CJCS’s Searing Critique

Posted: August 28, 2009 in CJSC, Strategic communication

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has an article in the most recent Joint Force Quarterly regarding strategic communication called Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics. The New York Times called it a “searing critique” while another headline praised Mullen for (finally) elevating the strategic communication debate above the third grade level.

Not to be confused with social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, strategic communication is significantly different. It even warrants a spot in the Joint Dictionary, where strategic communication is defined as “Focused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power.”

In short order, Admiral Mullen’s article first says ‘we’re awful’ (my paraphrase) and then advises us to get back to basics, where “we can start by not beating ourselves up.” He then proceeds to beat everyone up. While the article is only about 1300-words, in it Mullen invokes the word “we” around 25 times. In context, he appears to apply “we” to the U.S. military in about 20 of those usages and to the American people in general about three times. However, the tone of “we” as it seems to apply to the military is one of failure. Here are many of the descriptions: we have walked away; we have allowed; we need to; we haven’t invested; we haven’t always delivered; we know better; we could learn; we must know; we hurt ourselves; we must be vigilant; we don’t fully–and don’t always attempt to–understand; we must listen; we should use; we need to worry; we (need to) learn to be more humble, and; we need more…credibility.

Admiral Mullen says our messages lack credibility because we lack credibility and he says the reason we lack credibility is because 1) we haven’t built trust or relationships and 2) because we haven’t always delivered on promises. As the article is written by Admiral Mullen in his role as the U.S. armed forces senior ranking member, and because it appears in JFQ (as well as on the JCS web site) for a largely military audience, it certainly seems the “we” is focused on the military, which after all, owns strategic communication and would be the target for these shortcomings.

Admiral Mullen’s article reflects the universal truth that actions speak louder than words. However, since the article itself is a critique on strategic communication, it warrants being unpacked a little more. For example, there are several photos in the article and in them, what do we see? We see the Admiral addressing the media and we see him interviewing with CNN. However, in the text, he offers the advice “We hurt ourselves and the message we try to send when it appears we are doing something merely for the credit,” the quote appears right above a photo of Mullen (see top of post) handing out notebooks at an Afghan girls’ school. Is it me?

What was missing from the article was the ‘Here is what we’re going to do about it’ part. Other than the vague requirement to ‘build trust and relationships and deliver on promises,’ I didn’t see much about what to do, let alone how to do it. In fact, in that sense, the article was very reminiscent of one he penned a year ago for JFQ called It’s Time for a New Deterrence Model. In that article, again clocking in at 1300-words (I think I see a pattern), the phrase “we must” appeared ten times and the Admiral presented a world-class to-do list. Included in its “we must” listings were: revitalize; hold ourselves accountable; recruit; manage; act proportionally; address our conventional force structure; enhance our capability to rapidly locate and destroy targets; conduct sufficient contingency planning; improve conventional global strike capability; stay engaged globally. All these “we musts” tend to imply “we aren’t.”

Knowing we’re in a swamp is one thing. Remembering what we came to the swamp to do is another. Providing the illuminating vision to do that job is another still.

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