The Revolt of the (Military) Public

515 Plans
515 Plans
Nov 26 · 7 min read

The “book that predicted Trump” also predicts coming problems for the military hierarchy

The Revolt of the Public was self published by former CIA Analyst Martin Gurri in 2014. Now touted by many as the “book that predicted the Trump Presidency,” it was republished in 2018 with updates to reflect our current political environment. In The Revolt of the Public, Gurri develops three key “hypotheses or claims” about the present moment:

  1. Information influences politics because it is indigestible by a government’s justifying story [for the purposes of this paper, this applies to other “elite/hierarchical organizations as well].
  2. The greater the diffusion of information to the public, the more illegitimate any political status quo will appear.
  3. Homo informaticus, networked builder and wielder of the information sphere, poses an existential challenge to the legitimacy of every government he encounters.

Each of these claims has implications for the military, as the majority of enlistees and junior officers are now digital natives, and thus grew up as “homo informaticus.” Because the military is a gerontocracy, most senior leaders are not ready for this — they are instead products of the rigid, industrial age hierarchy that was cemented after World War II and are ill-equipped to deal with the rapidly changing, nihilistic societal environment in which we find ourselves. Although I commend this book to anyone who is interested in the current moment, this paper will focus on the import of The Revolt of the Public to the US military. Assuming Gurri’s hypotheses are correct, what are the implications for the force going forward?

The Revolt of the Public is focused largely on politics and the interaction between “the public” and various elements of so-called “elites,” but it also applies to thinking about the modern military. Indeed, although the modern US military differs from broader American society in many ways, it is nonetheless drawn from it and necessarily reflects most of the basic cultural issues one finds there. To simplify Gurri’s three hypotheses, The Revolt of the Public’s basic thesis is previously, control over information and its dissemination were the primary factor behind the legitimacy & power of those at the top of the hierarchy (in general terms, Gurri is referring to the hierarchy of government, although this can apply across generally all of our “elite” institutions). Since the emergence of the internet and associated networking technologies, however, near infinite access to information for all has massively degraded this legitimacy/power. If this is an issue in society, it is likely that it will become an issue within the military as well — and our leadership will need to both change from “business as usual" while managing the frustration and nihilistic impulses of the various “publics” that exist within the larger military enterprise.

Although the military has an extremely vertical and rigid hierarchy, this is unlikely to provide much mitigation to Gurri’s forecasted revolt. He uses commentator/thinker Walter Lipmann’s definition of the public not as masses in society writ large, but as “merely the persons who are interested in an affair and can affect it only by supporting or opposing the actors” (by Gurri’s definition, there is no single “public,” but can be any number relating to different issues). Although it is surely more difficult for military publics to support or oppose actors above them in the hierarchy than regular people in society, it is nonetheless likely that this will begin to emerge in military circles as well. One can see examples of this having begun over the past decade — as it has become more and more common for military members to speak out against their chain of command in public. Much of the success of the military hierarchy since the advent of the all volunteer force has been due to the trust troops place in their leadership higher up the chain of command. One might suggest that a fundamental tenet of a volunteer military is trust in the leadership not to squander their lives. As that trust degrades — and Gurri suggests it must with the loss of centralized information control — it will be more difficult to motivate, retain, and indeed, recruit the force in the first place. Perhaps the question is why must trust in our leaders degrade? There are two key reasons. The first is simply that leadership no longer has control of information. Every time something inaccurate is spoken from a headquarters; any time a narrative comes from the top of the hierarchy that does not accurately reflect the truth, the individual enlisted soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine will know that they have been given false information in no time at all. Second, every mistake leaders make will be amplified and broadcast with glee by the very public that they have some responsibility to. Gurri describes the public as nihilistic, and there’s nothing so entertaining for them as to tear down elites — this absolutely includes military leadership.

A related issue Gurri highlights is the method our politicians/political leadership use to try to mitigate this continuing degradation of trust: they promise to fix the issues their public are angry about. This doesn’t work because the hierarchy has lost the ability to actually accomplish these big promises, and thus the failure creates a reinforcing loop of anger. A given public gets angry because they have lost trust in the institution that had previously controlled the information they believed about their chosen issue, and they are then proven right to have lost trust when the institution fails to deliver what was promised to fix the problem. This creates a self perpetuating cycle. Some readers might say “sure, but how does that apply to the military? There are no politicians trying to get elected there.” This is certainly true. One can see at least a shadow of this in many areas though. One useful example is the Marine Corps’ ongoing attempts to re-invent itself. This started with Gen Amos’ Expeditionary Force 21, followed by Gen Neller’s Marine Corps Operating Concept and Force 2025, and then by Gen Berger’s Commandant’s Planning Guidance. Although the jury is still out on the last one, the previous three were all sold to the force as “transformational.” In reality, very little actually changed. The more this happens, the more the public — in this case, the total force — loses trust in leaders who claim to be transforming who they are and/or what they do.

Perhaps an even more useful example of this can be found in leaders who use the prospect of “combat” to excite and motivate their subordinates. This isn’t to say that nervous anticipation isn’t a major part of deploying to a combat environment — of course it is. Nonetheless, the destruction of trust in the “information holder” comes when that leader misleads subordinates (deliberately or otherwise) about the character of the environment to which they’re deploying. Pep talks and telling Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen that they’re deploying to the “big show” and headed to kill bad guys, etc can be useful — but only when accurate. Leaders who hype the character of a deployment and raise expectations only to see them crash down once the deployment begins are playing with fire — and likely to create a trust environment that will greatly increase the likelihood of a revolt of the public within their unit.

This leads into a final key point that Gurri addresses — top down, hierarchical, centralized planning almost never accomplishes those “big changes” leaders and elites push to try to satisfy their public. It doesn’t work in any time when you’re dealing with interactions between thinking humans, but it definitely doesn’t work in today’s complex, interactive, interconnected world. When leaders make promises to satisfy various publics, the place that they run into the most trouble is in the implementation. They inevitably fail, and thus corrode trust more, but the question is why? Ultimately, Gurri suggests (as many others have before him), that the world is simply too complex for any one person, hierarchy, or bureaucracy to know enough information about “ground truth” to properly plan from the top down. He suggests that this is an exacerbating factor making the public revolt — as they see leaders attempt and fail miserably at implementing the promised “grand plan,” they begin to distrust more and more everything that comes from higher up in the hierarchy. That this is a clear and present danger to the military should be glaringly obvious to those who wear the uniform.

Ultimately, the way the US military treats its general population junior officers and enlistees is based on industrial age thinking and industrial age theories of information. If Gurri is right — and he has quite a compelling argument — then all of our institutions, society wide, will need to change to deal with the new environment we find ourselves in. Military leadership would do well to deliberately restructure, find new information management techniques, or determine some other way to minimize the impact of the coming revolt. Although the general homogeneity of the all volunteer force, the rigid hierarchy, and generally strict discipline may help to mitigate the issue — or at least delay it to some degree — Gurri’s book suggests that all of the existing hierarchies in the information age will be subject to this sort of nihilistic revolt. If things remain “business as usual,” existing military institutions will have an extremely difficult time breaking loose from the self perpetuating cycle that they find themselves in and preventing the disintegration of trust across the force.

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