Military Communications: Recruiting and Retention Errors

Jason Criss Howk

12 October 2022

Coming up 20,000 soldiers short in the recruiting effort this year should be a bigger story than it is. While leaders can shuffle strength numbers and modify the needs, the real story is that our military is not communicating well with this generation. I have been teaching the new military-aged cohort for the last 7 years—they want to serve their nation. So, what is the problem?

I don’t think the problem is a “wokeness” crisis or a supposed White-Nationalist epidemic in the ranks. The Army is a slice of the country, it is full of every type person you could ever dream of meeting. I was blessed to spend 23 years in uniform from Private to Major and I met amazing people from across this amazing nation. But, I met duds too; I saw racists, bigots, wokesters and other unhelpful types gumming up the machine. The military members I still talk to don’t complain about the type of people in the Army being the problem. They mostly worry about the lack of focus on warfighting as a whole. For a nation that spent twenty years failing to figure out how to help Afghans win the war in Afghanistan, I can see why that bothers servicemembers.

In the end the biggest issue our military faces, and the army in particular, is communications.

The war in Afghanistan hinged on the US and NATO and the Afghan government being able to communicate more clearly and convincingly than our enemies in the Taliban-Haqqani terror network, who were backed by Pakistan and indirectly by China. No matter how much we tried, we could not do it. We could not communicate better than the enemy to shift the morale of the war towards the Afghans who wanted human rights for all their citizens.

With a budget billions of dollars smaller, our military services struggle to harness communications inside our own nation to reach the young people who want to serve. More importantly they fail to reach the key citizens that would urge young people to sign up—the coaches, parents, teachers, and celebrity influencers. Our young people are left with lots of misinformation to sort through and fewer wise role models that can explain military service to them.

How can it be that the nation that has Hollywood and Silicon Valley cannot communicate in the cyber age?

We don’t teach our leaders the most important skill they can ever learn to harness–how to communicate effectively.

Communications is so important to me that I made it the 2nd chapter of 12 in my leadership book.

When you fail to teach communications to leaders, and fail to let them practice and refine that skill, you end up with Generals that cannot communicate and don’t understand the importance of it–and don’t want to take any advice on the topic. We see it daily in the retired general and admiral cohort—they get into all kinds of communications debacles that often leaves a big mess for their active-duty partners to clean up or avoid.

We saw it lately with the commander of Fort Benning charging into a cyber skirmish riding a tank with no driver, loader, or gunner–and likely no PAO. It is easy to screw up communications activities and hard to repair the short- and long-term damage of unwise moves. There are plenty of examples today, this is just the most recent and high-profile.

What we can do as a nation—because filling the ranks is a national problem

Train our leaders at every stage to communicate well. Make it a key component of all training exercises. Force them to talk to the press at a young age, and don’t make them fear the press. I created a module in the Engineer Basic Course in 2004 that taught 2LTs how to deal with the press effectively. I knew it was needed, and the post PAO was happy to help me create an SOP they could put in their pocket to prepare for those moments.

Ensure our leaders know when to speak, and what resources they have. It is not a leader’s job to speak every time they see a microphone, and now with social media the microphone is always in your pocket. The military should be clear with leaders when they want them to exercise initiative and when the senior civilians in the military should take up the charge. Some issues get congressional level and white house level attention—those are best left to the professionals we pay to tackle big nasty problems. Civilian leaders should tell their generals when they want them to weigh in on thorny issues and how. We spend a good bit of money on our PAO force–use the hell out of them.

Open up our bases. I know in the age of terrorism it seems crazy to invite civilians into the daily lives of soldiers, but the best way to communicate is in-person (preferably in small groups). Bring the right people on the base throughout the year to meet soldiers and learn about the amazing variety of jobs they do. You might think this will interrupt warfighting training (what I said was a top concern earlier); it won’t. In fact, teaching every servicemember to get comfortable interacting with strange civilians is a warfighting task. In every war we have ever fought we had to interact with mayors, teachers, parents, community leaders, police, firefighters, sports clubs, everyday citizens, street kids etc. The benefit of this training with non-role players is massive, the fringe benefit is that you just deputized thousands of recruiters to help the local military recruiting station.

Open up our communities. This is not all on the military to solve. Our communities need to open their schools, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, sports events, etc to the military. When I was stationed in Texas our military base (SAFB) and the citizens of Wichita Falls created a mentoring program in the schools that partnered select military members with young folks that could use a role model. We helped lots of young people find a way to be a productive member of society with those simple school visits. But the best part was that every single day of the school year a handful of military members were in the schools’ helping teachers and parents mold our youth. That bridged the gap between the citizens and the uniformed folks quickly. I was so honored to see the little 6-year-old I met while at that base graduate from High School 12 years later, and was lucky to be part of his life.

Mobilize our veterans. There is a key demographic that our military has yet to employ in the effort to get more youths to enter service, and that is our veterans. I joined the service after learning about it from an active-duty Air Force pilot, a former soldier, and a Marine who served in Force Recon. They saw I needed direction and showed me the way. I am forever in their debt for helping me choose a better life path. Our military needs to better communicate with our veterans to ensure that tradition continues. Make sure our veterans know what life is like for current members and ask them to help. I know a lot of veterans that want to help, but don’t know how. Others are angry at changes they think our military has made, or at changes they have actually made. Some don’t really care either way. Our military needs to learn how to harness the power of our veterans that are out in the civilian population daily.

Don’t feed the haters; kill them with kindness. Through most of my career the Democratic Party was the anti-war and anti-military hotbed. They regularly looked down on servicemembers and military service. As I got to the end of my career a smaller yet vocal anti-war and sometimes anti-military segment popped up in the Republican and Libertarian parties. That means that the military has to compete with propaganda and bad-mouthing of their efforts from every political corner today, and the various press agencies that pander to each political party. When I was in service I used to try to engage respectfully with anti-war groups and try to find common ground. I was seldom successful, but I learned from it and use those lessons today.

Like I said, dealing with the press should not be something the military runs from, it is a warfighting task. So, practice and learn–and get better. Don’t fight with the press, we have seen how poorly that has gone for the last 3 presidents—the press wins every time. Don’t fight with our civilian elected or appointed leaders either. This undermines the promise the military has to follow the moral and legal orders of the civilian government. Let the right people discuss challenging issues at the right venue and at the right moment. A general that goes off half-cocked in a twitter battle with the press or a member of congress is setting a very clear example for his junior soldiers—say what you want, when you want, and don’t prepare for the engagement.

That is exactly not what we do not need. I don’t want PFCs and Lieutenants on social media, in church, or at a public protest having-a-go at civilians they disagree with. It is bad form and in a time of a recruiting crisis, it is basically shooting yourself in the foot and face at the same time while thinking you are winning a battle by doing so. Sure, someone may cheer for your so-called bravery to “fight the power”—but that is not your job. Your job is to harness all available power and use it to build a team that can defend our nation against all enemies foreign and domestic.

Learn to communicate, and then do it regularly and wisely, when the moment is right.

#miltwitter #milwritersguild #communications #press #congress #thinkthenspeak

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