Selling War: An Interview with Steven J. Alvarez, Part 1

My first guest in this new series of interviews with veteran writers is Steve Alvarez, former military public affairs officer (PAO) and author of the non-fiction book, Selling War. As a former PAO myself (served as a noncommissioned officer in the field from 2003 to 2006) I found many of his insights to be particularly trenchant. While future interviews may focus more on the writing process per se, this one directly addresses the subject matter in the book, given that it is nonfiction and semi-autobiographical, and thus drawn directly from his experiences. I highly recommend the book, and hope that our conversation may be as illuminating.

(Quick note — this interview will be presented in two parts, due to length.)

Let us begin…

Q: Part of what you discuss, namely the need to communicate to the host nation audience, or to advise the host nation military PAO’s, used to fall doctrinally under psychological operations (PSYOP) (perhaps it still does), and/or was pre-empted by them. Information Operations (IO) attempted to pull both PAO and PSYOP under one umbrella for a time. What are your thoughts on this situation? Is there a need for a clear line between the two fields? Are there advantages to blending the two?

A: During my time in Iraq, an IO officer was detailed to my team from MNFI. He was an amazingly bright officer and I welcomed having him as part of our effort. However, I didn’t think that having an individual on our team from a group reputed for being able to distort facts was someone that we should have so closely aligned to my team which worked with facts. I should say that from what I know, PSYOP usually conducts most of its campaigns with truth, but it has had a bit of a problem managing its brand because it is widely known for its ability to use deceit in order to gain a foothold, something that isn’t wholly true, but the reputation is out there and it was something I couldn’t afford to residually tarnish my team as we tried to work with an already distrustful host nation press corps. I think there needs to be clear delineation between parties that can shape information that is used to influence and those that work with facts. Although PAOs try to influence by using information, they should not be manipulating the information to achieve objectives. I do not see any advantage to blending PA and PSYOP, because once discovered there is an instant lack of credibility of PAOs. Remember the PAO who announced that operations had begun in Fallujah when they really hadn’t? That was an IO ploy to get insurgent forces to mobilize so coalition forces could stir them from their hiding spots. However, media reported, erroneously, that the campaign had begun. There was an instant backlash and the press felt as if they were being used and lied to. This doesn’t do much to improve the already strained relationship between the press and the military.

Q: (Follow-Up) Where is the ethical line between influencing and informing a population?

A: Ethics are an individualistic set of principles that can’t be broad brushed. Some reporters feel that it is their job to capture a story and not participate in it. That’s why you have photos and videos of people jumping to their deaths at the World Trade Center. Journalists could have tried to run up and help, but instead they did their jobs. They made an ethical decision based on their moral and professional principles. I think the same thing goes for military personnel involved in information operations. Any military member in a war wants to achieve the objective, which is to win the war. I’m sure many feel that what they are doing is ethical so again, it is a very individual decision. Personally, I always felt it was my job to communicate to all publics. In Iraq, I felt it was my job to communicate to the local national populace first and to the American populace second because it was the Iraqi populace that needed to be informed. It was the local populace that could prevent our soldiers from getting killed, so to me it made sense to talk to them first. I tried to inform them. I gave them facts, and if I maintained a steady drumbeat of facts that could be supported with actual action or tangible progress, then that would lead to influence. However, organizations like the CPA (Interviewer’s Note: Coalition Provisional Authority) early on tried to influence the populace without meaningful progress and that was quickly outed as propaganda by Iraqis on the street. For example, the world could be told by the CPA that basic services were restored to all Iraqis, but there were millions who could attest to the fact that electricity was only on for a couple of hours per day. The CPA could argue that security was improving in Iraq because the U.S. had trained 55,000 police officers, but the daily death toll spoke louder and painted a more accurate image. PAOs can inform and subsequently influence, but what they are communicating must be tangible and factual. There are too many human sensors who can quickly refute any spun tale.

Q: One of the takeaways that I gained from the book is the idea that counterinsurgencies are lost in a sequence of missed opportunities that cannot be revisited. In other words, COIN can, in fact, be lost in the planning stages if a good information or strategic communications plan is not put in place. I would argue that neither our political leaders nor our military plans or hopes to fight a COIN; it arises as a result of those misses or failures. Would you agree? Why or why not? How would you shape the information battlefield pre-boots on the ground?

A: In the case of Iraq, the United States was not at all prepared for a COIN fight. The U.S. went into Iraq with the same bravado it had from its earlier dealings with Iraq in the 1990s and it expected to be able to control the message about conditions on the ground and progress in the war. But on the modern battlefield in this global information environment, the message can no longer be controlled and PAO’s need to be purveyors of truth and fact. PAO’s cannot be mediums for toxic bullshit that is spewed from a podium or in printed PA products. It is too easily disproved by populaces on the ground. There are too many human sensors who can deliver the truth. I think the proliferation of technology has changed the battlefield forever. Americans do not have the stomach to see what war really is about. They’ve been shielded from those realities for far too long by the media and by the military itself. Maybe if American media showed more of the human tragedy of war, Americans would be more reluctant to rush in and send troops into harm’s way. There is no preparation that is needed if a government deploys troops truly in the name of liberation. The cause is noble and that story will tell itself. That’s easy to share with the public because deep down I think we all want to help not hurt each other. However, it gets murky when nations claim to do things for one reason, say freedom, and then the world sees a darker agenda surfacing as the operation unfolds.

Q: One of the areas you address are public affairs officers not understanding the larger picture, or not understanding how the news cycle works; however, one of my experiences was dealing with Commanders who did not understand news cycles, journalists, or the importance of what public affairs could contribute to the mission. How do you feel that PAO’s can better communicate their doctrine and contributions to our own military in a way that will give them a spot on the battlefield?

A: The crux of the problem with the PAO field is that many PAO’s are too chicken shit to assert themselves. An anecdote that I’m sure every PAO has experienced: in Iraq I was called by our chief of staff every time Gen. Petraeus needed a grip and grin picture taken. After doing one or two of these as favors, I met with him and told him that grip and grin shots weren’t something we did and that I would not tie up my military journalist with that kind of work. I knew it was the chief’s experience with past PAO’s that was making him lean on us for this service, but I showed him in the regs where it says those types of photos have no news value unless of course it is for valor or something along those lines. I showed him the reg and while it didn’t say that grip and grins weren’t allowed to be shot by journalists, I got my point across. I told him we had bigger fish to fry. He agreed, and in a show of force he made me buy the command group a camera (not with my personal money) which the general’s aide used from thereon in, but he understood and I got out of that business. I had to fight that battle many times to protect Army journalists from performing those bullshit duties because it doesn’t end there. The colonel getting the medal wants copies of the photo emailed to people, and CDs burned, and images altered. When all is said and done, it is a full day’s work when you add the fact that the journalist is doing it multiple times per week. It is a misuse of an incredibly valuable resource. That’s just an example, but every PAO I’ve ever met has allowed their people to get run over like that. It causes retention issues because the PA troops don’t want to be working at Picture People, they want to be up in the air, on ships, in vehicles and capturing action. They’re smart, hard to recruit and even harder to retain so giving them menial tasks chases them out of uniform.

That’s just an example, but it illustrates what commanders and staffers think PAO’s do and there is so much more that PAO’s can offer. There were many times over my career that I sat down with chiefs of staff and the generals I supported and I clearly told them this is what I do and this is what I will deliver. Then, I delivered. I think a lot of PAO’s get caught up in being told what to do and that’s mostly because they don’t fully understand the profession or the discipline. They cut cakes, take pictures and send news clips. They can be so much more than that and can help in so many different ways. Part of the problem is that many PAO’s aren’t professional communicators, but rather people who have fallen into the profession somehow. They don’t understand the bigger picture because they’ve never been taught. It is like injecting me into the accounting department. What the hell do I know about budgets? Or better yet, make me the head of IT. How can I service customers and provide IT support when I have educational credentials in communications? For some reason, the Army has gotten into this mindset that anyone can be a PAO. I’m sure at some point in time that logic was okay because in essence, public relations can be learned, but it is like any other skill. You need training to be an accountant or to work in IT. Somehow the Army feels that a history degree or a degree in business can cut it. It doesn’t and I’ve seen that firsthand. In this modern day, the Army needs erudite personnel sitting in the PAO chair who can communicate to various audiences in the global information environment. The musket was a modern weapon at one point in military history, but we stopped using it and over time and through many iterations of various weapons we developed the M-4 carbine. We have to understand that the mold for PAO’s of yesteryear needs to be broken and a new type of PAO needs to be morphed. We’ll just keep repeating recent history, and we are, if changes are not made to that career field. The current PAO model is an anachronism. It is something we should have stopped using long ago, but the problem lies in doctrine. The doctrine calls for PR people and we shake, bake, and have PR people. The doctrine needs to be revamped just like the COIN manual.

Stay Tuned for Part 2!

Amazon Bio: Steve Alvarez is a Texas-based writer and the author of the book, Selling War A Critical Look at the Military’s PR Machine. He has written about various topics including world affairs, veterans’ issues, the U.S. military, strategic communications, domestic and foreign policy and parenthood. His articles and essays have been published in Gannett newspapers, Tribune Media Company newspapers and websites, and other publications. While he was on active duty he wrote a blog, Dispatches from Iraq, that was the U.S. military’s first-ever official blog.