The Privatization of Victory

What causes terrorism? An excellent question, but one best answered by someone like Aristotle. A more interesting, and perhaps answerable, question is what causes terrorism to be used?

Disintermediation—the process of cutting out the middleman—is typically used in reference to the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain. Its application in other contexts is less clear. In terms of information, this principle allows parents to look up symptoms of their child’s illness at WebMD without directly consulting the doctor. It allows shoppers at to compare prices on digital cameras. Starting with newspapers and evolving into the Internet, disintermediation continually puts us closer to the information we seek. As a society, we welcome disintermediation. Unfortunately, the ancillary consequences of disintermediation are almost entirely overlooked, many of which play directly into terrorists’ hands.

National Defense

My grandfather landed at Normandy. To my knowledge, he never even spoke of it in his lifetime. In contrast, Senator John Kerry thought he would be assured victory in his 2004 Presidential bid because of his combat experience, and he had the pictures and videos to prove it. This rapid rise in comfortability in talking about, or right out exploiting, military service corresponds to the rise in disintermediation, i.e. bringing the front lines of war to everyday lives of Americans in real-time. As the images of conflict became more readily available and distributed, it was only natural that more service members would feel comfortable, or perhaps feel the necessity, to speak about what they had seen. The rise of the strategic corporal, the shifting metric for victory, and the perceived information transparency in all situations have all contributed to disintermediation’s creep into national defense policy.

In the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, some service members have set up personal web logs to comment daily on the progress of the war. If one of them says, “I don’t have body armor,” this might be interpreted as, “no soldiers have body armor.” Thus, some service members have the ability to jump the media, and more importantly their chain-of-command, to comment on national defense policy. This concept is called the strategic Corporal — a service member at the bottom of the Marine Corps who is forced to serve as an ambassador for the entire Marine Corps or even all Americans. This principle gives undue influence and responsibility to those at the bottom. The problem is that this is not in good keeping with military discipline and thus allows certain service members, via the Internet or a CNN reporter, to seem more important than his fellow service members. In addition, it makes the actions of a few represent the actions of everyone.

The permanence of the mission, and therefore its accomplishment, should be the basis for victory; however, limiting the number of casualties now supplants mission accomplishment as the metric for victory. Limiting the number of casualties would never be seen as a bad thing; however, when used as the primary metric for victory, limiting the number of casualties threatens the sense of permanence that service members feel from their role in something so noble.

General Wesley Clark is often cited as winning the Kosovo conflict “without a single casualty.” That phrase is meaningless, but the fact that it is repeated every time that General Clark is on television indicates the importance of limiting casualties in modern conflicts. Why is that a metric for victory? Simply put, it is not. However, disintermediation makes it seem so by constraining military commanders to subjective criteria rather than objective criteria like mission accomplishment. The number of acceptable causalities will change continuously based on length of conflict and whom you are asking. Forget politics, and for a moment put yourself in the place of the junior Marine. All he knows is that he has to follow orders and accomplish the mission because his mission, like the Marine Corps, is permanent. His government owes him the knowledge that even if he dies, the cause will go on because it is immutable, noble, and clear. Missions cannot remain permanent if we allow outside, shifting criteria to determine their importance and disintermediation has played a role in doing just that.

The greatest threat to our national security today is the perceived information transparency that exits in a flat world. I have access to all manner of information concerning flash functions on digital cameras, drug interactions between medicines, and the satellite image of my home through Google Earth. In a system where disintermediation grants us unprecedented access to information concerning everything else, why would we assume it is not true on issues of national defense? Knowing 90% of the information, but thinking I know 100% of the information, is a very dangerous thing. The argument goes something like this: the Internet brings all information to me. When I have all the information, I know best. Therefore, I know best. What happens to this argument when I perceive that I have all the information but actually don’t?

I am quite certain that my grandfather had his own personal feeling on D-Day; however, I don’t think he felt the necessity to share it with General Eisenhower or the general public. Contrast that with our current culture where everyone, including Geraldo Rivera who is so aloof that he announced sensitive information on live television and endangered service members, feels the need to comment on national security. Jeffrey B. Jones, in his article Strategic Communication, argues that one of the factors impacting the information environment is that the “traditional lines between public affairs, public diplomacy, and military information operations are blurred because of immediate access to information.” Many Americans, present company included, feel that our opinions on national security are at least as well informed as the President’s. While I think I have access to all the information, certain aspects will always be classified to safeguard service members’ lives. This is the greatest danger that disintermediation has brought us. The feeling that I, or anyone else, am qualified to comment on matters of national security because I feel total transparency in the process. This new culture has an important and irrevocable impact on the political debate. Political enemies of any administration can hold hostage the political debate, knowing that classified information might exonerate an administration from wrongdoing, all the while knowing that the public will assume that they have all the information.

The information trickle concerning the war in Iraq has greatly threatened whether or not the war can be won. This is a direct result of people becoming accustomed to having access to any and all information at the drop of a hat. Thus, the perceived information transparency has undermined the administration’s effort to use a shifting rationale for war rather than a permanent one. Any single reason for going to war with Iraq, be it oil, terrorism, democracy, or liberation, might be reasonable, but taken as a whole trickling them out gives the impression that the administration has withheld the real cause until it was forced to reveal it. The rise of the strategic corporal, the shifting metric for victory, and the perceived information transparency have all contributed to the challenges we have faced in this war — the first war in the information age.


Former President Jimmy Carter, in a recent interview with PBS, had this to say about the poor living in a time of globalization: “they become more aware of the difference between their life and the life of the outside world. So they tend to lash out at the affluent and fortunate world.” That he can make this comment, having grown up on a peanut farm before he could even listen to the Atlanta Braves on the radio, is a tribute to disintermediation.

Many have argued that it is the gap between rich and poor countries that has caused modern terrorism to be employed; however, perhaps it is not the gap itself but the fact that the poor are aware that the disparity exists because of disintermediation. Certainly, there are many factors, but the portions of the Koran so often quoted in defense of killing civilians hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. The ability to deliver that terror has changed and that has made the difference.

Disintermediation has not caused modern terrorism; it has empowered it. Consider how the terrorist wields disintermediation as his weapon of opportunity. Without it, he is not able to terrorize. Bringing terror to rural Georgia via NYC is a play right out of Osama’s playbook. I am quite certain that serfs were aware that their masters lived better than they did. However, couple the knowledge of that disparity with a weapon to exploit it and that is a lethal combination for a terrorist.

Even these results of disintermediation do not entirely aid terrorists. For example, poor people having more information on our standard of living may help empower them to hold their elected leaders accountable. As yet, this statement is at the very least unproven if not disproved by elections in Egypt, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority, where in every case terrorists made significant gains. In addition, while terrorists can and have used disintermediation to spread fear and build support for their cause, their tactics can backfire as when they bomb masques, most recently in Baghdad in February. These examples, however, pale in comparison to their usual exploitation of media to sell their cause. In fact, terrorists are counting on us to rely solely on traditional operations, which means we need to do more to turn the table on the terrorists.

Disintermediation, in supply chains and elsewhere, is here to stay. Mark Leonard describes the vulnerabilities that superpowers will face down the road as the “privatisation of destruction,” whether that is from a computer hacker or a rouge terrorist. In many people’s eyes, the war on terror has one face — Osama Bin Laden. Realizing before the Iraq war that disintermediation is the weapon of choice for our enemy would have given us a leg up. For example, not ensuring that every corporal was a strategic corporal caused the Abu Ghraib prison to set us back on the war on terrorism. Under this context, several concepts need immediate consideration, as follows:

From the day they reach boot camp until the day they again become civilians, all Marines should receive two types of training to augment their basic warrior training: cultural training in a regional context and strategic communication training. It would not be hard to envision each squad in boot camp assigned to a different region (on a rotating basis), with one Marine serving as the squad’s translator (squad to environment) and another as the squad’s communicator (squad to homeland).

The Marine Corps should coordinate and solicit, perhaps through its Public Affairs Officers, stories from junior Marines reflecting operations on the ground. When Marines understand that part of their job to stop terrorism is to out-maneuver our enemy in the court of public opinion, they will happily contribute with stories to their hometown papers.

Placing Marines in different job fields should be contingent upon two factors: 1. Can they do the job? 2. Can they do the job well? The second question cannot be answered by an Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). For example, a Marine who scores 85% on the ASVAB may qualify for jobs ranging from Air Traffic Controller to Rifleman; however, there is certainly one job the Marine would perform more proficiently. More detailed information from secondary tests, such as a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and interviews with junior officers are part of the solution.

Recruiting quotas should not only be based on numbers but also job fields. We cannot afford to misallocate valuable resources, e.g. language aptitude, because a recruiter needs to find bodies rather than skill sets. Ensuring that the first Marine most of us meet — our recruiter — understands that job placement is as important as quotas is essential to fighting conflicts during the information age.

A media savvy, culturally attuned LCpl must be the rule, not the exception. Current Commandant General Michael W. Hagee has commented on the importance of the individual Marine within the broader context of war. “We can talk about aircraft. We can talk about howitzers. We can talk about tanks, but the individual Marine is the most important part of the Marine Corps.” The war on terrorism will eventually be won by Marines; in pursuit of that goal, we are most vulnerable to setbacks by the acts of a single Marine. The selection, screening, and training of each individual Marine has never been more important to mission accomplishment. To counter the “privatisation of destruction,” the Marine Corps must embrace and implement the privatization of victory to win this and future conflicts in the information age.

This article first appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette, January 2007:

Joint Forces Quarterly. Strategic Communication. Jeffrey B. Jones. Issue Thirty-Nine. 2005.

The World in 2006. The Geopolitics of 2026. Mark Leonard. p. 24. London, UK. 2005.

Commandant’s Vision Focuses on Marines. Staff Sergeant Cindy Fisher. Headquarters Marine Corps. Story Identification Number 20055910581.




.@USMC Veteran. @UnivWestGa and @HarvardHBS alum. Worked at @Twilio, founded Zillabyte. Democratic Candidate for Congress in VA-05.

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Roger Dean Huffstetler

Roger Dean Huffstetler

.@USMC Veteran. @UnivWestGa and @HarvardHBS alum. Worked at @Twilio, founded Zillabyte. Democratic Candidate for Congress in VA-05.

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