War on the Rocks
August 18, 2021
Social media has the potential to make anyone famous, but rarely in a good way. Tweets, TikToks, Instagram stories, Facebook posts, and the like can go viral, and thoughtless acts by otherwise obscure people can turn them into instant celebrities. This is equally true in the armed forces, as more than one young officer has learned the hard way.
These cautionary tales should be heeded by military leaders hoping to contribute to the conversation about the future of their profession. They should absolutely remember that they have sworn an oath to the Constitution and that their subordinates and the American public will see them as representatives of the institution, regardless of any disclaimers posted in their bios.
The duty to conduct themselves as professionals, however, should not deter them from the many benefits to be gained by interactions on social media. There is a vast network of national security professionals, uniformed and civilian, eager to engage. The ability to glean their insights and bounce ideas off them in real time is invaluable and was unimaginable even a quarter century ago.
In his recent War on the Rocks essay, Army Capt. Theo Lipsky starkly illuminates the risks associated with the snappy, instantaneous dialogue incentivized by Twitter and other social media outlets for military professionals and extols the advantages of longer-form venues — like this one — that require substantive analysis and have the guardrails of editorial guidance. But thinking of short and long form as mutually exclusive options creates a false choice and undersells the value of the instant feedback and collaboration made possible by social media. (Indeed, this essay began as a Twitter conversation sparked by Lipsky’s piece.)
It’s undeniable that Twitter rewards sarcasm, cynicism, and putdowns with likes and retweets. Defense analyst Zachery Tyson Brown is absolutely correct that “[s]nark can be incisive and hot takes can be insightful” and that both “can carry powerful (and truthful) messages that resonate with much wider audiences.” Still, it’s really hard to pull off insightful snark while maintaining military professionalism and bearing. And performative dunking on one’s chain of command is not consistent with the institutional ethos of the uniformed services.
But, as Marine Maj. Brian Kerg rightly notes, “That phenomenon exists outside of and predates [T]witter. Everyone gripes, and for servicemembers it is an honored tradition.” He acknowledges that “Twitter presents the challenge of massive amplification of the gripe,” but argues that the answer to this isn’t for officers to shy away from the medium. Instead, he advises leaders to “help your people understand this new environment” by identifying and modeling how to engage productively and “help nudge subordinates the right way.”
While the majority of battalion and higher-level commanders have little experience with social media and would need institutional guidance to train their subordinates on its effective usage, there are many among them who not only write at places like this one but are also active on Twitter. Indeed, most who are active in the longer form do both. It is the rare regular War on the Rocks contributor, indeed, who doesn’t maintain a social media presence.
Lipsky cautions that “[m]oving the Army’s dialogue onto Twitter … conditions servicemembers to attend more to that online gallery than to institutional feedback, leading to a fractured military ethos and alienated servicemembers.” But, as my colleague Jill Goldenziel notes, playing to an audience is not a sin limited to social media. “If commanders are basing decisions solely on Twitter conversations that is a poor decision. If commander[s] base decisions on overhearing a conversation by a few random anonymous officers that is also likely a poor decision.”
Kerg observes, “Not long ago, young leaders were leaving because, among other things, they felt unable to influence the organization positively, and didn’t want to commit to 30+ years of service to be able to influence change.” He rightly notes that #MilTwitter has served as a partial antidote to that.
Of course, Twitter wasn’t the first social platform to spark public conversation among military professionals. Phil Carter reminds us that, in the early days of the “Global War on Terror,” junior and mid-level officers engaged “in constructive online discussions via listservs, blogs, and sites” like Company Command and Small Wars Journal, but that this was significantly curtailed due to concerns about operational security and image.
From the earliest days of the Iraq War, servicemembers jumped into the then-nascent blogosphere, creating online diaries of their experiences. Carter was among the most prominent, kicking off his Intel Dump site on Google’s Blogger platform in 2002 before eventually moving it to the Washington Post in 2008. While officers like Carter and BlackFive’s Matthew Burden were most prominent, enlisted soldiers like the Army of Dude’s Alex Horton, who parlayed his personal site into blogging for the Department of Veterans Affairs and eventually military reporting for Stars and Stripes and the Washington Post, weighed in as well. They provided outlets for griping, to be sure, but also for conversations about the war effort and the nature of the military profession. And they formed a loosely organized milblogger community that would have been impossible in America’s previous wars. As David Ignatius put it back in 2005, “Soldiers have sent letters home in every war, but this is the first time civilians back home have been able to read over their shoulders.”
Avoiding the pitfalls of social media — which are very real — while reaping the benefits takes judgment and restraint but, after all, these are qualities we expect from military professionals. As Brown observes, “[T]he trick is balancing wit and depth, just as with any popular essay for a serious publication — and particularly as communication channels evolve and traditional sources of authority continue to be diminished.”
Lipsky rightly worries that immature soldiers taking their unit-level disputes to “Twitter court” can undermine good order and discipline and that military personnel and organizations that have an online presence risk being drawn into the arena of partisan politics, to the detriment of civil-military relations. Further, he hints that junior servicemembers may be simply better and more influential at Twitter than their superiors, inverting the power balance in the chain of command.
These fears are not unfounded but they’re exaggerated. Like blogs before it, Twitter is a relatively new medium that the institution has struggled to figure out. Still, the services have issued clear and detailed guidance that, reinforced with regular training and command emphasis, would avoid most of these pitfalls. If the profession wants to encourage its younger members to participate, it needs to provide leadership and guidance. This may also require a bit of forbearance, allowing some enthusiastic overreach to be opportunities for teaching rather than punishment.
Venues like War on the Rocks have advantages over both Twitter and the old blogosphere. While I still enjoy the instant feedback of blogging, which I’ve been doing now for going on two decades, having quality editors in the loop often serves the conversation (and certainly junior officers) better. But Carter is right in saying that restricting the conversation to long-form essays that can pass editorial muster can slow it down and create barriers to entry that discourage enthusiastic newcomers with good ideas from joining the fray.
Thankfully, these choices are not mutually exclusive. As noted earlier, this essay was sparked by a Twitter conversation and would not have been written otherwise. A back and forth with other national security professionals — many of whom I only know via Twitter — helped flesh out thoughts for a longer-form piece. (Indeed, most of the hyperlinks here are to those tweets.) And, naturally, feedback from reviewers and editors made it stronger.
Goldenziel observes that “for academics, anything shorter than an academic journal article is ‘short-form’” and that “a standard law review article is 50-80 pages.” Army War College professor Jacqueline Whitt agrees and adds that “all of the available forms do different things in the ecosystem.”
Brown suggests that “in the military cultural context the purpose of the longform essay is ultimately to influence highly-placed [sic] individuals in command, whereas Twitter is about the free exchange of ideas in a marketplace that is essentially all-to-all.” While that certainly comes with risks, the potential benefits are tremendous.
Army strategist Paul Kearney points to two pieces that he’s published about the military profession as a direct result of his participation in #MilTwitter. Both began as “Twitter threads, improved upon by comments and replies, then published in a longer form.”
Many years ago, Tufts professor Daniel Drezner, in what was then his side gig as a blogger for Foreign Policy, outlined a “hierarchy of words,” with the then-nascent Twitter ranked well below blog posts, op-eds, peer-reviewed journal articles, and academic press books in terms of the time and effort that went into them. While the essay was partly tongue in cheek, the point was well taken. But even though Drezner remains a prolific author of university press books and puts out a steady stream of blog posts, now for the Washington Post, he continues to devote considerable time to Twitter. Partly, that’s brand-building and recreational. But it’s also part of how many of us think and develop ideas. Twitter conversations spark blog posts, which spark longer-form edited articles, which may lead to academic journal articles and even books. Drezner’s famous #ToddlerinChief thread is perhaps the most obvious but by no means only example of this phenomenon.
Further, the relationship between social media and longer articles works both ways. Once we have written longer-form pieces, we often promote them on Twitter to advance the conversation further. Indeed, as Goldenziel observes, they might otherwise go largely unread by others in the communities we seek to reach. That was Kearney’s experience, as the ideas contained in the aforementioned essays “only got … in front of senior leaders [because ] of [T]witter.”
Military professionals should indeed be wary of the risks of social media, but we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Like it or not, the democratization and flattening of the conversation brought about by social media is here to stay. Like blogs before it, Twitter brings challenges that leaders will have to learn to manage. While Lipsky is correct that Twitter alone will not steward the military profession, the expansion of the proverbial “water cooler” to a global network brings enormous advantages. Not only will it enrich professional discussions and demystify the profession by making them public. It may also force leaders to ensure their actions — and the justification for them — can withstand public scrutiny. And, when those actions fall short, social media also has a role to play in promoting accountability and transparency in addressing deficiencies.