Selling War: An Interview with Steven J. Alvarez, Part 2

And we’re back!

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.

Let us begin…

Q: You highlight the dynamic between the enlisted public affairs Soldier who comes in on the ground floor, so to speak, and the public affairs officer, who spends time in another field before moving to the PAO arena. If you were King of Human Resources Command for a day, would you change this dynamic, and how?

A: The Army needs to look at other services and how they’re branching young officers from the get go as PAO’s. There is so much to learn, and as a young lieutenant, officers can gain so much experience in those formidable early years. Today, young people understand the value of social media and they are products of the digital age. The Army is foolish to not tap into that. I have been taught a lot by younger people, and the military needs to harness that knowledge and allow those young minds to engage. It is a missed opportunity by not commissioning young officers into PA. They can learn — so can senior people — but the Army is an organization that is very wrapped up in rank means knowledge and that’s not always the case. I’ve known some pretty bright junior officers who could run circles around colonels, but simple because someone has birds on epaulettes it means that they are the burning bush and they are considered an expert. In Army PA, that’s hogwash. I’ve known some pretty bad senior PAO’s. The Army needs to recruit young officers out of school and bring [them] up the ranks as PAO’s if it is to operate on today’s battlefield. How we tell stories, get news and share news has changed. Young people understand that dynamic much better and they are aware of emerging trends. Partnering with corporate America for some social media event with speakers won’t cut it. The Army needs deeper change. I know the Army is reluctant to do this and it has been broached before, but PA needs to be its own branch. The Army needs to be recruiting young men and women who are studying international mass media or international communications, international relations, specializing in certain cultural affairs or things along those lines. The Army has to stop recruiting marketers for its PAO ranks. I would make PA a branch and make the requirements to join that branch much harder than it currently is if king for a day. I have always found it interesting that Army journalists have to have extraordinarily high scores on their ASVABs [Interviewer’s Note: The standardized test one takes up entrance into the military that measures aptitude for various jobs] and then DINFOS [Interviewer’s Note: The Defense Information School] is a meat grinder with high recycle and wash out rates. The standards are high to enter the field as a military journalist, yet PAO’s, who lead those great troops, aren’t subjected to rigid or high standards. In fact, there are no special standards needed to become a PAO [Interviewer’s Note: There is an officer’s qualification course at DINFOS that is meant to be taken by officers in PAO slots, but individuals have been known to begin acting as PAO’s without first going through the course.]

Q: Your book proposes solutions to the problems you encountered. If you were King of Doctrine for the day, what is the most pressing problem you would address, and what would be the solution?

A: The Army and other services expect personnel to behave accordingly overseas, but they are not teaching people how to be good ambassadors. Similarly, the branches are not teaching our young men and women how to embrace the media and help tell the military’s story, domestically and abroad. Men and women in uniform are taught to fear the press and to run to the PAO if the media shows up. I do not understand why our recruits aren’t being given blocks of instruction on the military/media relationship. We should be training our recruits on how to tell the Army story and teach them that everything they do as military personnel, especially while deployed, is subject to scrutiny. Doctrinally, I would introduce blocks of instruction at basic and at AIT, and make media relations a part of regular training. We need to indoctrinate our recruits with the understanding that THEY ARE ALL PAO’s. PAO’s should be training all personnel in their commands to look for opportunities to tell the soldier story and that international relations is EVERYONE’s business when forward. I would also get PAO’s off their asses and into the field. Overseas on the battlefield they need to be working to influence conditions by proactively working with populaces, not drafting press releases and emailing them out to CNN like some ancient Edward Bernays. That’s archaic and ineffective.

The U.S. has challenges fighting an enemy close to civilian populaces. Sometimes it makes mistakes. So if the U.S. drops a bomb on a house and kill civilians, PAO’s need to be out there trying to rebuild the relationship. PR is about building relationships, not selling shit. If a sector of a city is truly secure, then PAO’s need to show that to the press and the populace, continuously, and not just once for a photo op. There needs to be more connectivity between operational forces and PAO’s. One can help the other.

I think the whole profession needs new doctrine and needs to be rebranded as global affairs officers (GAOs), organized into teams that specialize in communicating with peoples in different parts of the world. Communicating to a Bedouin audience is much different than communicating to a Chinese audience, so why would the Army apply a template to PA and think that one size fits all? It’s woefully ignorant. Teams comprised of specialists in these cultures would understand how to best convey messages and interpersonally work to build relationships. That’s not a PSYOP or Civil Affairs function. Within the global information environment that duty needs to fall on PAO’s or as I’m recommending, GAO’s or GA teams.

Q: Even in the ten years since your deployment, the twin forces of digital media and globalization have had huge effects on the abilities of non-state actors to wage media, propaganda, and information campaigns. How must military information efforts change or develop in order to meet this threat?

A: (This is from an email I sent Sarah Sicard who asked me to be a source in a story she’s penning about propaganda — Interviewer’s Note: “The Dark History Behind Famous American Propaganda Campaigns”):

First let me say that I think that the word propaganda, in general, has a negative connotation because it is often linked to campaigns that were launched to influence people. In our country’s early history the use of propaganda was less detectable than it is in today’s global information environment, but the proliferation of technology has vastly changed the landscape for those who work with information.
Our government in years past conducted domestic and international propaganda campaigns to sway opinions, attitudes, and behaviors and it was able to do it successfully because the information was controlled by a few. The channels to communicate to the masses were controlled by select groups, so ultimately messages were effectively communicated. Because the information was essentially flowing in one direction, to the target audience, and the audience itself was not interconnected, the messages saturated the target areas and were able to stick and sway populaces.
In the information age, information flows in many directions and the once isolated human sensors that were only receiving information are now able to receive and respond. Information ricochets in various directions these days. There are billions of human sensors who can instantly communicate to a wide network of humanity that spans the globe. Entities that are attempting to influence populaces can be quickly outed as organizations having agendas because often the motive can be traced to a political agenda or a flawed policy. It seems that if a person is trying to influence another the relationship is rooted in conflict because one party is trying to change the mind or behavior of another.
Today, I think we need more transparency and less use of propaganda. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information. Seemingly anything we want to know about is a click away and available for personal consumption on a multitude of devices. That’s why it is important to have sound policies that can be supported by solid public information tactics. Meaning, we should be using factual information to influence. The best thing we can use to influence people is fact itself. As a nation we need to disseminate what our truth is and audiences decide whether or not they believe it.
The U.S. government tends to rely heavily on propaganda because its policies are flawed from the get go. Iraq, as we now know, wasn’t about Iraqi freedom or WMDs, and when the true motives arise IO operators all rush to try to bend reality to fit the storyline. That needs to stop, and the more the U.S. government does that in this day and age the more it will be outed as disingenuous.
Recently with the War on Terror, we had some levels of propaganda that were launched by the U.S. Defense Department. There were government websites called Defend America and Why I Serve and others. Both of these campaigns were launched after 9–11, and they were created to rouse patriotic support of the military. Some believe that if folks support our men and women in uniform that they will support the foreign policies that those same service personnel are involved in. Those sites failed, in my opinion, and I say that as someone who wrote for them, because the reality on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan was much worse than what was being reported on these websites. This goes back to my earlier point. Propaganda worked a long time ago because there weren’t humans connected globally to show the reality of war. It cannot work today because there are too many people out there who can show the reality of warfare. So that’s why domestic DoD propaganda campaigns like Defend America failed. That’s why I feel that propaganda, like the earlier mentioned musket, has seen its final days. That’s not to say that you still won’t have it, just turn on an NFL or professional sports game and you will see plenty of patriotic propaganda.
The U.S. needs to be above the fray. Sounds a bit boy scoutish but it is true. We need to operate with truth as a compass heading and be sincere. Not long ago BP made some massive PR mistakes in the Gulf Region, but they got in, immersed themselves in the problem and into the community and started to fix what they broke from the middle and then outward. They met the issues head on and the target audiences have responded favorably. The U.S. military needs to do the same thing. It needs to stop spinning things and it needs to avoid being the stewards of flawed policies. Only truth can be our way ahead and we need to make our interactions very personal and intimate when we are walking on someone else’s soil. Apologizing for collateral damage deaths from a podium at the Pentagon doesn’t mean shit to a goat herder who just lost his whole family in an errant bomb drop. The Army needs people on the ground to rebuild not just the lives impacted, but the relationships.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in writing this book?

A: My only challenges were internal. I served for 24 years and the military was very good to me. I fought my way into the commissioned ranks from the enlisted ranks after more than a decade with stripes on my arms. For me, the service was a way out for a guy who barely finished high school. It gave me a lot of opportunities I ordinarily would not have had, so it was hard to write negatively, even if it was constructively, about an institution I love.

Q: Was there anything you were planning to include but unable to?

A: In initial drafts I went off on tangents about things I saw and I had to remove them to focus on the main issue which was poor PR. For example, we had an Army officer in our command who worked in our orderly room. He was a reservist and a pilot on the outside and he was awarded an Air Medal because he took a “joyride” (what it was called by a Marine aviator working with the Iraqi Air Force) over Basra airfield. The citation said he was under threat of SAMs and all sorts of other heroic B.S. We all looked at each other in disbelief as he was pinned but that kind of stuff went on a lot. Lots of badge and medal chasing by grown men and women, but I had to remove that kind of stuff and focus on the main point of the book.

Q: For this one, break out the Magic 8 Ball. Where do you see the future of PAO in military operations heading?

A: I sent out several hundred emails to PA offices around the world to raise awareness of the book. I’ve reached out to DINFOS, OCPA, and other entities in hopes to start a dialogue about doctrine and career field changes, but my headset is silent. In fairness, it might take time for them to digest everything given the book has only been out a month [Interviewer’s Note: It’s been out a little longer by now]. I know change comes slow to institutions like the Army, but I do hope it comes eventually or at least before we send our men and women in uniform into another shit sandwich like Iraq. It takes courage to be bold and to bring change and out there I hope someone is going to be brave enough to tackle this issue. It takes fortitude to be introspective and say that doctrine might be outdated. My old boss, Gen. Petraeus, rewrote the COIN manual with other officers. My hope is that this book at least serves as a catalyst. The rest is up to the Army. The book was not written to point fingers, cast blame or to achieve anything diabolical. It was written in the hope that maybe somewhere some PAO will pick up the torch and say “everyone on me” and lead a charge.

Q: Anything to add?

A: While I was deployed, I kept a blog for the Orlando Sentinel which was then my hometown newspaper. I would routinely get emails from this angry little man in Central Florida who read my posts. As the months went by, so did the frequency of his emails. He said he wished I’d die, that he hated me and that I was a liar. I’ve come to learn that he’s one of those “get out of my yard kids” old men who regularly attends local city government meetings and spends his time bitching about everything. He’s just a grumpy old guy with nothing better to do and it is almost sad that he’s got nothing in his life to fill his time. At the height of his wrath, he was writing me almost daily with all sorts of angry sentiment and profanity. I never acknowledged him which I’m sure made him angrier. At one point he wrote me an email that said “Go on, keep selling your fucking war” or something like that, and that stuck with me. When it was time to title the book, I thought of his email to me and titled it Selling War. The subtitle came courtesy of editors at University of Nebraska Press. At least something of value came from that relationship with that pissed off little man.

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Thanks for sticking around and reading, and thanks to Steve for agreeing to let me post his interview in a new format than I originally pitched (was originally going to be a standalone blog post.) I’m interested to hear what people think, and I hope you will be back for more!

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.

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