathing self-criticism, touched off in part by a 2007 essay titled “A Failure in Generalship,” written by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an Iraq War veteran who blamed failings there on a stagnant military culture and on commanders who sent officers into battle without enough troops. At places such as Fort Leavenworth, which houses the Center for Army Lessons Learned, instructors encourage all members of the armed forces to read articles like Yingling’s and weigh the wisdom of military decisions, from Alexander the Great to Gen. David Petraeus, now chief of U.S. Central Command. (Petraeus wrote the Army and Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual at Fort Leavenworth.)
Still, a mandate to get friendly with reporters is a tough sell on a guy like Simonds, who calls CNN the “communist news network” and thinks the media pay too much attention to the Cindy Sheehans of the world and too little to soldiers’ sacrifices.
Fort Leavenworth is the intellectual center of the Army.
Past the gates, where guards check for IDs and search visitors’ trunks, a long tree-lined road sweeps into the base, past office buildings and a statue of a Buffalo Soldier that gazes over a placid, man-made lake.
Generals and high-ranking officers live in antebellum-style houses with wraparound porches and welcoming foyers. The students and their families live in more modest housing on surprisingly normal-looking neighborhood streets on the base or outside the gates in the city of Leavenworth. Besides being the home of the Combined Arms Center and the CGSC, the city is best-known for its maximum-security federal prison.
Gen. Caldwell arrived in Fort Leavenworth in 2007, taking over for Petraeus after Petraeus’ promotion to Commanding General, Multi-National Force–Iraq. For the previous 13 months, Caldwell had been in Iraq with the job title Chief Spokesman and Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Effects for the Multinational Force–Iraq.
Caldwell’s office is in Grant Hall, a yellow building with a clock tower. It’s spacious, filled with heavy wood furniture, leather couches and a commanding portrait of the general. The walls are crowded with certificates, seals, flags, photos of the general with heads of state, and framed newspaper articles.
With his easy, almost goofy smile and down-to-earth presence, the general seems a natural choice to have been the spokesman of the Iraq War effort, which was his post between May 2006 and June 2007. The assignment proved to be a daunting test, he says.
“Everything else in my military career that I’ve ever done, I had prepared for,” he says. “I mentally had put myself in the groove to understand what I was about to engage in. So, like, when we invaded Panama, that’s what I had been training for for 14 years. We were finally going to do what we had prepared and rehearsed and practiced and exercised.” The story is the same with his deployments in Haiti and during the first Gulf War, he says.
“But when I arrived in Iraq and Gen. [George] Casey said, ‘Oh, no, no, no — you’re going to be a spokesman,’ I still remember looking at him, going, ‘Sir, I am not trained to do this.’ He said, ‘You’re going to do great.’ I said, ‘Sir, I don’t know anything about this.’ I mean, I was pleading almost. And, at one point, I finally looked at him and said, ‘Sir, me and you have got to understand, sir, I don’t do media.’ And he just looked at me and goes, ‘You do now.'”
Until then, every lesson the Army had taught him said to avoid the press, that nothing good would come of speaking to reporters.
A month into the job, coalition forces dropped the bomb that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then one of the most-wanted insurgents in Jordan and Iraq. Zarqawi had claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings and hostage beheadings and had trained militant Islamists in Afghanistan.
Thanks to his long military background — his career now spans 32 years — Caldwell knew exactly whom to call to get the story straight for the press. His first call was to Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Commander, Joint Special Operations Command, who had been one of Caldwell’s classmates at West Point. He also called the first responders, who had pulled the mortally wounded Zarqawi out of the rubble of his safehouse, and the pilot who had dropped the bomb.
“They understood they could share a lot of classified stuff with me, and I was able to sort through probably what could or couldn’t be said,” Caldwell says. “Just give me the story from A to Z, and I think I’m probably smart enough to figure out what’s special tactic and technique we don’t want to expose, and what the American people and the rest of the world have the right to know.”
Still, he explains, being thrown into the role of spokesman left him plenty of room to make mistakes.
“You mean, like, was there a time when I said something in a news conference that was on the front page, above the fold, of The New York Times: ‘General disheartened by actions in Iraq’? Hmm, let me think,” he says and then laughs. “And then did I get a personal note from then Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld about it? Ah, yeah, I think I did, as a matter of fact.”
What did the letter say? Caldwell expertly sidesteps the question. This is what makes him an ideal teacher of “strategic communication” for his war-college officers — he doesn’t stray far from the story he wants told. He knows the job is about releasing information that will increase the public’s understanding of the Army’s point of view. Telling engaging anecdotes and uncorking insights that offer the faint suggestion of privileged information — well, that doesn’t hurt.
As spokesman, Caldwell did release a lot of previously classified information — with Casey’s permission.
“That was huge,” Caldwell says. “Before me, they had not been doing that. He [Casey] had given me that authority. It allowed me to turn things. And then he finally assigned me intel officers, two intelligence officers that were assigned to my organization, whose sole job was to declassify stuff. I’d throw them a whole bunch of papers after a briefing and say, ‘I need as much of this declassified as rapidly as you can.’ And so their job became going back to the original source and getting as much declassified as they could.”
Once he landed at Fort Leavenworth, Caldwell says, he made it his mission to teach officers at the college the lessons he’d learned as a spokesman for the war. “I walk in here — and I’ve had a life-altering event at this point now. Never, ever, had anything impacted me more than having to stand up there — and how ill-prepared I was, how uncomfortable I was the first couple months. And I thought, I can’t allow other officers to continue to grow up in our army that ill-prepared.”
Students found out about Caldwell’s media requirement when the general welcomed the student body of 1,251 last summer.
One of the instructors who took Caldwell’s mandate seriously was Lt. Col. Brian Allen. But though he appreciated Caldwell’s goals of transparency and communication, he figured that few in the media would care what his students had to say. (The original bulletin outlining the new media-openness requirements, however, remains classified.)
“That’s why I tested it, thinking, Is this just another venue for chamber-of-commerce happy talk?” Allen says. He e-mailed The Pitch, inviting any reporter to come along with his 16-member class on an August 2008 trip to visit the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in downtown Kansas City.
Allen describes the national-security curriculum he teaches as “a bit of civics, constitutional government, a bit about strategic planning.” Most of it should be review for his students.
This class is made up mostly of Army officers, but there are two Air Force officers, a Marine and one Special Forces officer in the group. The college engineers its classrooms to be racially diverse and to mix genders and services. The Navy, the Air Force and the Marines send top officers here, in part to promote understanding among the services. Allen’s class also includes one African-American officer, a female officer and a foreign officer from Turkey. Classes follow a kind of one-room-schoolhouse model: Sixty-four groups of 16 students spend four to six hours a day in the same classroom while their instructors move from room to room.
During the field trip to Liberty Memorial, Allen’s class takes over a conference room at the museum for a lesson on the global chain of command — how the military slices the Earth’s continents into segments, with a U.S. communications headquarters stationed in each.
Allen draws a map of the world on a dry-erase board, and officers call out the names of each communications headquarters until the map is completed. At one point, Simonds, who is one of the more outspoken members of the class, expresses his gratitude that his group isn’t full of “dead fish” — lively conversation keeps things interesting.
After class, officers walk around the halls of the museum, like just another group of students on a field trip, milling among glass cases filled with period weaponry and uniforms. Some sit through a black-and-white film in a small auditorium, which includes a life-sized diorama of battle action that lights up in sync with explosions on the screen. The officers, most of whom are in their 30s, stand out among the mostly gray-haired museum patrons. They wear civilian clothes.
Just before lunch, groups of three and four officers dutifully take turns sliding into a booth in the museum’s cafeteria to answer a reporter’s questions. Subjects arise that are familiar, if not downright stale to these officers by now: post-traumatic stress syndrome, the presidential election, their multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Complaints about the media’s coverage of the wars surface quickly.
Maj. Jennifer Gruber completed two tours of Afghanistan, the first from 2003 to 2004, the second from 2006 to 2007. On the latter, as the company commander of a Blackhawk helicopter company, she was in charge of 10 aircraft and 20 pilots and crew chiefs as they flew missions.
“For the longest time, even when I was in Afghanistan, you see [in news reports] Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. And I’m, like, hey, are we just the forgotten folks, or what?” Now, Gruber says, networks report little news from either front anymore.
Maj. Ron Garst, a Special Forces officer, remembers a 2003 encounter in Africa’s Ivory Coast when BBC World and CNN reporters got in his way. His team was trying to evacuate a bus and a truck filled with civilians, and the news crews were blocking the road. “It wasn’t the most friendly encounter,” he says.
Maj. Clay Meals, who has served two tours in Iraq, the second as a company commander, gets tired of seeing the Iraq War compared with Vietnam. “I don’t think there is a comparison,” he says. “Most of the time, when you hear that argument, there’s no foundation for why they’re making this comparison. Are there similarities? Yeah, there are similarities in every conflict since the beginning of time.”
So how do people who resent the media react to the general’s order to think like the media? A bit grudgingly.
Gruber admits she wasn’t thrilled by the new communication assignments.
“It wasn’t something I was real excited to do,” she says, laughing. “I really don’t care for blogging, personally. You know, I don’t have the time. I don’t surf or read blogs … I just don’t have a passion for that form of information sharing.”
Gruber completed her blogging assignment by writing about the difficulty of finding the right person to talk to on base about financial benefits for continuing education. (She’s working on a master’s in business administration.) Though practical, Gruber’s effort illustrates one of the problems inherent in military blogs: They’re often inscrutable to anyone outside the military.
Commenting on an online article or someone else’s blog counts as blogging, which is how many of Allen’s class of officers checked off the requirement.
Some officers’ blogs really shine. Mark Andres, an infantry officer from Illinois, wrote about the disdain he felt for an American public that he assumed had become apathetic to the war effort and the soldiers stationed abroad, and how an experience at a parade changed his attitude:
This past 4th of July I was asked to participate in the Independence Day Parade for a small, affluent suburb of Chicago. Initially, I felt that I was being “used” by this rich town to assuage their feelings of guilt because of their collective lack of connection to the ongoing war.
After I participated in this event, however, I realized that I was harboring a self-conceived attitude towards a group of Americans who were searching for a way to make a personal connection to our fighting men and women, but who had up to that point been unable. What I experience [sic] was a huge outpouring of pride, respect, and support from people who genuinely wanted to express their thanks, but who never had an actual person to talk to. …
This lack of communication is building a wall between the Active Component and the America [sic] people.
In the spring of 2008, a YouTube video of a Marine hurling a puppy off a cliff in Hawaii got more than 150,000 views. Trying to repress or deny such an image would have been useless. And Americans don’t have to turn to Fox News to understand the recent violence between Israel and Gaza when they can search the Internet and watch a video of the bombings from the night before. Caldwell realizes that the military needs to join the conversation before it’s too late.
“Before, the Army prohibited you from blogging,” Caldwell says. “You couldn’t blog. We do blog now. But what we did is, we went out and said, Here’s the deal: Just like you would do a TV or a newspaper or radio interview, the blog is just another means to communicate information. It’s just another interview, except you’re completely controlling it. That’s pretty powerful. You have an amazing influence in the blogosphere. Here you’re deciding what you want to talk about, and you’re sharing it with the world.”
Caldwell’s two-page blog policy for students includes among its instructions: Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of a newspaper with your name and photo. Don’t write anything that might embarrass Fort Leavenworth, the U.S. Army or the U.S. government. Stay apolitical. Sign your name and rank. Don’t divulge classified information; military operations being executed; or any tactics, techniques or procedures that aren’t already public. And though Caldwell tells The Pitch he wants to create an environment where students feel they have “the freedom of failure,” the policy reads that public-affairs officers will be conducting annual reviews of the blogs for policy violations.
Students are allowed to blog on any site, Caldwell says. But in the first few months after he explained his mandate to the officers, he still noticed “this massive reluctance to blog.” Realizing the officers might feel more comfortable on a military blog site that is accessible to the public, he had the Combined Arms Center add a blog site to its home page (http://usacac.army.mil/blog/). “It’s catching on slowly,” Caldwell says. “I’d like to see, three months from now, triple or quadruple the number of people blogging than I see today.”
There’s still grumbling among the ranks. “When we first started talking about this last summer, when I got here, my gosh, the resistance,” Caldwell says. “My first obstacle was getting through to all of the instructors.”
The Fort Leavenworth blogging mandates and other communication assignments are the bare minimum, Caldwell says.
The bare minimum is what has Simonds, Meals and classmate Maj. James “Wylie” Huffman dressed in uniform on a recent January evening, gripping tiny cups of wine, and hanging out near a table of cheese and crackers on the fifth floor of the Kansas City, Missouri, Central Library. Cardon, the CGSC deputy commandant, is giving a free public talk titled “Back From Iraq,” and the three officers have showed up in uniform in case any of the attendees want to ask them questions about their service.
Huffman says some of their classmates are jealous that this simple, in-uniform appearance — nibbling appetizers and mingling with downtowners — will count as the public-speaking portion of their media requirement.
Enough people show up for Cardon’s talk to fill all of the folding chairs lined up in the library’s reception area. Cardon, in full uniform and speaking into a small microphone clipped to his jacket, introduces himself as a wayward hippie turned soldier. In 1978, he applied to just two schools: the University of California at Berkeley and West Point. He enrolled at West Point because it was free, and he showed up with long hair and no idea what he was getting into. The audience rewards this confession with appreciative laughter.
Cardon fills the next 30 minutes or so with talk about wisdom gleaned from Iraqi sheiks, of the challenges of dealing with a tribal society, and of efforts to build Iraqi leadership without doing all the work for them. “Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki was elected prime minister by one vote, yet we expected him to operate like he had a mandate. And he’s trying to balance his own Shia power, Kurds, Sunnis, and not look like he’s an American stooge at the same time. That’s a very, very difficult position for a leader to be in,” Cardon says he told Petraeus in Iraq one day.
When it’s time to answer questions, many hands go up. People want to know about the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, whether the military wants a draft (“The official Army answer is no,” he says, smiling, before explaining that soldiers are volunteering and re-enlisting at impressive rates) and about the trouble with private security contractors. Library CEO Crosby Kemper III eventually halts the Q&A because of time — this audience might have kept Cardon all night.
Simonds, Huffman and Meals hang around while the room empties. No one stops to ask them any questions, though one man, a pilot who notices Simonds’ Air Force uniform, pauses briefly to chat. As Simonds said back in the Liberty
Memorial’s cafeteria last August, “With what’s happened since the whole Iraq War and how we’ve interacted with the media as a military, I see how we’ve messed it up. We should become more educated and not be afraid to say things, not be afraid to put out information. Because people need to know.”
Caldwell is aiming at changing the military’s tight-lipped culture one generation of officers at a time. He wants his officers to feel confident enough to become storytellers and have faith that people are listening. “We have to get much broader guidelines, trust our subordinates with a lot more,” he tells The Pitch. Ever a realist, he urges patience rather than frustration: “Probably 30 percent of the time, when you’re talking to the media, things won’t really turn out the way you perhaps wanted them to. But you know what? That’s OK … we can’t change it, and we shouldn’t try to control it.”
Military culture won’t change overnight, but its leadership can. Allen, the CGSC instructor, still has doubts. “I wonder what happens when he [Caldwell] leaves,” he says. “What will the next commander’s big issue be? Will it be the same or will it be different? We’ve seen that happen with changes in administration. I’d say, as someone formerly skeptical, I’m curious to see how this lives on after his departure.”
Click here to write a letter to the editor.