Strategic communication becoming important weapon for modern Army

? Hardly a decade has passed in U.S. history that the military hasn’t developed what’s touted as the latest, greatest weapon.

During and after World War I, aircraft and tanks grew from a novelty to essential battlefield weapons. They promised to reduce the need for infantry, until it took millions of men in uniform to storm the beaches of Normandy and the Pacific to finally end World War II.

“Technology has that tendency to make war look easy,” said Adrian Lewis, a former Army officer and now history professor at the University of North Texas. “People think it will go quick and ignore the fact that you have to put people on the ground and they will get killed.”

The atomic bomb was to make war almost unthinkable. Who would want to wage war against a nation that possessed the new ultimate weapon? Then the North Koreans ignited a peninsular war that has remained at a stalemate for 60 years.

Better aircraft, faster and heavily armored battle tanks and smarter bombs followed. So did wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and limited engagements in Haiti, Somalia and Panama.

But in fighting terrorists and insurgents, some feel the best weapon may be one that doesn’t fire bullets, but neutralizes the enemy just as well. It’s what Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV calls “strategic communications.”

It’s part shooting one’s mouth off, part letting the desired audience know what the U.S. military and government are all about.

Caldwell shared his concept with military historians and officers last week at a conference hosted by Fort Leavenworth’s Combat Studies Institute. The three-day affair examined the implications of fighting nonstate enemies – those who fight not in a common uniform but cloaked in ideology bent on disrupting government and spreading fear and destruction.

Before becoming commander of Fort Leavenworth this summer, Caldwell was a deputy commander for strategic effects for multinational forces in Iraq. Among other duties he was the spokesman for U.S. forces, something foreign to this Army Ranger and former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Without training, he learned the best way to engage the media was to be honest, open, relevant and ready. Sometimes not saying anything is an appropriate response. However, he also learned that effective communication and success in Iraq meant using whatever means necessary to convey the message.

He toured the country to see operations firsthand, made sure that unit commanders kept the media in mind when planning operations, and introduced the online video-sharing site YouTube to the military. Once a month he went to Dubai to make the rounds with Arabic media, working to develop relationships.

Those efforts run counter to the military culture in which officers are taught to avoid talking to the media, to wait until an investigation is done before releasing information.

But, Caldwell said, that has to change. The military has to be open with Iraqis and Americans. Terrorists are using the Internet, audio and video to wage a war. That’s why he fought to get intelligence declassified quickly for public consumption, knowing the Americans needed to tell their side of every battle.

Caldwell’s ideas meld well with the Army and Marines’ new counterinsurgency doctrine, also written at Fort Leavenworth while Gen. David Petraeus, now the top leader in Iraq, was commander. The manual speaks at great length about the need to identify the needs of the population and counter the influence of insurgents seeking to take power from the government.

In short, instead of shooting mortars, rolling tanks into a neighborhood or calling in an air strike, the better approach may be to engage the population through an active dialogue and explain what the United States’ mission is all about.

Presenters at the Fort Leavenworth symposium agreed that the U.S. needs to do a better job of explaining its intentions across the world. Just what is the compelling national interest? Does it want to stabilize a country so the residents can live in peace and prosperity? Or is it all about the oil?

Caldwell said the message coming out from insurgents is that the U.S. is on a great crusade, conjuring up images of the Middle Ages with knights conducting a holy war to regain ground and treasure in the name of Christianity. He played a short video clip produced by terrorists that included the voices of numerous fundamentalist Christian clergy from across America.

They talked about fighting back against Islam, rounding up all Muslims in the United States and the war being a struggle for the very existence of Christianity. Meanwhile, President Bush and others speak of creating a democratic and free Iraq. The challenge, Caldwell said, is letting Iraqis know that Americans have no desire to colonize Iraq or be permanent occupiers.