Memo 12.07.2023 9 minutes

Playing for Keeps


Five lessons U.S. military public affairs should learn from IDF’s information fighters.

The events in Israel since October 7 have horrified the world. Mobile technology captured scenes of barbarous actions by terrorists and war criminals, portraying the brutality of an evil war waged against civilians with unparalleled clarity. For any honest observer, the line between the good guys and bad guys is unmistakable. To that end, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) public affairs is offering a master class on how serious military communicators operate. Their communication strategy offers a refreshing change of pace from the stagnated practices that typifies those of U.S. military public affairs. I offer five points that the military career field should immediately internalize and put to use.

First Difference: Strategic Mindset

IDF is fighting to secure their homeland from a truly existential threat. It communicates this through a clear strategic framework that uses an aligned brand strategy to convey a unified message across all levels of wartime communication. IDF messaging is not broken up by dozens, or even hundreds, of units trying to broadcast their own insignia brand, a feature of the U.S. Army’s public affairs/recruiting/marketing diaspora. The U.S. Department of Defense seems to fight more for its budget (and avoiding the implications of its sixth failed audit), taxpayer abortion funding, shot shaming, and the placement of Marxist reading materials in training curriculum than it does for U.S. security.

Much of our Army’s attempts at public affairs practice is overly concerned with generating irrelevant podcast content, bragging about divisive DEI topics, or trying to make certain units appear the most important element among the defense components. It seems the only areas to find unity among U.S. military public affairs efforts are the disinformation campaign about mask and “vaccine efficacy” that only recently subsided and pride events that occur throughout the year on installations across the world.

In contrast, IDF public affairs is focused on one mission: accurately portraying the fight against Hamas as a contest between civilized society and barbarians. While many of the U.S. Army’s public affairs officers (PAOs) post unit photos on Facebook and stream minuscule ceremonies in an imagined effort to “dominate the information environment,” IDF communicators are solely focused on actively contributing to the defeat of an evil foe.

Second Difference: Willingness to Fight Actual Disinformation

The IDF public affairs team is willing to call out Western news organizations that report Hamas propaganda as fact. Most of the time when a U.S. military commander speaks of countering disinformation, he or she actually means countering accurate information that is politically inconvenient.

Nearly all U.S. military PAOs, as well as their commanders, seem to fear a negative headline more than nuclear war, and thus seldom take reporters to task for shoddy work. Accurately labeling certain agents of deception in the press as liars is a Rubicon that only a minuscule percentage of Army PAOs would even consider crossing, over a paralyzing fear of being criticized by the offended party and its apologists. To call out and rebut journalistic malpractice is imagined as a high crime among the U.S. military and much of the Pentagon press corps. To challenge malevolent lies and misrepresentations by agents of the Western press leads to pearl-clutching commentary among the journalistic community for daring to insinuate their imperfections. It’s most assuredly an attack on democracy itself, or so they would have you believe.

I learned this myself in 2019 when a handful of journalists and associated influencers misrepresented an article I wrote, in which I criticized sensational practices among some in the news community. I could count on one hand the number of PAOs who supported me during the ensuing deluge of hatred, contempt, and calls for physical violence—even death threats against me. Most colleagues who spoke publicly on this, even though they acknowledged the merit of my arguments in private, castigated me for “attacking” the freedom of the press. With the support of their superiors, Army PAOs are clearly less concerned with combatting lies than maintaining good relationships with the journalistic commentariat that roams the halls of the Pentagon’s reporter row. Among the worst kept secret among PAOs is that this dynamic is a one-way street.

The IDF is also willing to clap back at non-governmental organizations that parrot Hamas talking points while subtly looking for ways to justify bad actors. No doubt it helps that the IDF has the backing of its government, which boldly calls out “rights” agencies that are silent on mass rape, murder, mutilation, and assault conducted by Hamas, as well as condemns and even arrests enemy-allied media propagandists who represent Western news agencies like NBC, CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Associated Press. Such enemy-aligned “journalists” know all too well that aiding the enemy of a U.S.-led military campaign would merely—at worst—be cause for termination of their already time-limited military embed agreements with American forces.

Third Difference: Relatable Spokesmen

IDF public-facing communication maximizes use of actual PAOs to convey information. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, IDF’s chief military spokesman who has a career of proven military experience, manages Israeli national military press briefings. Rather than limiting public-facing communication only to generals, Hagari regularly allows members of his public affairs force to convey official information.

Take for example Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus and Maj. Doron Spielman, as well as many other mid-rank reserve officers who are highly active voices in Israel’s wartime press and social media engagement. These are men of notable—but not celebrity level—military rank, men who would fit in among regular people, the kind you might expect to encounter in real life. Yet they are trusted to carry the IDF’s message daily through interviews with news agencies around the world. Beyond that, Israeli PAOs are allowed to engage in the information fight from their own social media accounts, putting a personal touch on the state’s information warfare efforts. The U.S. Army, with its culture of institutional fear and micromanagement across all branches, simply would not trust its PAOs to do the same.

When it comes to delivering information on big engagements from the U.S. military, you seldom find anyone below the corps of generals trusted to do so publicly. Such top-ranking officials are counted among the elite class in military social circles. Their lives come complete with secretaries, aides, drivers, cooks, and a team of gatekeepers. Their PAOs, the ones who tend to look more like members of the public, are kept in the background doing communication admin and prep work. In seeming to say much, the performative theater of general-led DoD press briefings frequently conveys static information in guarded tones that’s of limited use to informational warfare efforts. It’s a missed opportunity for military communicators, who could make real attempts to shift a news cycle favorably in their direction.

Fourth Difference: Culture

The biggest challenge to U.S. military public affairs is a cultural one. The U.S. Army does not take the public affairs career field seriously, viewing it more as a requirement due to U.S. Code Title 10 than a valuable asset to the force.

All U.S. public affairs officers begin their military careers in operational branches like infantry, quartermaster, signal, etc. To switch over to a public affairs career is to voluntarily surrender any hope for promotion into the most senior military ranks. Once in, the culture pushes most officers to a traditionalist mindset, which merely serves the status quo. This view avoids trying new techniques, revolts at the idea of rocking the boat, and believes sharing the minimum possible information equates to fulfilling one’s duty. Traditionalists’ beliefs are rooted in unquestioning obedience and protection of the military’s institutional reputation—even when it is demonstrably in the wrong—as their most important mission.

At the opposite end of the scale is the innovator approach to communicative practice. Innovators are willing to acknowledge institutional faults. They look for novel ways to do business more effectively. In a combat realm, they prefer not to fight on the same ground as the enemy but to be faster, more efficient, and more effective. Clearly in the innovator camp, IDF public affairs is willing to try previously unorthodox techniques of truthful information warfare. Examples include posting audio of terrorists bragging to family members about murdering innocent civilians for the world to hear, boldly asserting that its military forces are “at Hamas’s throat,” and confronting antagonistic “journalists” with their passion for taking the word of a terrorist organization as truth. IDF culture displays a refreshing comfort with rocking the boat in its goal of reestablishing state security.

Fifth Difference: Moral High Ground

Most importantly, the IDF holds the moral high ground in fighting Hamas. This means it can speak of this fight being one of survival rather than a military-enabled campaign of nation building—the staple of current U.S. military intervention. Even were that not so, IDF soldiers have something that no American soldier has had since Operation Desert Storm: a clearly defined mission (that is, the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait).

Think back to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was no victory criteria. U.S. forces were going to be there, until one day they weren’t. The message over two decades was that Americans were dying to give fledgling governments the space they needed to take responsibility for their own security. We know all too well how that turned out. It is unimaginable that the IDF will ever use tired, fictive talking points like the “government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is capable” in this campaign. In contrast, its mission has been stated from the beginning: rescuing as many hostages as possible and destroying Hamas. That is a worthy mission for IDF members to embrace and march toward with confidence.

No one doubts that Israel is capable. The only question is if it has enough resolve to finish the job. To that end, we see IDF public affairs leaders relentlessly pounding Hamas for the evil it is, demonstrating Israeli resolve to defeat its enemies, protecting its border, and rescuing those taken hostage on October 7. A fight between observable good and evil brings immediate moral clarity that oversold and stale talking points about “capability,” “readiness,” and “capacity” will always lack.

As the war in Israel rages and the IDF daily enables its public affairs force to play an active role in the information domain, discussions within the U.S. Army’s PA field remain on the same path as before, discussing multiple initiatives aimed at trying to break a decades-long stalemate over its place and role in the force. These evergreen topics include equipment, changing to a visual information branch, updating doctrine that few read, and more changes to the curriculum of the Defense Information School. Certainly these are important logistical components that must not be overlooked. Unfortunately, most senior Army decision makers are not interested.

While continuing to fight for the logistics and cultural allowance to do their jobs, our military communicators must not miss an opportunity to closely observe a winning public affairs team in action and bring those lessons to bear in all branches of the U.S. military. That is a topic of force modernization that the senior brass of the Defense Department should have an intense level of interest in. If there has ever been a time for an entire military career field to do a stand down to watch and learn from master craftsmen, now is that time.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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