The Strategic Corporal vs. The Strategic Cameraman

Consider for a moment the differences in informational-warfare responsbilities of junior leaders in the Marine Corps -- corporals -- and the propagandists in insurgent and terror cells -- cameramen.

Infantry squad leaders -- often, corporals -- know (or should) that the behavior of their Marines sends signals to those always watching them in an insurgency: the people and the insurgents. When the Marines are comfortable with their weapons; seemingly unafraid to interact with the locals; understanding of native customs and mores; and treat the populace with dignity and respect, then the sum of all of these attitudes conveys a certain perception to both the people and terrorists who watch them: it hastens cooperation from the populace and hard-targets them from insurgent attacks. This is the basic informational component of a strategic corporal in Iraq.

Consider now a strategic cameraman. Numerous attacks in Iraq and elsewhere are filmed for propaganda purposes. The classic case is that of the IED or VBIED. Numerous IED videos circulate throughout cyberspace for recruiting or fundraising purposes.

From an informational standpoint, the area immediately affected by a corporal with a squad of Marines is local and physically located. The area immediately affected by a cameraman posting attack videos online is global and virtual.

If our enemies can manage to squeeze virtual and global effects out of tactical and local actions, why can't we?

The Origins of The Strategic Corporal

In 1999, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles Krulak coined the term "strategic corporal" to reflect the devolution of greater responsibility onto the small-unit levels of military leadership.

In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well. His actions, therefore, will directly impact the outcome of the larger operation; and he will become, as the title of this article suggests -- the Strategic Corporal.

In its very first definition, Gen Krulak alluded to the informational component of the "strategic corporal," noting that individual Marines are "conspicuous symbols" of American foreign policy. But how eagerly does the Marine Corps institutionally embrace this informational aspect of a strategic corporal?

When first conceived, it conjured notions of NCOs capable of doing far more than their predecessors had been -- allowing them to influence conflicts at the operational and even strategic level. This is certainly the case today with the training of an infantry squad leader. Some even go so far to argue that the corporals of today have the same skill sets as captains of 1980.

But what of the term "strategic corporal" itself? As an institution, it seems the Marine Corps today only invokes this term when admonishing leaders to watch out for the press. For example, if your Marine screws up and CNN is present, then he'll become a strategic corporal. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib became inadvertent strategic corporals. Pay attention the next time someone uses this term and note two things: the context usually involves the media; and the connotation is almost always negative.

This is not the way it's supposed to be. Taken in this way, the strategic corporal becomes a condition meant to be avoided. Who wants their Marines screwing up on national TV? Moreover, it reduces the concept to something akin to "being on one's best behavior all the time." This is certainly a good way to think of one's conduct, but it results in ceding the virtual informational battlespace to any enemy who is not afraid of media. In fact, the strategic corporal can mean a whole lot more for US operations -- specifically with regard to the media -- and can even help us win conflicts.

Information Operations at the Lowest Levels

Two trends vex information operations. The first is the globalization of electronic media.

The military has traditionally divided perception management into two areas and skillsets: public affairs and psychological operations. In brief, public affairs is usually handled like the old-fashioned PR machines of large companies, featuring photo-ops, interviews, press releases and the like. The target audience is generally the US public and public affairs is usually imbued with the notion of telling things as they are, or getting stories out. Psychological operations are targeted toward an enemy, or a given neutral populace, and are meant to make them think a certain way. These two communities have traditionally been taught to never associate with one another due to the differing needs governing their roles. The problem lies at the intersection of the warfighter's need for deception and the public's need for transparency.

Today though, the globalization of all forms of media means that it is more and more difficult to segregate media products for a given audience. With regard to Iraq, this means that any given story, video, interview, or announcement that is accessible via the internet can potentially have four audiences, all of whom will have a tendency to view it differently:

a) Iraqis

b) Muslims elsewhere

c) Americans

d) the rest of the world.

There is much further segmentation within these groups as well. The point is that electronic media can no longer be carefully segregated as to who will view, read, or listen to it. This may still be possible for types of information that is not digitized, such as announcements via a loudspeaker system, or handbills and leaflets. For anything that can be sent by email though, the walls have come down.

The second trend is a growing distrust in traditionally manufactured "information." Corporate press releases, press conferences, advertising, and the like are more and more seen as possessing suspect and murky agendas. Sometimes, though not always, new media -- such as blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos -- overcome these suspicions, possessing as they do a less-polished feel to them. Ultimately many consumers of information mitigate their suspicions by developing something like a personal relationship and trust with the source, whether it is an institution or an individual.

These trends make for a bewildering environment in which to operate. Consider two recent phenomena:

In March, Multi-National Forces-Iraq created its own YouTube channel [see more here.] On the homepage for the channel, MNF-I states that

Multi-National Force - Iraq established this YouTube channel to give viewers around the world a "boots on the ground" perspective of Operation Iraqi Freedom from those who are fighting it.

Video clips document action as it appeared to personnel on the ground and in the air as it was shot. We will only edit video clips for time, security reasons, and/or overly disturbing or offensive images.

What you will see on this channel in the coming months:

- Combat action

- Interesting, eye-catching footage

- Interaction between Coalition troops and the Iraqi populace.

- Teamwork between Coalition and Iraqi troops in the fight against terror.

In other words, the MNF-Iraq has decentralized its public affairs to some extent, allowing videos submitted by troops to reach a very wide audience.

At the same time, a controversy recently erupted about the Army's new guidance for posting on message boards, blogging, emailing, sending letters home, or creating a resume. The controversy was due to the fact that the going perception of the new policy was that it was intended to shut down personal blogs by Army members. Apparently this was not the case. Nevertheless, the fact is that within two months of each other, one military agency -- MNF-Iraq -- sought to decentralize its informational goals, while another -- the Army -- sought to put added restrictions or layers of oversight on the informational capabilities of its soldiers.

What is to be done?

In such a confusing media environment, how might the Marine Corps enable its small-unit leaders to become as effective in the informational domain as the strategic cameraman described above? Here are three possible solutions:

1) A Media Intent: Marines are used to operating within a commander's intent. Why not have an intent for electronic media, at even the lowest levels? Such guidance would serve to lay down some clear expectations and endstates for the production and distribution of electronic media in a war zone. Rather than simple censorship, a media intent statement might allow Marines to focus their own electronic efforts toward the commander's endstate.

Such a statement might sound like this:

Reporting indicates that insurgent leaders in the area are attempting to spread the rumor that the Coalition is fabricating evidence that it finds when conducting home searches in our AO. I want to produce footage showing that every arrest we make after searching a home is tied to concrete evidence found at the site.

An intent could be a very valuable guide. The same Marine squad might be in a firefight in the morning and eat lunch at a community leader's home in the afternoon. They might have footage of both. But an intent could guide which video is put on a blog and which is put on a hard drive for reminiscing after returning home. Instead of "This is me getting hit by an IED," videos like "This is me rebuilding a school" or "This is me meeting a sheik" might come to dominate.

2) Selective Magnification: Alternately, a commander might designate that everything his unit does is recorded by Marines within it. He could then designate an information cell to cull through the footage to find what he needs for the effects he desires. Such footage might also serve a training and adaptation role, by helping Marines see their own behaviors and tweak them accordingly.

3) Information Specialists: Major Daniel Greenwood recently authored a paper entitled Combined Action Counterinsurgency Concepts: A Proposed Framework for Future Counterinsurgency Operations. Among many other ideas, he argues that:

Future "information specialists" should be recruited and selected for employment at the Company/Platoon level to undermine local insurgent propaganda efforts.

Maj Greenwood goes on to elaborate in a footnote:

The Marine Corps Recruiting Command employs E-5 Sergeant Marketing/Public Affairs (MPA) specialists at all 48 recruiting stations throughout the nation. Arguably one of the most valuable members of the command, these junior Marines combine their initial public affairs training with imagination, initiative and hard work to interact with the local population, schools and the media, telling the Marine Corps story. This same approach should be employed at the tactical level within the COIN [counterinsurgency] environment.


There's no reason for "strategic corporal" to refer only to some sort of "gotcha" moment.

In his article Counterinsurgency Redux, David Kilcullen argued that one feature of counterinsurgency today is the importance of energizing one's base:

In modern counterinsurgency, the side may win which best mobilizes and energizes its global, regional, and local support base -- and prevents its adversaries doing likewise.

This should be the goal of information operations -- to help energize the counterinsurgent's bases of support.

The current generation of Americans in their teens and twenties loves to make media. Those who join the Marine Corps are no exception. Harnessing their technical skill and imagination can help build trust with the populace in a counterinsurgency and fortify the will of the public at home -- allowing positive strategic effects from junior Marines

Josh Manchester is an infantry officer in the Marine Corps Reserve. He thanks Captain Scott Cuomo for his help in developing this article.

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I think you're being a bit naive. Who, I ask, is actually going to be interested in seeing Meet & Greet over tea redux #17? Or #1, for that matter? Nice guy stuff like that, I'm sorry to say, simply has no mass appeal. As a general rule, people like to watch two things: sex and violence. Watching a fire fight or an IED go off is exciting. It's fantastic drama, all the more so because it's real. If anyone disagrees with me, I ask you to think of your top 10 favorite movies. How many of them are war movies? Action films? Violence is visually exciting, period.

RE: MNF-I YouTube Channel...

Yeah, this sounds counterproductive to the idea of decentralized media itself. The MNF-I label itself is bound to detract rather than add the value/appeal of YouTube content. No matter what their "we will not edit" disclaimer says, I for one am going to assume otherwise. C'mon, it's the military. I'm not that stupid--and neither is your average YouTuber. Unless they show some crazy content--which they say they won't--the entire concept sounds like it'll just be the MNF-I preaching to the MNF-I choir.

IF you're going to post videos, why not follow the leader here (insurgency=leader) and do it on the down low, i.e. minus the official stamp of approval. It seems like a better stroke in the credibility direction.

Why This Stuff Is a Waste of Time

For the same reason you and I liked Terminator 2 and The Bourne Identity, people are always going to like watching fire fights and Humvees getting blown up. It's captivating, it's dramatic. It's the killing version of porn.

Now, it is delusional to think that simply by putting out some other, alternate, getting our message out videos that that means people will want to watch them. That's like trying to stop women from wearing mini-skirts by opening up a shop that sells nothing but ankle-length dresses. Yes, some people will buy what you're selling, but those people probably bought what you were selling before from someone else. Moreover, you have done nothing to diminish the demand for revealing clothes. (Hopefully my metaphor makes sense.)

Generally, I think the combat cameraman idea is a waste of scarce and precious manpower. But the one benefit of videotaping every op would be if it was accompanied by a threat/promise from the commander to review it now and then and to issue disciplinary action for bad behavior recorded on the tapes. "Ack!" you say, that's a terrible idea. But really, the pejorative use of the "strategic corporal" label is a product of the media system that is setup to only to notice bad behavior. Scandal is drama. Drama is interesting--and don't pretend you're somehow above this. (I personally can remember one YouTube video that especially enjoyed. It was a bunch of Canadians stomping the shit out of some PUC and cursing in their funny Canadian accent...Ahh, YouTube.)

The solution is to behave better and to not fuck up. And the threat of constant media provides an annoying but powerful incentive for this.

Let me offer a personal example: I have worked for several years as a Paramedic in New York City. I loved working in the Bronx because you could do whatever and there was no accountability. Yell at a patient for calling 911? No problem. Tell the 300lb fat-ass with a cold who "can't walk" (and lives on the 5th floor of a no elevator building) to get up and walk? No sweat. Working in Lower Manhattan, on the other hand, was a pain. You always had to follow the rules and do the right thing because you never knew when you'd end up in the paper getting caught being lazy, rude, or simply not following procedure. That threat of negative attention, though, successfully deterred me. But the threat needs to be fairly constant and credible to actually work, otherwise people's habits don't change in any permanent sense.

The real and only long-term solution to the problem of negative media attention is to deny the media and your enemies the opportunity to observe either your bad behavior or your getting blown up. And that means focusing on the basics: troop discipline and rooting out the enemy--not YouTube. If you control yourself and your men, there will be no story. And if you defeat the insurgents, they will have no videos to show.

What has been proposed here sounds very similar to a "combat cameraman", which is something already being employed, though certainly not on a wide-enough scale.

I think that we over-estimate the value of online videos and television, simply because those mediums are popular with us. In my personal opinion, for whatever that is worth, I think that most of the people who are influenced by insurgent propaganda are those who are already sympathetic to the insurgents. The rest of the world simply looks on with revulsion and morbid curiosity.

Furthermore, a cursory examination of jihadist propaganda reveals that most of it is geared towards recruitment of foreign fighters, not towards significantly altering the operational environment. Indeed, while we are largely percieved to be "losing the propaganda war" by many western observers, we are nevertheless seeing that tribes throughout Anbar, Diyala, Salah ad Din, and Ninewa are rejecting jihadist groups and their ideology. It's not because we suddenly started showing videos on YouTube. It's because actions speak louder than words and actions resonate more effectively than videos. Whatever the jihadist propaganda may state about purifying Muslim lands, freeing them of tyranny, defeating Crusaders, et cetera, their vile actions have undermined any support and even any tolerance that they once enjoyed.

You know nothing about what you speak outside of your own profession's slavish self interest. I have not been to Iraq. I am a service connected disabled Marine from another generation. I was a Strategic Corporal before the term was ever coined. I dropped out of High School and joined the Corps at the age of 17. By the time I was 19, I was a Corporal. I was in charge of 35 enlisted men and 5 NCO'S. While I was always wary of the media, that fact does not alter the fact that I had more resposibility, in the Corps, than a junior Staff Non-Commissioned in the Army.

Semper Fidelis

Nice piece Chester.

How about the Iraqi and Arab persepsion of Marines in helmets and bodyarmour on the streets, what does that image tell them. Not realy a picture of hart warming friendlyness.

A good post that is understandably and by definition tactical. What's distressing is there is nothing new in the post. My first thought on reading this is "Remember the 'Road Rage memo' that surfaced in public in August 2006?

Again, good post.

Good piece, Chester.

It is good to see Chester back on the net.

While it is true that, "The second trend is a growing distrust in traditionally manufactured 'information,'" this is not true when it comes to enemy manufactured media. Enemy video is sometimes taken without question. While most media outlets would not think of using a template adopted by our side of the war, they routinely follow the enemy template on on attacks of noncombatants. The deliberate targeting of noncombatants is never described as a war crime.

The enemy's violations of the Geneva Conventions are never mentioned. Even though the enemy camouflages himself as a civilian and does not wear an identifiable uniform this fact is rarely mentioned when discussing civilian casualties caused by our troops defending themselves in situations like that at Haditha.

We have to do a better job of getting these facts out there and into stories about this war.


Great to see you posting here! And a timely piece to boot!


Very nice piece. This will be a great help in my day job as we are examining all the issues you raised here. I plan on making it required reading for Joint Urban Warrior 07.

Dave D.