Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, was an officer in the U.S. Army during World War II and produced many opinion cartoons for the war effort.  Image courtesy of WW2InColor. Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, was an officer in the U.S. Army during World War II and produced many opinion cartoons for the war effort.  Image courtesy of WW2InColor.

Summer Essay Campaign #13: “A Tool, Not a Limitation – Decentralizing Execution to Proactively Shape Public Opinion”

To Answer Question #8: “How does public opinion shape military operations – and vice versa?”

By First Lieutenant James Schmitt, USAF

The members of the Profession of Arms are by now well-versed on the importance of public opinion. Public opinion, at home or abroad, has been the defining characteristic of the US military’s last two wars. With sensitivity towards popular opinion already well-instilled in current and future warfighters, leaders must turn to the practical ramifications of the focus on public opinion at the strategic and tactical levels. The present command and control structure for managing public opinion inhibits both the development of strategic aims and the optimization of tactics to achieve national objectives. To ameliorate both problems, theater commanders should shift their focus from optimizing rules of engagement (ROE) to translating strategic goals into operational aims, while junior commanders take on the burden of shaping their tactics to meet the theater commander’s intent.

Recent initiatives to shape public opinion have focused on resolving crises caused by civilian casualties. Theater commanders are faced with pressure from national leadership to reduce these casualties due to their strategic damage; in the War in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has been known to limit operational authority in response to civilian casualties. Faced with the need to act, theater commanders take the most immediate step: amending the rules of operation for forces under their authority. In response to a 2011 helicopter attack that killed several children for example, General David Petraeus, then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, ordered a review of the tactical directives given to combat troops. This approach allows senior leadership to present tangible evidence of action taken to domestic and foreign leadership. However, redefining theater-level ROE is not an effective means of resolving tactical problems, even if the crises generated strategic ramifications.

ROE are developed by theater leadership and distributed to all US forces. Changes made to the ROE, therefore, require time to publish, disseminate, and study. The production of ROE is still easier than their revision; a troop with feedback for the ROE must route his feedback through many levels before it can reach theater command and control. This process cannot, and should not, be shortened – eliminating the chain of command would overwhelm theater leadership. Additionally, because ROE apply to an entire theater, the changes made in response to specific pressures cannot be targeted to the conditions of their instigator; instead, restrictions affect every member in the area of operations. Such overly-broad restrictions and high-level pressure on theater commanders can create ROE so limited that they prevent mission accomplishment. In Balkan peacekeeping operations, Dutch peacekeepers were forced to abandon the defense of Srebrenica when the French NATO commander refused to lift restrictions on potential supporting aircraft.[1] The following massacre was one of the worst in recent history, and was a failure for the NATO forces there to prevent it.

The emphasis on changing ROE in response to low-level errors also misdirects tactical leadership. Very restrictive ROE create a false sense of security for tactical decision makers. Believing that an emphasis on public opinion is already incorporated in the ROE, a tactical leader might infer that actions in line with the ROE are inherently beneficial for public opinion and its strategic ends. They plan, therefore, to meet mission ends within the ROE, believing that strategic outcomes are guaranteed if the unit does so. This is not always true, as seen in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After the fall of Baghdad, soldiers had accomplished their mission: routing their opposition and securing the capital against loyalist forces. With the mission accomplished and having stayed within their ROE, the soldiers had no reason to stop the subsequent widespread looting.[2] Without security, residents fell back on tribal and religious subgroups for protection, and Iraqi civil unity was critically damaged, a problem that continues to plague the country today.

To correct the inefficiencies in its control of public opinion, the American military must realign its command structure to match strategic and tactical pressures. Currently, the military allows public opinion to shape its ROE by pressuring strategic commanders, while the military shapes public opinion through tactical engagements. Instead, strategic pressure should be used to generate national goals, translated into operational objectives by strategic and theater commanders. Instead of restricting forces from specific actions, theater commanders would emphasize the need for a popular sense of security. Tactical leaders will then have a broader range of available tactics and a clearer understanding of how to use them. Empowered tactical leaders would have known to stop the Baghdad looting and would have had expanded tactics to do so. This approach brings the role of public opinion in line with its effects. Crises on the tactical level are resolved by tactical leaders, and the military more effectively shapes public opinion. On the strategic level, action in response to strategic pressure from foreign leaders becomes positive instead of restrictive, generating changes to national priorities and objectives as necessary. The operational level, represented by theater commanders, bridges the gap, translating strategic ends to operational objectives, and monitoring tactical leaders to make sure that the operational objectives are met.

The US Armed Forces have a strong understanding of the importance of public opinion, but a poor system for its integration. Re-aligning its decision-making process will allow the military to make positive contributions from public opinion, while optimizing how it creates popular sentiment in return. In the future, public opinion should not be thought of as a limiting factor for military operations, but as another tool for mission accomplishment.

[1] Confusing and restrictive ROE for both soldiers on the ground and closer air support played roles in the failure to stop the Serbian advance. For more on Serbrenica, see Endgame by David Rohde.

[2] For more fall on the fall of Baghdad, see Fiasco by Thomas Ricks.


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