Fighting Words: Why the Military Profession Needs More Debate, Not Twitter Hate

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Even the day after, a Saturday, the online backlash against an Army public affairs officer’s essay spilled over and invaded the birthday party my seven-year-old was attending. The phone pinged, pinged again, and then pinged some more, noises that were thankfully disguised by the piercing shrieks of a dozen party favor whistles. Before I donned my party-favor hat, I had to shut it off.

Later, when the cake was in the trash, and the kids in bed, I read the article in question (“It Takes Two to Tango: The Journalist’s Role in a Health Military-Civilian Relationship,” by Chase Spears). The article’s argument was one I didn’t much care for. But I was most stunned by the response and what this interaction says about the current state of debate in the profession of arms.

“It Takes Two to Tango” is critical of modern national security journalism, both in its volume and its depth. It’s mostly a first-person account of the challenges in getting current military training and operations into the media. It hits a high (or low) point when it mentions a breakfast interaction with an unnamed print journalist who is described as a “reporter who covers the military beat for a prominent Washington, DC newspaper.” The public affairs officer describes how difficult it was to get coverage of a training event in the Alaskan Arctic, and wasn’t prepared for the reporter’s response: We might have been interested if you would have staged a mass orgy up there.

While it may or may not reflect widespread sentiment among the journalists that cover the military, it’s a powerful anecdote, to be sure. If I’d encountered so brazen a comment, and decided to share it in an essay, I might’ve widened the piece’s lens to consider other factors, like the decline of print newspapers across the country. I live and work in Colorado Springs, where the local economy is significantly tied to the Department of Defense, and where five military installations essentially encircle the city. Yet the local newspaper, the Gazette, has only a single reporter that covers the military beat.

Another direction the piece might’ve gone is the shrinking size of the armed forces in society, which also might account for this smaller share of coverage. Or, to strengthen the argument, it might’ve pointed out some instances where national security journalists largely missed an opportunity to serve the public by asking better questions, as with Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction. This might’ve spared the writer some grief from the journalistic profession—who know better than most that no profession that truly seeks to serve the public stands above scrutiny and criticism. And finally, the author could have pointed out that his cross-professional criticism is part of a two-way street; journalists often freely criticize the military in a give-and-take, back-and-forth relationship.

But those are matters of taste, and, in the end, the author, balanced by editorial considerations, gets to choose what goes in and what gets left on the cutting room floor.

So how did the military profession respond and react to this article? I’m ashamed to say, terribly. To be sure, there were views expressed in reasonable, professional ways. But sadly, they were matched with, if not drowned out by, something much uglier. One Twitter troll/military officer wrote, “This is an absolutely garbage take,” while another chimed in that “it was fun watching the guy get absolutely dragged yesterday,” while a third piled on with some sort of fake tombstone with the author’s name. Apparently, the profession’s less-than-stellar behavior online isn’t limited to the political arena—it’s drifted and has now negatively impacted professional discourse, and that’s a very, very bad thing.

Because the beating heart of the military profession is a member identifying something wrong or missing and making a reasoned public argument for change. An argument might be right, it might be wrong, but it all starts with an argument made by someone willing to stand publicly and risk criticism and consequences. Rank has little sway in this war of ideas, as all members hold precisely one commission or pledge to uphold the profession. (Moreover, if rank were all that mattered, and all simply automatically deferred to stars, what a poor profession this would be.)

This willingness to write and engage in a competitive, Darwinian arena matters greatly to the nation’s future strategic success. Should the Navy have a 350- or even 600-ship fleet? Should we reallocate more resources to close combat soldiers and units? Should military officers vote in national elections (which was an argument I’ve been hammered for, and one that I continue to make)? Or, in the case at hand, should journalists dedicate more and deeper attention to military issues?

Some of these issues are contentious, difficult, and can be intensely personal because they cut to the heart of a profession that can ask so much from so few.

But, as a profession, by turning to social media to shout down and bombard another member’s ability to sit in front of a blank page and pour ink to make a case for what that member believes to be a pathway to a better profession—without this process, we’d be lost, and would surely lose more wars.

As I’ve noted before, far too many members of the military profession pass through their entire professional lives without a single meaningful attempt to contribute to the profession. Individual members should strive to make such a contribution. But the profession itself, as a whole, should welcome and encourage it. That’s not what I saw in the response to Spears’s article.

In the years since social media’s sprung up, reasoned response has been replaced with road rage. Professional criticism has too often been debased to something like the Peeps consumed this Easter season, momentary sugar rushes devoid of any meaningful substance.

Whatever else one thinks about Chase Spears’s essay, at least he had the guts to put his name on a reasoned essay in service to his profession.

This matters. It matters because a military only fights as well as it thinks, because, after all, the fist follows the mind’s orders.

Perhaps someone forgot to mention, the generations that are currently in military service (and recently retired) don’t exactly have a great strategic record, and in many ways the road ahead looks dangerous in important ways. We can do better. We must do better.

And it starts with each member of the profession taking seriously their oath and commitment to the profession. You don’t like “It Takes Two to Tango”? Then write something. Make an argument. Fight with reason. As the airport adage goes, if you see something, say something. Not in ugly tweets. Say it in words, in paragraphs, in essays, in books.

Because that’s the only way our profession gets better. And to succeed in the future, that’s what we’re going to need.

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