“A bullet still sends a message…”

These were the words spoken to me as I sat through the end of a two-week course on information operations in 2013. It was the second such course in my career and I felt I had already heard much of it before. The course was a primer on the methods our nation can deliver a message. But it briefly, almost absentmindedly touched on the importance of the strategic communications effort, (aka “the narrative).

What struck me about the statement was how true it was and that I had never considered it. It is a maxim that decision makers at all levels should consider before deciding on one course of action or another. So like many Soldiers I thought about marksmanship when I think of bullets being sent down the two-way rifle range. Mainly what I thought about were the safety lessons taught by our partners here, the US Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group in a course titled Combat Applications Tactics Course. I attended CATC in 2008 and the multitude of lessons I learned from that course have been shared with literally thousands of Soldiers over the years.

Rule No. 1: Treat all weapons as if they are loaded

Often times the decision makers think a banner on aircraft carrier or a hashtag on Twitter will be the end all or the start of a campaign to raise awareness. Its not. Those signals are loaded weapons that blasted with an omnidirectional impact and have no discerning value other than to a niche audience. That is acceptable if a politician is making a pitch on the campaign trail or a flag officer is pumping up the morale of troops. But to the domestic audience its a failure. When President George W. Bush stood under the banner the message that most Americans received was “the war is over” not “this is the end of major combat operations”. When President Obama has his national security team build hashtags and promote them on social media the they did so because they were familiar with the Millennial Generation and saw the impact it has. But in the realm of realistic, force-on-force, counterterrorism, or competing with Russia in Ukraine the impact was minimal if it even registered to the foreign audience. It was roundly mocked by the administration’s critics which did not bode well for when the administration wanted to pursue more aggressive policies.

So how do we make this better? Step one is to accurately assess your adversary and realize that that in the realm of security and foreign policy the message you broadcast will be blasted in all directions for all audiences. Continue to use banners and hashtags but know what the adversary may do with that and know how your domestic audience is going to take it. This is not a campaign, this is the real world.

Rule No. 2: Keep your finger off the trigger until you have a sight picture

Walter’s bad trigger discipline not withstanding, this is still a great movie.

First off, I have wanted to use this photo for years. From The Big Lebowski, the scene shows Walter over reacting with his pistol and pointing it at Smokey who stepped over the line in a bowling match. Why is it significant? It shows horrible trigger discipline. The CATC instructors were explicit about this and like many firearms instructors they should be. You do not touch the trigger unless you have a clear sight picture. I add the caveat: …and you have a clear intent and just cause to use it.

In his influential work, Arms and Influence, Thomas Schelling discusses the need for clear intent to be made behind your method of deterrence or compellance. The narrative is all about clear intent and it ultimately is the metaphorical trigger on a gun. Whether it is sanctions, embargoes, troop movements, military force, or an overture for peace the narrative works only if there is a serious, concerted, and “well sighted” effort to use it.

Rule No. 2 has two parts, trigger discipline we have discussed. The second is sight picture. Sight pictures are natural and not forced. I used to instruct students in marksmanship that you had to be comfortable being uncomfortable but your sight picture has to be the most natural act of shooting. Otherwise no matter how well your fundamentals are the bullet- er, narrative… is not going to hit your target. And in the world of conflict resolution and foreign policy you need it too.

Rule No. 3: Never flag anything with the muzzle unless you intend to destroy it.

DPRK nuclear capable missiles always seem to be flagging our allies and us. From bbc.com.

Walter is another poor example of this. He was not going to shoot Smokey over the score… or was he? That’s the trouble with a narrative’s message that fail the first two rules, they are not taken seriously. They leave a lot of mental maneuver room for the targeted audience to play with and eventually walk their way out of your message.

The missile in this photo is a great example of the constant “flagging” that takes place in the world of strategic communication. Are our foes and partners rational actors? Are we? Do we even understand what waving these missiles around does to people? Refer back to Rule No. 2 and you can see why without a clear sight picture and good trigger discipline your narrative’s message will violate Rule No. 3 as well. There are a lot words exchanged at negotiation tables and verbose language is usually included. But are the actors serious? Rational? Both? Or are they just saying something for domestic consumption?

This gamesmanship on the international level is where we constantly get phrases like “all options are on the table” or “the military option is not off the table”. Is it really being considered at all is what we should be asking ourselves. And if it is, how serious is it? Is it half-hearted? Will it achieve anything? That’s where the narrative has to be keenly focused and your actions have to match your words. Those blanket statements mean little to most Americans but may mean quite a bit more to an Iranian mullah who saw the United States invade two neighboring countries and continues to have a presence in the Persian Gulf. One great recent example of this challenge being thrown down is the Obama administration’s decision to sail US Navy vessels through the South China Seas, after the Chinese have said the SCS are in effect its sovereign territory. Putting our ships along side a territorial dispute with multiple nation’s claiming rights where a near-peer competitor is terraforming will be a great challenge to the administration’s resolve. When the ships do go sail in the islands the question that should be asked before then, is “what are their rules of engagement?

Demonstrating clear intent and the willingness to use it whether to resolve a conflict or compel an adversary to avoid one is crucial.

Rule No. 4: Define your target, what is to the left and right and what is in front and what is behind your target.

This is perhaps the second to most important, after Rule No. 1, safety rule we learned at CATC. And when it comes to the narrative and the message we want to send, it is the probably the most important. Because to be honest with ourselves not every message treated as if it's a carefully crafted part of a larger narrative. If nothing else we should know what we say and do will have an immediate and far-reaching impact. That is why I ask above, before the ships sail, what will their rules of engagement be? Are we going to send warning shots over Chinese ships? Will we sink a Chinese vessel? What if they sink one of ours or an ally’s?

The narrative’s crafters need to be able to define what the periphery will think of the individual messages being sent out if the overall narrative is to even be effective. John DeRosa wrote in the initial piece “Revising the Battle of the Narrative”:

Narratives are more than a messaging effort. They account for your actions, the actions of others and the consequences of those actions. More importantly, as a reflection of words and symbols, “[narratives] prove more powerful than billions of dollars in aid or bombs and bullets — at least in opening up opportunities for practical solutions.”[5] To find these opportunities and leverage information as an instrument of national power, an alternative approach to narratives is necessary.

The bold portion is what I highlighted on the blog and I want to hammer that point home and wrap this up with the title.

“Even a bullet sends a message”. That simple phrase is true and all to often the strategic messaging piece is left up to military planners who conduct “targeting”. An apt phrase because we attempt to target a message to target an audience and we hope we are on target with it. Rule No. 4 helps us in many ways but primarily it reminds us of that everything we, as a nation, do is a metaphorical bullet. It is not always about killing people but that bullet is the message, the action, the radio broadcast, the news piece, the Voice of America post, the USAID relief packages, and any number of tools at the hands of America’s strategic planners. Its incumbent upon them to realize that and who the audiences are.

Not just the target audience but know how the (insert President’s) administration’s actions will have an impact on the audience to the left, right, in front of, and behind the target. So while we’re putting troops in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, what are the average Russian people seeing? What do they hear from their media sources? Do they really know our truths or the truths from Moscow? So examine this following image carefully and put yourself in a Russian’s shoes. From the Polish Delegation to NATO who sent this to publicize the joint readiness exercise NOBLE JUMP 2015:

The German Army, the Bundeswehr… in Poland, 2015. Getty Images.

So let’s right new safety rules for what the narrative:

Rule No. 1- Know your audience and the surrounding audiences. Know what you say and do will be sent in all directions.

Rule No. 2- Treat every message as if it will have an impact. Do not think your words are empty, even if they are.

Rule No. 3- Have sharp messages drive your overall narrative. Understand that a carefuly crafted message will help your narrative’s overall goal. But know that Murphy always get’s a say so have a contingency and a contingency to your contingency.

Rule No 4- Do not act or say things carelessly. This is serious business here and guidance from the decision makers is crucial to developing the narrative. The narrative is a story and we want it to be a good one. So while you have to plan for contingencies keep on with the story.

And last but not least, remember: Even a bullet sends a message.

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