On War #314: Can He Think Big?

William S. Lind
9 September 2009

An article in the August 28 New York Times described a recent epiphany on the part of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. It seems that Admiral Mullen now “gets” a point Fourth Generation war theorists have made for years, namely that Information Operations are less what you say that what you do. The Times reported that

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has written a searing critique of government efforts at “strategic communications” with the Muslim world, saying that no amount of public relations will establish credibility if American behavior overseas is perceived as arrogant, uncaring or insulting…

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique…

“I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,” he wrote. “They are policy and execution problems…”

Right on. Given Admiral Mullen’s position, this could represent important progress – or not. Its significance depends on whether the JCS Chairman can think big, as should be the case at his level of command. Will the Admiral restrict his thinking to execution problems, or will he have the wisdom and the moral courage to tackle policy problems?

Execution problems are what the current American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is focused on. He recognizes that American troops in Afghanistan must protect the population, not “kill bad guys.” We need to be in the village instead of attacking the village. Fourth Generation doctrine suggests that the key to success (where it is possible at all) is de-escalation. I have not seen General McChrystal use that term, but it seems to be his intent.

However, if execution at the battalion and company level becomes the focus for Admiral Mullen, he will have missed his chance to make a difference. As JCS Chairman, his focus should be grand strategy. For future American success in a Fourth Generation world, it is at that level that his new understanding of “strategic communications” needs to be applied.

What it means is that America should adopt a defensive rather than an offensive grand strategy. At present, American grand strategy is offensive, or even aggressive. In effect, America says to the rest of the world, “You are going to abandon your traditional culture and embrace our new, “liberated” culture – Feminism, consumerism, hedonism, all labeled “democracy” – whether you want to or not. If we cannot make you do so with ‘soft power,’ then you will face our ‘hard power,’ our bombs, cruise missiles and Predators.” From the jungles of the Amazon to the Hindu Kush, everyone is to become a subject of Brave New World.

As the conservative political philosopher Russell Kirk wrote, the surest way to make someone your enemy is to tell him you are going to remake him in your image for his own good. So long as that is America’s grand strategy, as it now seems to be, we are doomed to defeat at the grand strategic level. That is true no matter how our troops execute a fatally flawed policy.

The policy we need instead, one that communicates a very different message, is a defensive grand strategy. The message a defensive grand strategy sends is simple: If you leave us alone, we will leave you alone. We will not seek to “remake” you in any image. How you live is your business, and yours only.

In the November 22, 2004 issue of The American Conservative, I laid out in some detail what a defensive grand strategy for America might look like in a Fourth Generation world. It is impossible to summarize that lengthy piece in a column.

My point here is simply that this is the central question – offensive or defensive grand strategy? – a JCS Chairman who “gets it” should focus on. His concern should be policy, not execution. If Admiral Mullen thinks he should now duplicate what General McChrystal is doing, he will effectively leave the office of JCS Chairman vacant.

The Times quoted Admiral Mullen as saying, “That’s the essence of good communication: having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves.” The question you have raised for yourself, Admiral, is what intent is right at the level of grand strategy? The world awaits an answer.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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Filed in Uncategorized | 5 responses so far

5 Responses to “On War #314: Can He Think Big?”

  1. Sven Ortmannon 09 Sep 2009 at 3:26 pm 1

    That’s not just what 4GW crowd says – it’s what billions of people thought (and uncounted millions said).

    It’s OBVIOUS.

    “It seems that Admiral Mullen now “gets” a point Fourth Generation war theorists have made for years, namely that Information Operations are less what you say that[sic!] what you do.”

    It’s irrelevant whether a general gets it, though. The foreign politicians, think tank people and the voters need to “get it”.

  2. senor tomason 09 Sep 2009 at 10:39 pm 2

    “Given Admiral Mullen’s position, this could represent important progress – or not.”

    I would not get my hopes up. Admiral Mullen comes from a branch of the armed forces that still centers its thinking around the aircraft carrier battles of World War Two. The Navy is the most backward-thinking branch of the United States armed forces – stuck in the 1940s. They make the Army and Air Force – being stuck in the 1980s wanting to fight the Soviet Union – look progressive.

  3. Maxon 10 Sep 2009 at 7:32 pm 3


    Mr. Lind lays out a compelling description of the stratigic failure
    at hand.

    But this one takes the cake, for inane hypocracy as only America
    can deliver these days.

    And so, now I’ve heard it all, even from HIM.

    I grew up with parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts,
    school teachers, peers even, who impressed upon me the imperative
    of first recognising and then choosing right from wrong.

    “Actions Speak Louder Than Words. ” We’ve all seen that slogan, even on the side of local police cruisers.

    Bills argument makes perfect sense, if you believe that the United States, and all that’s happening, was created out of thin air, and came into being the day before yesterday !

    There was no Vietnam, Watergate, etc, etc, etc,.

    You’d have to actually and really believe that the high order
    professional military leadership paid, trained, career sworn oath professionals,and the socalled “cream of the crop” Best and brightest” all, we’re really that stupid to demonstrably gotten it all so wrong, and without deliberate intention.

    I find it all exceedingly difficult, if not tottaly impossible to beleive, that it’s all been an innocent misjudegment or innocent failure to carry through policy over retoric.

    All the while killing hundereds of thousdands, ruining lives, give me a break !

    A few thousdand Americans died 8 years ago, and we’ll never , ever,
    hear the end of it.

    I think the United States is actually a malignant, exceedingly agressive
    and beligerant corrupt, moraly, if not also financialy bankrupt
    failing state entity, that pines to rule the world by force, and is lashing out in it’s death throws.

    And God forbid, that Americans would actually come to grips with, and take RESPONSIBILITY for thier actions, conduct
    and conciquences.

    That is apparently, until we start to demonstrably lose, (like NOW) and then all of a sudden, well, you see, it’s a big misunderstanding, poor communications, and poor judgement, and failure to carry through on the purest and nobilest intentions !

    t’s Bull#$% and it’s far too late !

    That comes back full circle and smacks so very heavily of the post WW-2 average Germans ultimately hypocritical lament, “we didn’t know.”

    Well written Bill, but I think you’re taking our collective stupidity entirely for granted.


  4. Maxon 12 Sep 2009 at 8:55 am 4

    “it’s what billions of people thought (and uncounted millions said).

    It’s OBVIOUS.”

    Exactly Sven, even around here, and for years.

    So you or someone else here tell me, How many Iraqui’s, Afgans, and now Pakistanis combined, have now died for every American killed on 9-11 ?

    I would vaugly speculate, that by direct and indirect subsiquent US involvement, A hundered of them, to our one, perhaps.

    Enough to make the meanest most vindictive war criminals come
    conquorers in history blush, or a least feel thier in good company.

    Now all of a sudden, gee, and particuarly since we happen to be losing, and rather badly, to what we characterise as 4th rate opposition, you see it’s all a slight misunderstanding and casual failure on our part, to bring benevolent words into action, and after we’ve
    killed so many.

    I can’t for the life of me, reconcile that degree of hypocracy.

  5. Maxon 21 Sep 2009 at 9:41 pm 5

    It boils down to this,

    On the one hand, Americans seem to want to be understood
    and forgiven universally, with the excuse of being complete, total,
    inept, bumbling idiots.

    While we slaughter thousands, create untold havoc, suffering,
    and garnish deadly resentment.

    On the other hand, we feel we’re so superior to everybody else, and want to take over the world and run everything.