Best Defense

Yes, junior officers should write. But first, they should consider these 7 pointers.

By Paul Lewandowski Best Defense guest columnist As the new year dawns, and the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan winds down, the US military continues to find itself in a time of transition. This transition may seem unprecedented to the generation of service members who enlisted and reenlisted through almost 15 years of ...

Female Marines Take On Challenges in Afghanistan
MUSA QALA, AFGHANISTAN - NOVEMBER 12: (SPAIN OUT, FRANCE OUT, AFP OUT) Sargent Sheena Adams, 25, US Marine with the FET (Female Engagement Team) 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Regimental Combat team II works late into the night on her laptop on her reports on November 12, 2010 in Musa Qala, Afghanistan. There are 48 women presently working along the volatile front lines of the war in Afghanistan deployed as the second Female Engagement team participating in a more active role, gaining access where men can't. The women, many who volunteer for the 6.5 month deployment take a 10 week course at Camp Pendleton in California where they are trained for any possible situation, including learning Afghan customs and basic Pashtun language. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

By Paul Lewandowski

Best Defense guest columnist

As the new year dawns, and the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan winds down, the US military continues to find itself in a time of transition. This transition may seem unprecedented to the generation of service members who enlisted and reenlisted through almost 15 years of continuous war. But this is not the first time the military has been faced with an unknown future and an uphill battle to reform.

After the Vietnam War, the American military took a hard look at itself. Sweeping reforms driven by former platoon and company commanders took the military from a hollow, dysfunctional service to the victors of Desert Storm. The military was only able to reform thanks to a robust professional officer corps that pulled no punches in examining why the Vietnam War played out as it did, and how the military could be better prepared to face the next conflict. Today’s leaders need to undertake the same rigorous, critical examination of how the military does business.

Junior officers and non-commissioned officers have a valuable perspective in this debate. These wars have fostered the age of the strategic corporal. Therefore, small-unit leaders who lack initiative and vision have gone the way of the sailing ship. The military needs its junior leaders to think like strategists. But you can’t build a strategic lieutenant in a vacuum. If you want real thinkers, you need robust, honest, debate.

You, junior leaders, can and should wrestle with the big questions facing your services. And you ought to be able to do so in the public sphere. But before you leap into the blogosphere, you are well-served to make a careful examination of what you want to say. As leaders, you should ask yourselves a few critical questions before pressing send on your blog posts, columns, or op-eds.

1) Am I knowledgeable on the topic?

If you wish to publish on a topic, first make sure you are writing from a strong knowledge base. You should ideally have firsthand experience or significant background on the issue. Just as important, you should be familiar with what others have said on the subject. This is easier done when writing on an issue which is specific, narrow, and current. Topics which are very broad in scope or long-running in duration are often more difficult to write on. It is better to hit a 50 meter target in center mass than to aim for a 300 meter target and miss completely.

2) Does the medium match the message?

There are many different mediums where big picture issues can be addressed. They range from private, protected forums like to defense specific media like Small Wars Journal and Best Defense, and even nationally circulated papers like the New York Times. Each one will reach a different cohort, and you need to choose the media that will reach the audience that can address your problem. Sometimes, the audience best able to address an issue is your unit itself. Many issues facing a unit are not actually systemic to the military at large and can be addressed by a commander at the appropriate level.

3) Do I speak ill of my unit?

The impact on unit morale can be significant should a major publication or website carry a negative story about your unit, doubly so if that piece is written by a leader within that organization. Service members should always be proud of the units in which they serve, and as leaders, you should model that belief. Your credibility as a leader is damaged when you publicly choose to complain about conditions in your unit. It also detracts from your main point, as many military readers will tune out your central argument.

4) Does every word I write reflect well upon the officer corps and my service’s values?

You are, and always will be an officer (or NCO) first. That office is a responsibility, and the things you write reflect on you and your mentors. Do right by them and yourself. Go over your writing with a fine tooth comb for anything that might appear to violate your service’s values. The things you write will be ascribed to you for years afterward. While your own opinion may change, a leader is never ill-served being professional in word and deed.

5) Do I provide a solution?

Junior leaders are problem solvers, and that doesn’t change when you are writing. The price of being a big-picture thinker is coming up with recommendations for change. You don’t need to find the total solution to the problem, but you should never write without providing some next step, alternative, or positive recommendation for change. Professional dialog is not simply complaining in public, it is the search for a way forward.

6) What if America’s enemies read my piece?

ISIS has a twitter account. North Korea watches movies. When you speak to the public, you are also speaking to every one of America’s enemies and potential enemies. Look hard about how explicit you are about our nation’s armed forces. Keep technical details to a bare minimum. There is no issue so critical that it is worth exposing the US military’s technical and tactical secrets to those who seek to do us harm.

7) Have I informed my chain of command?

As a service member, you have the right to espouse political beliefs in the public sphere, so long as you comply with your service’s regulations. Just because you aren’t required to inform your superiors of what you’ve written does not mean you shouldn’t. Like any other issue, your leaders will appreciate the advanced notice. Not only that, but their experience and expertise may actually prove valuable in making your argument resonate with decision makers. No writer ever loses by having someone they respect look over their work.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Nor should it serve as a replacement of your services’ regulations on public speech. Most of all, it is not meant to deter you from writing. Junior leaders have a role in the future of their services, and your discourse will shape the future of America’s military. One day, for better or worse, today’s O-2s and O-3s will be running the nation’s armed forces, you might as well be prepared.

Paul Lewandowski is a former Army officer and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran. The views expressed here are his own.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images News

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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